Archive for the ‘retirement’ Category

Fire!

July 20, 2009

The day started quite unprofitably when I agreed to keep Mrs. Stepford and one other friend of hers company during her garage sale. If I was going to sit  four four hours there, I was also going to bring a few things to the fray.  Since it was just next door, it was relatively easy to trot out a few pieces of furniture and the old solid fir door. I brought two ancient and very heavy wooden ladders, the kind one would no longer use because they are deemed much less safe than the new aluminum ones, but they are apparently valuable for garden decor now, or polished up and revarnished for decorative use in front halls with plants hanging from each rung.

I brought three liquor store boxes of books and a wheel barrow full of Irises recently planted in six inch pots. I had a box of bric-a-brac, a kettle and captain’s chair.

I’m getting smart in my middle age:  I like to break up tasks into smaller parts so that I can do these things myself.  I took the ladders and the door across the way on Friday night, then on Saturday, the big things would already be  there. I could just bring the boxes and plants. Nothing would spoil by being out overnight. The day was forecast to be brutally sunny, and so it turned out to be.

We were supposed to start at ten but Mrs. Stepford had advertised it in the newspaper and the dealers were there at eight-thirty before we had really put things out properly.

It was a disinterested parade of potential buyers that came by. Who knows why,  but few stopped to inspect our glorious collection of overly used items. In the first hour, I bought a very kitchy jewel box from Mrs. Stepford and from her friend, I found six interesting books I hadn’t read.  I was now minus ten dollars in my attempt to make a fortune. But I was not intending to tell you so much about the garage sale. I have other more important items to get to.

During our five hour vigil over our desirable, distressed junk, two buyers bought six of my books. In total I had three dollars in my pocket on the profit side and when I compared that to the debit side, I was sadly out of pocket by seven. I contributed three lowly loonies as a share of the advertising and my debit side was back up to ten.  With much grumbling and weariness, I packed the whole lot back home. I got it to the back basement door and left it there to be brought in later.

Once done, I found I was ravenously hungry. There was nothing prepared and I had to invent something. I had no intention of cooking on a day as hot as this.

I rummaged in the  refrigerator and found salad things – a lettuce, some tomato, carrots and onions. It wasn’t appealing, so I rummaged in the freezer, hoping to find a quick meal and found just the thing. At the very back of the freezer, of course. Ice cream. On a hot day, it was perfect.

The cavity was efficiently packed. The only way to get to the ice cream pail out was to efficiently unpack it all off the top shelf, serve myself and pack everything back up again.

While ice cream has a real come-hither taste and the advantage of being very cool and refreshing, it does not have great texture.  I’ve discovered a delightful way to rectify this lack. I ate it with a handful of crispy  Kashi whole grain breakfast cereal, lining the bowl with it, adding in the  ice cream and garnishing it with some pecans and a fistful of fresh blueberries.

Then I succumbed to a fit of exhaustion. The heat, the carrying of heavy objects back and forth in the beating sun and an ice cream sugar slump combined to put me flat out, in seconds.  I slept on the couch for a few hours. This unprofitable mercantile venture had simply done me in.

I awoke with a phone call a few hours later, then spent the evening sorting out a horrible accumulation or office papers whilst watching TV. There were some over due bills, applications if varying states of completion for galleries, offers of all kinds of merchandise  and appeals from charities.

At about eleven, I was getting my last coffee of the day and pilfering a few more candy-like Kashi clusters. I went to the fridge to get some milk and just as I was opening the fridge door, a plastic margarine container started to fall off the top of the freezer compartment. It was full of meat balls in tomato sauce  left from one of the social gatherings I had hosted.

What to do?

Everyone knows that ground meat is dangerous if left in luke warm conditions for any length of time. I’m not exactly a starving artist, but I have been from time to time. I loath throwing good food out. It riles me beyond measure. But was this good food? Had I brought it out two hours earlier after the phone call when I rummaged for some dinner or six hours earlier when I ate the ice cream? It had been frozen solid which was in my favour, but it wasn’t now. How long had it been thawed?

I decided to heat the whole lot, steam it for half an hour. After all, it was a spaghetti and meat balls sauce and could tolerate hours and hours of cooking.

I added a modicum of water so it wouldn’t stick on the bottom and set it to heat on the gas stove. I would have to stay up another half hour at least to watch the pot boil.

I began to tidy away the detritus of the day. I emptied the dishwasher of clean dishes and loaded it back up with the utensils from lunch and dinner. I took some papers from my early-evening sortings into the office and shredded them; I put another small pile into the green recycle bag.  I noticed a light in the basement and went to turn it off.

Down in the basement, I discovered baskets and book boxes from the garage sale that had not been put away. I stacked them in a pile then suddenly remembered I had left a few things outside that still had to come in.

Might as well do this properly, I thought. Lets get rid of some of this volume, and I shifted three book boxes into the back store room and started packing the loose pieces – a few old plates, a vase with long-necked white farm ducks all around the top, a small delftware vase in blue and white, some old – really really old – pant hangers from the ’20s.

All of a sudden the smoke alarms were both going off. I raced up the stairs and into the kitchen. I had forgotten all about the meat balls.  Smoke was pouring from the edges of the lidded pot.  I whipped the pot off the element and shut off the gas. I turned on the hood fan over the stove – after all, there was no fire, just a lot of smoke and an ear splitting alarm.

Everything was safe, and I then leapt up the stairs to de-activate the alarm, then to the hallway to downstairs to deactivate a second one that had just begun to add to the chorus. My adreniline was on fire.

Good Lord! Could I not remember that I had things cooking on the stove? Soon I would be burning the place down, or someone would decide I had to be packed off to a residential care unit because of my forgetfulness!

I opened both front and back door and turned the upright fan on full force. I took a towel and waved the smoke down from the ceiling and out the front door.  Now I would have to stay up another hour while the house aired out.

When the visible smoke was gone, I sat at the piano and played a Bach Prelude and Fugue to calm myself. I  sat and puzzled out a Sudoku. I turned on the television and watched the end of Inspector Morse in a play where women priests of the Anglican persuasion were banding together to elect a woman as headmaster of an Oxford College of Theology.  I polished some silverware. I worried about the recent news of a home invasion not six blocks from where I lived – and here I had both front and back door open, welcoming moths of the night, mosquitoes and fresh air into my my main floor. Why not home invaders too?

What would I say to one?  “Oh, thank goodness you are here. I’ve been expecting you. I’m just waiting for the fire department. I thought I had a fire. ”

“I had a bit of a catastrophe  here with a pot of spaghetti sauce and meat balls. It’s only burned on the bottom.  I tasted them and they are even more delicious than before I burnt them.  Would you like to try them?”

Do you think that would confound a home invader? Make him back out as fast as possible if the fire department might actually be coming? Or would he be a poor soul, so happy to have a meal, even a burnt one, that he would gobble them up, and in gratitude just leave me and my poor possessions alone?

I know. I know. I have an over active imagination. All of a sudden, I felt tired. I locked the front and back doors.  Had I locked the basement door?

This time, I checked the stove before I went down. It was off. All was in order. I checked the basement door. It was locked.  I turned off all the lights but the one that lit the passage to upstairs and went to bed.

By the way, if I don’t post in the next few days or forever more, you can tell the coroner that it most likely was the meatballs.

Yes, I tasted them, and they are so-oooooo good.

Advertisements

Quite a day

June 12, 2009

z 179 small

For a woman who usually rises at  nine, the seven thirty wake up call came too early. Despite all my early preparations, I was not functioning well enough to get out of the house before ten, and even then, I missed the self-imposed deadline because I took a phone call when I could have let it ring through to the answering machine.  At ten thirty, I started the car in the driveway, only to shut it off again and return to the house. I had forgotten to put the box I was delivering to the Historical Costume society into the car. It was the principal reason I was going to Vancouver for the day.

I went back to the house, turned off the alarm, picked up the box and returned to the car. Then I dug into my bag to get the directions only to find that I had taken it out just before I left in order to use a phone number on it but I  hadn’t put it back. It too was in the house.

I felt like I needed one of those rote punishments we used to get in school where a miscreant had to write a hundred lines:

I will not forget the box. I will not for get the box. I will not forget the box…. I will not forget the phone numbers and the directions. I will not forget the phone numbers and the directions. I will not forget the phone numbers and the directions.

I took all of mother’s precious dresses for them to preserve and use for their purposes of displaying and educating in the field of costume and fashion.

Cathy was waiting for me on the roadway when I got to their offices. They are situated in Burnaby Village Museum in the attic of a house built in 1926. Quarters are quite cramped since most of the space is taken up with storage. One room, about 1o foot by 12, previously a small bedroom, contained a table and two chairs. There were five us – myself, Cathy, Bill and two other women  – watching as we unpacked Mother’s pale blue wedding dress complete with matching gloves and veil; a ‘Forties little black cocktail dress in faille; a black velvet winter dress with a handmade lace collar; her pink ball gown from the ‘Fifties, lined with taffeta, but missing the crinolines that would have made it flare out. It had a sheer pink bolero jacket to match; a stunning white ballgown  all made of lace and silk netting, with a little jacket to match; and a jacket with real jet beading and sequins on silk netting.

This last one, they determined was pre-1900. It couldn’t have been Mother’s but it might have been Granny’s. Not that she would have worn it. She had no opportunity. Bill said it was common for the women of great houses to give the maids clothing once they were finished with it, and this was likely how it came into the family treasures.

There was a little netted hat and a pair of fine, fine silk stockings. There was a white ruffed collar in cotton that had been smocked at the neckline and hand-embroidered below that with little white apples. The lace on the bottom was also hand embroidered over cut-work.

They were thrilled with their new acquisitions. I was thrilled that someone was actually going to care for and preserve these lovely clothes.

Afterward, Cathy, Bill and I went for coffee and bite to eat, since it was noon already. There is a little Ice Cream Parlour in the Historical Village. They had soup which is right and good for lunch and I would have too, but I was felt instantly dessertish as soon as I saw their three berry pie and I don’t regret it one bit. It was a home made pie with plenty of berries, topped with ice cream.

Next stop was Vancouver to visit Mother’s old friend Gordon who is ninety-six this year – his birthday was in May. He’s getting frail but his mind is so clear and bright. Doreen, one of our mutual friends, came to visit as well.

When I told him of Hugh’s experiences at his conference in Vienna he began reminiscing then caught himself and apologized. He had rambled on, it’s true; but it was fascinating. He had been part of the UN Committee that was looking into the effects on health, in the early 1950’s concerning the atom bomb and nuclear disarmament. We could not persuade him to keep on talking about it.

Looking at it from his perspective, it was just something he did. Nothing special. But looking at it from my perspective now, it seem extraordinary that I was sitting in the room with a respected scientist who had formed part of that committee at a time when atom bombs were in their infancy.

Doreen hoped he had written down some of the marvelous things he had done, but he just chuckled deprecatingly and said there was really nothing to write down. It was just committee stuff.

The meter in the parking lot was ticking away its last minutes. I had to go. Heather and her husband were coming to stay for a few days and I had to go get something to feed them.
As I drove down the on-ramp to Highway One, cars were streaming from all westward directions. It’s a four lane highway at that point and there’s a lane for the on-ramp besides. There are cars that are trying to juggle their way to the right, to  the off ramp. There are cars merging on the right trying to get to the left-most lanes – the High Occupancy Vehicle lane and the fast lane, beside it.

Despite all the merging, rush hour traffic was proceeding at a slow but steady pace.  I managed to get into the low lane. It was then that I saw the mama pigeon sitting on the asphalt with cars racing over it, but missing it. The poor thing must have been terrified.  With the press of cars and the volume of traffic, it seemed no one was going to stop and rescue the poor bird.

Then the traffic slowed and someone was able to see the bird before having to swerve around it or smack-dab-in-the-middle go over it. It was a miracle it had not been hit, or for that matter, maybe it was there because it had been hit.

The car stopped. The pigeon got on its two wobbly feet and then walked three or four steps. It tried its wings and got lift off. It flew onto the scorched grasses of the the median and was safe

The rest of the day (once I got home) was ordinary. Tidying, watering plants, making dinner.

Reflecting back through the day, I want to talk to Bill again. I said little about him, above. He is a retired milliner which is unusual for a man, I think; and I was quite fascinated as he talked about his passion for fashion. I’ll write more about that another day.

The shoe box

September 20, 2008

My childhood drawing – looks like flowers and butterflies.

When I sat down this morning to write, I intended to tell this story. Wordy person that I am, I ended up writing two posts about Whistler. The first was meant to be a preamble, but it took it’s own direction and I just had to finish my thought, so it went it’s merry way without me really having to work at it. It got too long, so I wrote a sequel which should have been the short preamble, but it was not meant to be. That diversion that I took just kept me travelling down that same road with Whistler.

What I really wanted to say was this:
Whistler and I were watching television. Numb3rs, to be exact. I like the program and rarely miss it if I have my way, each Friday night.

In the way that Whistler reads while watching television, I need something to occupy the other side of my brain. I’ve been wanting to interest Whistler in the family history, so I pulled out some of the archival material that has become my Nemesis. It came with the boxes and baggage from my mother’s Estate, and as executrix, I have to determine what is kept and what is disposed of.  Over and above that, I’m at the age where I am curious about our family origins, as far back as we can gather from living members and from deductions from primary sources – letters, bills, addresses, photos and the like.

I thought that Whistler might like to dabble in some of my preparations of all this stuff and so I brought out the document that I’ve created to date which contains all the photos and as much description as I could muster and let him peruse it.

I sat with three boxes of the collected jumble I’ve inherited and started to sort.

First of all, I had a box of Father’s technical documents complete with transparencies he used in teaching Surveying and other university Civil Engineering subjects. I’m looking for things I can throw out and yet, I look at these things and they are the only tangible records I have of my beloved father. It’s his handwriting. His oh so careful, oh so precise mechanical drawings.

I pondered as I went through them, how I might do some work of art with these images as an element in them. That kind of activity would have to wait until later. I need to get this stuff sorted and away unless I want to still live with ceiling to floor boxes.

The only file I found that could be chucked was a file of applications by students from other disciplines requesting admission to the Surveying course that he taught. It contained school records, dates of birth, copies of diplomas. In these days of Privacy Laws and identity theft, it was incredible that he had kept these at his home and now, thirty years later, I was looking through these records and thinking, these men who applied graduated from University the same year that I did! And then, I reflected, there were no women applicants. How different the world was, in just 30 years.  When I left work at my Property Management company, most of the new engineers coming in were women!

I took and shredded that file batch, but there was precious little else that I could let go. It went back into a new and rather spiffy box that I will be able to tolerate looking at if I have to store it for long.

Next I tackled two boxes of Mother’s things. There were the usual things that Mothers keep. I found my Piano Certificates from the Toronto Conservatory of Music and transferred them to a box for me. I found several drawings I had done as a child, several invitations to various shows I had had in my career, and a notice of a class that I taught a UBC Continuing Education. I found letters from Lizbet and Heather and put them aside to give to them later.

Some had already had been sorted. There was still room in that box for more but one of the sub-boxes, a black and redshoe box marked VERY OLD ADDRESSES in fat red felt pen. It was filled with old addresses and it was not going to fit, as was, into the remainder of the new spiffy box everything was to go into.  As a result, I decided to dig in and see what could be chucked.

I had a first thought to just chuck the works. After all, even Mother had marked this box “very old addresses”. Historic sleuth though (that’s me) could not just do that. Maybe there was something important in the box. Maybe just maybe there would be a tidbit that would trigger some memory that would turn into a family story or would help define a family tree member that was otherwise missing. If nothing else, my mother was a thorough soul. When she was afraid of forgetting something – a birth date, a spouse’s name, a brother’s anniversary date, a child’s full name – she wrote it down.

I found several of these for her side of the family.  I found a good treasure trove of addresses that I lived at that are beginning to slip from my memory if I have to come up with them in a hurry. I found the same for my siblings. I had a horrible thought when I found cards given to her at the time of her mother’s death and then was assuaged that I had actually done the right thing when I found letters written to her by all of us siblings. Mine was a hand made card on brown Canson paper with a gold design on the front that I had done myself. Even then I was outraged at the price of store bought cards.

I did find records of  my uncles’ and aunts’ birthdates and their progeny, complete with those life altering dates of births, marriages, deaths.

I kept these and I kept anything that mentioned her life long friends – ones I recognized, ones that might trigger stories about her life or fill in blanks.

And then I settled down to the serious business of going through her address card file. Now, card file is only a way of speaking. While many of the addresses were written on the back of a series of black and white postcards I had produced in my youth when I had dabbled in the gallery business – a one-summer-long store in the resort town of Garden Bay, B.C. , many were on legal size charity envelopes. These were folded to postcard size. I challenge you to try it. The folds were many and the thicknesses cumbersome.

Some envelopes simply had a pre-printed address, the kind you get through the mail with every fund-raising group that has garnered your address legally or otherwise. There were stamps on these going back, the oldest to 1972. Now, those aren’t ancient stamps, but they still will look good in a stamp collection, so I tore those out before chucking the address, if that were its fate.

She had addresses for friends and family. I had moved around often, from Pender Habour to New Denver, to France, moved twice in Rheims, and then back to Vancouver and then to Burnaby with three more addresses before I came to live with her,  twelve years before she died. Three cards were stapled together for me and they included the business cards I had used for the Antiques store my spouse and I had in Rheims and every new business card I had with the large Property Management company I had worked for when I came back to live in Canada.

Lizbet had a smaller collection; Heather as well. Funny, I’m just thinking, I never saw one for Otto. Perhaps he never wrote a letter to her. He wasn’t the literary type to do so.

As I went through, I saw names and sometimes clues, for the hundreds of addresses she had collected:

Bishop, Bialecki, Bicklehaupt, Blum, Nurse Bauer (now there was a clue!) Sinke, Dodworth, Chronell, Byle, Chilton, Carrick, Fawcett.  Who were these people? I knew none of them. I thought I knew so much about my mother and here were people, significant enough to hit her address collection, and I knew none of them.

There were addresses for institutions – University Women’s Club, Faculty Women’t Club; University of Manitoba, Grace Hospital, The Red Cross, a Life Membership certificate for the Christian Blind Mission.

And back to names – Hergest, Hobek, Halford, Kanseth, Kaser, Melhorn, Moshoeshoe.

Moshoeshoe was from Africa and there was a fine stamp attached. The letter was still within and it began with an apology for not writing followed by an explanation – she had written but the letter had come back to her. She must have had the wrong address, or missed a number. That was the entire letter.

There were several other letters still enclosed. Of these, there were a significant number of people whom she had met on her travels through tour groups. One told of her dissatisfaction with Maupintour and how she had been sent from pillar to post in her search for satisfaction, then dropped. No satisfaction at all. Another requested that they plan a tour where they could meet up again. This one was written from the other side of the continent in Alabama.

There were two complete letters from Norah, the black woman she had met in Columbus Ohio while whe was taking courses towards her Masters degree in the teaching of children with disabilities. Norah was a Minister’s wife and it brought to mind the day Mother, Father and Lizbet were invited to join Norah at her church on Sunday for the regular service. It turned out that Martin Luther King was murdered, assassinated, that same week and my parents were fearful that they would be the only white family in a church entirely composed of blacks.  What might the reaction be? Might it be unwise to go?

They checked with Norah. Norah assured them that everyone would know that they were connected to the minister and his wife. There would be no risk. No need to worry. So they went.

I don’t remember Mother telling about the service. It’s not that that stuck in her mind. It was the fear and the uncertainty that she felt about going. It was April 1968. There were other protests throughout the country. At Kent State University, students had been killed during a demonstration. She felt vulnerable and unprotected.

She and Norah corresponded for twenty years and then the letters from Norah stopped. I remember her very sadly saying to me one day, “The worst thing about getting old is that your friends disappear and you never know what happened to them.” Norah was one of those. Probably no one in her family knew she corresponded annually to my mother and wouldn’t think, even so, to send a note of her death. Certainly, if she had been put in a retirement home in ill health, nothing would have been sent at all. There was a stigma to that. One did not easily send bad news to almost strangers to the family.

And so it went. I found other letters but I didn’t have time to read them. As it is, I’ve reduced two full boxes to one and I’m happy about that. I’ll be shredding and recycling the paper from them for the next few days. There’s quite a pile of it.

I’ll read the kept letters later with a bit more leisure. Right now I’m trying to find space and visual tranquility in my office and writing space. So, onwards and upwards, it’s time for coffee and a bit of a Klatch with Whistler.

I’ll get out another box to sort while I’m at it.

My Narnia cupboard

August 8, 2008

Have I told you about my Narnia cupboard?

It sits under the slope of the roof behind a pale yellow plaster wall. The last owner of the house was fond of stenciling patterns on things and this yellow wall has a grape leaf border in a soft green running the length of the hallway. With the sloping roof and the spindled banister, it’s all appropriately designed to agree with this octogenarian house.

The door to the cupboard has an old brass handle that has become black with age. Though the door is smooth on the outside, on the inside, you can see that the door was made with interlocking floor boards. there are crossbars four inches from top and bottom and a bar connecting the two that transverses from left to right, making a “Z’ shape to brace the boards. It’s a solid door, the kind you would see on old farmhouses, which I think this house might have been.

It looks quite odd to see a handle on the wall that seems to go nowhere and that’s why I think of it as my Narnia cupboard.

It’s a shame really that our country is so new that people didn’t think to record the history of these pioneer homes, but I suppose they were so busy carving out a living that they didn’t have time to occupy themselves with such things. Now curators eagerly search out scraps of information from official records and saved letters, but the people who lived here first are gone; their memories are gone with them.

When I moved into the house a year ago, there were priorities. All the things that were to go into this storage space were parked in front of it, not put away at all. Being under the slope of the roof, the cupboard is not easy to access. Every time I thought about putting the things in there, I remembered that I would not be willing to do that until I felt it was clean; but that was not going to be easy.

First of all, the cupboard had been painted sometime in the ‘Twenties or ‘Thirties and even then, it may have been done with surplus paint. It was a deep avocado colour that had gotten grungier with age. I wasn’t going to be able to see that it was clean unless it was white. If it was going to be white, I’d have to crawl in there and paint it white.

In winter, the project was a non-starter. It was dark in that hallway and daylight lasted only from eight in the morning to five a night. I had no intention of putting myself in a gloomy space on a gloomy day. Besides, one has to open windows wide when painting, even with acrylic paints.

Now, in July with the temperatures up in the early thirties and the sun showing from five in the morning to eight at night, the sun comes in that side of the house relatively well. I’ve got visitors coming – not just family who are very understanding, but I’ve visitors from Japan. This will be the first time my niece-in-law will see this house and she’s a home economics grad with a bent for neatness. I’ve got twelve days until they arrive.

With the illogical time clock of a retiree, I looked at that pile of stuff this morning and said to myself, “This is the day”. I got out my cleaning equipment, donned my painting attire complete with trophy paint from previous jobs, and went to work.

It wasn’t nearly as dirty in there as I had suspected it might be and that was a bonus. It was an awful colour, but it was clean and dry. I rinsed everything down with trisodium phosphate and then got out my pail of paint.

I can’t imagine how cast in paint my hair must be at this point. Despite my good intentions to work from the farthest corner to the front, the steeply sloping ceiling was a challenge. Every time I made a gesture to stretch my poor curving back, my hair would pick up a fine layer of white paint.

Everything was going well until half an hour ago. Going from dark avocado green to white needs two coats. There is no way around it. I had done most of the cupboard once and was leaving that which was closest to the door for the final paint so that I wouldn’t encrust myself with white.

When I went back in, I must have stepped in a puddle of paint on the plastic tarp I had put down. Then I went back to the bathroom to get some water and found I had implanted white prints on my blue carpet. Sure enough, on inspection, I had three large wet paint blobs on the bottom of my foot. I went hop-hobbling back down the hallway on a single clean foot and balancing with the tip of my big toe of the other to get a cloth to wipe off the decorator foot (feet are not recommended for stenciling) and back to the spots on the carpet to erase them. That was worth stopping for coffee; I’d earned it.

Now the lower part of the cupboard needed to be done. I took a plastic wrapped coverlet that I’d recently brought back from the cleaners as a cushion. It was sure to give my arthritic knees some relief while I tackled the lower shelves; and it did.

I was successfully painting away again, when the whole pile of stuff that had been balanced all winter without mishap decided it was vertically challenged. Gravity rules. It all slid in a disheveled pile onto my legs that were sticking out of the cupboard, onto the floor behind me. The icing on the cake? The top item was a sewing basket and it unlatched as it tumbled – right into the bucket of water I was using to clean the spots off the floor!

Ack!

Now the cupboard will have to wait for me. I’m having coffee. The pins and needles are drying in the bathroom on sheets of Kleenex. Velcro strips, seam binding, elastic are drying on the towel rack. The felt needle book decorated with a cat’s face is seeping green dye into the counter top. Buttons are spread out tor dry. And I’m here writing out my frustrations.

Could you please tell me again why the cupboard has to be white on the inside?

Tom Sawyer – reflections on painting a fence

July 23, 2008

There was no one in the paint department at Liquidation World when I sauntered through, idly wondering if I could match up my fence colour so that if I missed a spot in covering over the weathered wood, it wouldn’t be too obvious. I found a clerk associate at the till who very amiably agreed to page the paint clerk for me.

This latter arrived with a beaten look on her face. The happier sales associate scurried away back to the till, advising her colleague, “This one’s first (pointing to me) and then him.” There was a line up starting to form.

I asked paint-woman,””Do you have any Tile Red left? I couldn’t find any.”

“Sold out.” she stated flatly. I wondered what kind of bad day she had had before coming to work. She had permanent worry printed on her face.

“I’ll take the Garnet, then. Just one can.”

“It’s purple,” she stated, as if to say only a fool could choose purple for a fence.

“Purple?” I reacted, a bit baffled. The paint colour had looked rather brown with a reddish tinge. Maybe Magenta. Maybe Italian red oxide. I always think I know my colours fairly well.

People call the same colour by different names. Maybe it was just a case of that, I thought.

“The paint samples are over there, ” she said, again with a disagreeable flatness that hinted at her customer’s lack of perspicacity, that is, my complete lack of perception. It was a caution that I’d better give my head a shake, had better reconsider my choice, or at the very least, make sure that I knew what I was doing.

I took the time to see if I could understand her choice of the word “purple” to describe the colour of the mini picket-fence post that hung above the paint shaker on the back wall. There were about four warm brown to red colours – Chestnut, Garnet, Tile Red and Rust. I could see that the Garnet was a cooler red, or conversely a warmer brown, but I made up my mind that it wasn’t going to be lilac or royal purple and it would be slightly happier than the existing brown on my fence. The minor mis-paints would not be too obvious.

All that decision-making could not have taken more than four seconds. It obviously takes longer to write it than it does to think it.

“I’ll take one can of Garnet, then,” I said, turning back to her. “Can you mix it up for me?”

Well, I knew what I meant.

“We don’t mix colours. It’s already mixed,” she answered. “Oh God, I must be dealing with an idiot,” she must have been thinking. The sourness had not lessened in her physiognomy.

“Well, shake it on your machine, then,” I said, not to be put off by her rebuking stance.

She didn’t even answer that one. She took the can from my hands and shook it. In less than a minute, she handed it back to me. I made my way out of the paint department and then to the till thanking my good fortune in having a happier disposition.

The woman at the till, a smile on her face, chirruped, ” You got the paint you wanted?”

“Think so,” I said back with a grin. It’s wonderful how a smile can generate another smile and happier feelings prevail. Her curly blond hair seemed to bolster her cheeriness. This woman, too, had lines on her face. At sixty and working all day in a visually depressing store, she might have had difficulty in keep one’s spirits up, but her face lines were laugh lines, and the weathering was soft and a bit marshmallowy.

(A prayer aside. “Dear Lord, I’m an aspiring writer. Please don’t ever let me see someone else’s description of what I look like. Or are you reserving this for me in Purgatory for when I die and have to account for my life? It really is part of a writer’s job, describing people…. I’m doing the best I can….”)

So, let’s skip a bit here. My stories are always a bit long:

So now I’m out in the back yard having found a screw driver to open up the paint can with, a wide brush, three plastic tray liners stacked together for strength because I can’t find the metal paint tray, and a brand new roller thing on a old battered roller holder. I’ve got paint thinner and a couple of rags.

With the screwdriver, I gently lever the lid, turning the can around inch by inch, until I get lift off on one side. Then with a bit greater pressure, I manage to pop the thing off with out spurtling paint all over.

I’ve got fencing completely around the back yard. There’s the almost new fence with lattice work on top adjoining Lara and Glen’s yard at the back in chocolate brown. There’s the decrepit fence that separates the length of the property between my yard and the pioneer neighbour, Jack’s, yard. This fence is finished, really, It’s an expensive project that I’m leaving until later, especially since a developer has just purchased this magnificent one acre property and is going to put, depending on the rumours afloat, three monster houses with rental suites or five duplexes (read 10 families) or twenty three town houses. This single-family neighbourhood is aghast at the prospect. All of a sudden, three monster houses sounds better than the last of these choices. The developer, rumour has it, needs two years to get his Plan 23 in place to apply for the development permit. In between time, he is not going to do a darned thing with the fence. It can rot in place.

Last year, a section of it came down in one of the violent wind storms. It was rotted at the base. The fence posts were just mush. There was no point in repairing it. There is simply a six foot gaping hole in that stretch of fence – all one hundred and thirty eight feet of it – and there is no point in tackling that until some decisions are made. It doesn’t distress me. I rather like a rural look; a falling-rotting-barn kind of look. It’s poetic. It has a weathered patina that can’t be bought. There’s a trace of original colour (it might have been Tile Red or Garnet, methinks) lots of bare grey, sundried wood, and a variety of lichens, mosses and entwined vines and volunteer trees growing through its cracks. It has character. Sort of like a tottering drunk with a friendly grin, but none the less tottering and unkempt.

The only stretch of fence that was small enough to tackle, reversibly if Garnet Purple didn’t appeal after all, was the one that encloses the back from the front, going from mid-side of the house to the ancient fence. It is about thirty feet long with a gate in the middle.

I poured a quart of paint into the pan. It looked a dark brick red colour to me. Garnet was a bit of a highfalutin name for it, but it would do. It would freshen up things. Missed spots would not be noticed much. It was flat deep brown underneath. What I did notice though, was that fence stain was a different consistency than other paints. It was rather more liquid.

I started to roll the stain over the fence boards. It covered quickly and well. In all, clean up included, it didn’t take me more than two hours, for which I was grateful. It gave me two hours to think, not only about the job at hand, which I took as a meditative opportunity to let my mind run free, but also a s a task with intrinsic value. As I poured, rolled, and brushed, I wondered about Tom Sawyer. I had no one around to con into doing my work. It was just me. I should have rather been wondering where Huck Finn was.

But it wouldn’t have been the same. As soon as there was a chattering voice to answer mine, the peace and tranquility of it would have changed. I was happy in my painterly solitude. There were no artistic decisions to be made – no composition, no questions of value, no considerations of texture or pattern, no leit motifs of meaning, no thoughts of positive and negative shapes, no checking of spatial relationships forming and altering as developments occurred.

I was simply dipping my brush in the thin Garnet liquid, applying the brush to the corners and the cracks, and to the places the roller could not attain. The biggest visual decision I had to make was “is there a dribble” followed by “have I obliterated it”.

At the end of my two hours, I had spent an agreeable time; I was covered in deep brown speckles (the colour looked darker on my skin) on arms, feet, hands, glasses and my painting clothes. I had only lightly spattered the gravelly stones between my feet. I stood back to get some perspective on my latest painting and the fence was looking super, clean and kempt.

Then I took my paraphernalia to the back steps under the porch and started to clean my roller and brushes. I had used up the whole tin of paint. I poured some methyl hydrate into the pan and rinsed out the roller then the brush. I rolled the roller on two local weekly papers until the most of the remaining paint was out of it and then enclosed the almost clean roller in a plastic bag. I’d learned this last trick from Charlie the Painter. If I continued on painting next day, I didn’t have to do a proper job of now. I would wait until I had truly finished painting with that colour.

I rinsed the brush in a cleaner pot of thinner and then loaded it up with dish detergent to loosen up the remaining paint binder in it. It took three times of this water and detergent stage to get it looking like new, not counting the metal ferrule which I never try to get really clean. I left the brush outside to dry and transferred the dirty thinner into a glass jar. I was done.

I took one last look at my handiwork. It was nine o’clock and the July light was fading fast. I was happy with my work.

“Maybe. Just maybe,” I thought, “this colour is maroon. It sure dried fast. It’s got a certain je ne sais quoi to it?

“Maroon? …Or maybe purple?”

White Rock

April 14, 2008

“This is so built up! I don’t remember this!” Kay complained feeling somewhat disoriented by the massive growth that had developed in the little forested community that she had visited so often in her youth and then not so often afterwards. She was looking for a gallery that Mrs. Stepford had recommended to her. It was Ron’s gallery and Deveraux’s; that is, they both showed there regularly and with good success.

Driving down 152nd, there were new developments both sides of the road. There were massive housing complexes and Senior’s residential complexes and those thirty to fifty store shopping centers. All of this progress had wiped out the fields and the forests and it went on for a couple of miles.

Her tender thoughts of a cottage town with small one-storey houses, many of them beach cottages, were being ripped off memory page. Only a few of these small cottages remained, dwarfed by the pink stucco palaces and monster homes of the ‘Nineties and of the Twenty-first century.

As 152nd approached Boundary Bay, there was a three block shopping district of one-storey stores more reminiscent of Kay’s vacation days. The street curved into another street. It had one more block of three storey commercial buildings with shops on the ground floor and then Kay and Marcel were once again driving through a district of single family residential homes. It was a confusing mix of styles representing a century of habitation – beach cottages, pioneer homes, ranchers, monsters, all higgledy-piggledy as if their order had been arranged by a throw of dice.

The street sloped steeply down to the frontage road that paralleled the train tracks and the beach. At street level, Kay’s heart leapt. The stores were all touristy, most of them were eating establishments. There were at least six fish and chips establishments, several coffee purveyors, a few ice-cream specialists and a dabbling of Real Estate agencies. There were gift shops filled with tasteless tourist gizmos and hand made jewelry stands. It was just the kind of summer resort town beach trade she had remembered from twenty years ago. It felt right. It was human scale and promised good times, a day off, a lunch out, sunshine and soft breezes.

There were only two blocks of this and then the road climbed back up into waterfront homes – no longer the beach cabins of the ‘Thirties but still home-like with well-wooded lots, mature landscaping, bespeaking the aisance, the comfort of their owners.

Kay and Marcel crossed the train tracks and descended the seawall. It was a sanitized affair with a path paved in red interlocking bricks and protected from the sand and surf by a tubular iron rail fence painted in turquoise. Kay reflected that the colour had probably been chosen to disappear from view on a sunny day of summer where the sea just might have approximated the colour. This choice was somewhat hopeful, given that eight winterish months of the year, grey cloud prevailed and grey interspersed the summer months as well.

There was a breakwater layer of large sharply broken rocks that edged the descent from seawall to the beach and a smattering of people. A few with their canine companions had crossed into the nature zone. These hardy souls were strolling in amongst the low tide sand-flats rippled with that curious pattern of sand ridges. The tide was a kilometer or more out to sea. A lone sailboat with three sails hovered midway to the horizon. The view was idyllic.

Kay and Marcel chose a place where the rocks were less cumbersome to cross . Marcel leapt from one rock to another and was down in a trice. Kay picked her way cautiously, carefully testing each foothold for balance; with a delay, she too reached the sandy shore. They walked quietly. The deceptive April day had turned cold at the water’s edge. Kay shivered but did not complain. Being out, doing “nothing” was a treat to be savored.

With her ubiquitous camera, she selected a group of people and their tidal reflection for a shot; and then a seagull doubled in importance by its mirror image. It seemed as if time had been suspended. As they looked back on the shoreline, they could see that the storefronts had been preserved to look like they had long ago, but back of these were massive four-storied apartment complexes built into the steep hill that had replaced the beach cottages of yore. They all had balconies overlooking the sea and some were glassed in to protect their inhabitants from the discomfort of the sea winds.

But the cold reasserted itself. After fifteen minutes, Kay and Marcel turned back, renavigated the rocky pile back up onto the seawall.

Over a coffee at an ice cream shop, Kay and Marcel sat silently, each deep within their own thoughts. Kay was lingering in Autrefois, the Land of Time-gone-by. After a long time, she spoke.

“Father had some work in White Rock one summer. He was off surveying all day long. Mother had us three kids with her. I don’t think Lizbet was born yet. Maybe it was the year she was born because I can remember the motel we stayed in quite well. ”
“It was high on the hill, a very steep hill. Father went down it in first gear it was so steep, and we hated climbing back up it when we went home after a day at the beach. Mother would pack us a lunch and we would spend hours looking for sand dollars and digging moats for the castles we shaped out of our small bucket-filled shapes that were overturned.”

“There were crabs under rocks. There were tiny little pink shells that we collected and blue mussel ones. We took sticks and drew pictures in the sand. When the tide came in, the pictures were blurred at first and then erased altogether. The water came in warm and comfortable over the long hot sand. It was perfect for dipping, for wading, for splashing each other as we shrieked, laughed and cried as children do whilst playing at the beach.”

Kay went silent. Marcel nodded. It was a memory. There was nothing to be said.

The bottom of the coffee cup was showing when she spoke again.

“Aunt Rose lived nearby on a small side street in the forest, the second one-acre lot away from Zero Avenue. It was an adventure to go there in the summer, to stay there without our parents, to go down to Peace Portal Park and count the cars clearing the American Customs and heading for the Canadian ones. That was Otto’s idea of fun. He had us categorize them by make and he knew how to distinguish them, even then, before he worked for a car dealership. Rose’s farm house is gone now.”

“I liked the swings and the simple roundabout that you pushed until it was circling; then you hopped on and kept up the momentum with one foot still pushing on the ground until it was circling by itself without help from anyone. When it slowed, one of us would get back off and push.”
“I remember straining to go higher and higher on the swing, flying through the air until I got dizzy with it all and pleaded to stop, to come back down.”
“And there were teeter totters. Otto was heavier than anyone and he would keep me screeching in the air as his fat bottom controlled the totter and I felt teeter.”

“Rose had a glassed in sun porch with a bed in it for summer time and for guests. I was too little, ever, to be allowed to sleep there alone, but Otto did. Rose taught me to paint. She let me pick a photograph of someone else’s painting, a sailboat with reddish sails on a cerulean sea and sky and I copied it using her oils. She did large sun-filled landscapes of wooded paths that were quite good and quite popular in the ‘Forties. I wish I had one of them now. Who knows what happened to them all.”

Their cups were empty. Marcel had listened with half an ear. His mind was traveling away in other directions and they weren’t his memories. He really didn’t care but he took pains to not let it show.

They went home then, traveling back up the steep hill, stopping by the galleries Kay wanted to see, and back up through the ever-expanding commercial districts of the wealthy middle class with their corporate giants of designer clothing, mega-grocery outlets, world-franchised coffee houses and Realty offices. White Rock had become big business.

It was no use complaining. It was the way of the world to constantly develop; to tear down the small and build up and out and dig parking underground. But Kay mused about how it had been. She had enjoyed the memories and she had had a grand day. She wouldn’t likely be back again.

Trepidation without a cause

April 1, 2008

I had a major anxiety attack over going away. I was quite contented to stay home, really, and the travel reports that nephew Hugh had obtained for me did more to increase the angst than to calm it. The ticket was already bought and not refundable so I was going anyway, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit gloomy. I don’t know why.

Finally he said to me rather firmly, “Look, they want tourists. Nothing’s going to happen to you. Just don’t go to Suva. ” There had been some trouble in January in Suva over the current government. There is always conflict there between the Fijian natives and the Hindo-Fijians who are the commercial class.

I was travelling with Heather and her husband and Lizbet, my other sister. They have time share and are happy to share costs with us. Travelling in a group is better for me now than travelling alone and I don’t like organized tours that keep pushing you forward to see one monument after another.

Heather and her Dauntless Husband came down four days before departure. He had an specialist doctor’s appointment. Lizbet came on Friday night after her last day at school. It’s the beginning of Spring Break. We left on Sunday.

With so many people in the house and all with their suitcases open in some form or another of reshuffling and redeciding what to take, it was impossible for me to think. Six days into the trip, someone asked for Q-tips.

“I have some!” I proudly announced. But they were nowhere to be found. I found them this Friday when we returned, still sitting on the bathroom counter where all my first aid kit for travel was spread out in excellent organization for the trip.

It’s a hot country. We were going to a resort with sand shores and a gorgeous looking pool. I also forgot my second (and best) bathing suit.

As we were going out the door, Lizbet asked “Do you have a hat? I don’t have one.”

“Oh lordy,” I groaned inwardly. I get sunstroke so easily. I hadn’t thought about a hat.

But I had two tucked up in the storage closet from the last tropical trip I took. I’ve used my favorite often since, but it is deteriorating. The straw is developing holes. The other one isn’t flattering but it has a wide brim. It’s great for a scorching day.

I grabbed them both and said she could use one of them.

And so we went. It was a gruelling trip – over 24 hours from pillar to post. Seven and a half hours of flight to Honolulu; a nasty bit of Immigration at about five in the morning, our time, with little useful sleep preceding it. I suppose that they can’t have anyone in the plane when they are refuelling; and the American’s like to do their own security checks as we touch down into their territory. At such an early hour it was unpleasant to have to deplane with absolutely all of our traveling possessions and then wait around for an hour and a half for everything to be ready to go.

We arrived in Nadi airport at 5 a.m. the next day after another 7 hours or so of flight (having crossed the International Date Line) . Don’t even try to figure out the hours – with the time zone changes and the date line, it’s not worth the bother.

In Nadi, Dauntless Brother-in-Law had arranged a bus trip for us to Pacific Harbour and our hotel, The Pearl of the South Pacific.

Despite our sleep deprivation, that was a glorious ride. It’s the kind of travel I like to do, where you are riding in the same transport as the rest of the people in the country (and no, I didn’t try a donkey). Lizbet who I call our Ambassadress and who someone else calls Chatty Cathy (figure it out, it’s somewhere in between) started talking to the passengers beside and behind her.

When I shook my head in wonderment as to how she did it, she said with amazement, “It wasn’t me. It was you!. If you hadn’t been drawing the person across the aisle, nobody would have talked to me. They thought you were amazing!”

I looked at the drawing. It hadn’t succeeded at all. It was like a cartoon. I was afraid that the girl that I had drawn would be insulted by my feeble effort. In my defense, the roads were terrible. There were more potholes than road and it was very difficult to get a continuous line of half an inch without being bounced out of the seat and repositioned back into the sunken upholstery.

The windows were covered with a light film of mud. Without opening the window, one could see nothing; and yet, it was raining. So when the window was open, this slightly muddy precipitation whipped into my face. When the rain let up a little, the two photos I tried to take went all fuzzy. Over and above, with the humidity, the lens tended to fog up so that focusing became impossible.

We stopped in Nadi proper – the business district – to pick up more passengers. There I managed to get a few pictures of street vendors and of people doing every day things. At Nadi bus station, we picked up two fellows that sat behind us. One was very obviously an Island native. He had the tightly curled mass of hair and broad features including a very friendly grin. It was he who was asking after the drawings. Beside him, his friend looked like a New York black or an African black of medium build. He is difficult to describe because he was ordinary. The first one introduced himself as Ben and the second as Jimmy.

Lizbet was curious and started to pump them with her barrage of questions. Come to think of it, she would make a perfect spy. She blathers on so innocently asking questions but remembers all the names and all the answers afterwards.

“What do you do? ” she asked Ben.

He looked at her with his persistent grin but a suddenly blank look in his eyes.

“Do?” he asked back, as if he hadn’t ever considered that he was expected to do anything.

He hesitated a while. His face became perplexed. And mind you, he spoke perfectly good English with an Australian accent.

“I guess… ” he started, then hesitated again. His grin reappeared giving an air of perfect contentedness. There didn’t seem to be the slightest coquetry in his answer. “I guess I’m a journalist. Yes, you could say I was a journalist.”

He went on to explain that he had worked about six years in Australia for a newspaper and that he had written for them all that time. But he came home. Now there was no job for him and he was working on a project, a writing project. It was in the middle and it wasn’t very firm yet so he didn’t want to say any more about it.

All the while, Jimmy nodded his agreement, almost in admiration of his traveling companion, his happy face bobbing up and down. Lizbet was not about to let him off easily though, and turned her focus on him. “And what do you do?”

He had the same hesitation, as if looking through a list of occupations that would be plausible to say out loud.

“I’m a musician,” he said finally. “Yes, I’m a musician.” This last was a confirmation, somewhat to himself, as if he’d passed that exam question with honours and could definitely advise you, should you need it. He was positive now that he was a musician.

I found that rather amusing. I was enjoying listening to the banter while I tried to get a better drawing of the young lady with a grey striped scarf around her throat.

I hadn’t been an hour in the country and I already had a feeling I was going to like the people. They stand and sit proudly. They have a quiet dignity about themselves. They were courteous and warm towards us.

Soon the young lady got off the bus and then the two young men. They waved gleefully from the ground as the bus took off again, as if we were friends that they were seeing off on a holiday. We’d known them for less than half an hour.

Along the roadside, we would see small horses and occasionally cattle. Jungle growth lay a broad blanket of lush green over everything but the roadway. In a few places, the earth had been exposed – a bright, rich red soil. At one spot, we traveled parallel to a long sandy beach. The breakers formed about half a mile out to sea in a white line and a calmer water came up cloase to the shore in broad flat waves.

I must have dozed a while because I don’t remember seeing much more before we were deposited, baggage and all, at the Arts village, just a kilometer past our hotel. A taxi came to drive us to the hotel. The fare for all four of us and our baggage was two Fiji dollars. That’s like one dollar thirty cents Canadian.

We were glad to find our room and settle in for a nap. It had been a long flight. An arduous journey.

There are lots of stories to tell, but they will have to be written in the days that come . That’s it for now.

More on Critters

March 7, 2008

ottawa-296-small.jpg

Mrs. Stepford comes for dinner on alternate Wednesdays. Mr. Stepford goes to his music lessons. While the cat’s away ….

It’s comedy night on CBC. Kay and Mrs. Stepford watch National Geographic, Little Mosque on the Prairies and Sophie all in a row and chat in between the good parts by muting the television when the ads come on.

Dinners are not a formal affair. It’s whatever one can easily eat in front of the television. Last night Kay made a basic vegetable soup with chicken stock, celery, fresh parsley, onion, salt, pepper and basil with a Wednesday variation adding curry powder, a half head of fresh cauliflower plus a chunkily chopped up piece of chicken breast. Num! A whole meal in a bowl!

Last night, Kay and Mrs. S watched lemurs in Madagascar going through courtship rituals. Good grief! Lemurs are as tortured and twisted as human beings with their “yes-I-will”, “no-I-wont”, well, maybe” “what if she won’t have me” and “Oh no, I can’t ask her. I’m too shy” routines. They are cute as can be with their facial expressions, body language and their black and white tails like graceful flags orchestrating their relationships like a symphonic conductor with his baton.

At exactly ten when the delightful Sophie program signed off , Mrs. Stepford rose and announced she had things to do at home. She was leaving.

When Kay had closed the door on Mrs. Stepford and locked up for the night, she sat back down in her living room comfy chair, cruised for something interesting to watch while she sorted out some presentation books of her watercolours and drawings that she was preparing for the upcoming Art Walk. Frankly, there was nothing worth listening to. She had already heard the news earlier in the day and she found the repetition of it annoying. She didn’t want to watch any blood and guts murder mysteries. Canned laughter palled. The ultimate consumerism programs of how to make your house salable or decorate held no interest for her. Sports – well, she had never been a sports fan – that was out.

After all, there was nothing wrong with silence. It allowed one to think. It provided blessed peace, if one’s mind was clear to roam.

Kay sat with six presentation books scattered about the chair, culling out the watercolours that weren’t good enough or those she hadn’t wanted to sell just yet. Most of her paintings were like a visual diary to her. Some of them she just wasn’t ready to let go yet. The silence was welcome after three hours of engagement both with the television and a visitor. She had become quite a hermit lately.

Now, listening to silence may sound like an oxymoron, but Kay found that it was a delicious thing to do. It was never totally an absence of sound but simply a diminishment. There was still the whir of the refrigerator, the faint hum of the lights.

The transition from an active sound mix of television and conversation to the quiet, meditative hum of electricity operating the house took a few minutes of adjustment.

Kay was slipping out the oddments, taking figure drawings out a mainly landscape portfolio/presentation book or a geometric drawing out of a group of flower drawings, when she became aware of a persistent scratching sound above her head.

Damn raccoon!” she thought. “Cursed critter!” she grumbled. She lept up from her easy chair and ran up the stairs brandishing her flashlight, ready to re-enact her raccoon scaring tactics of the previous night. With a brusque gesture, she raised the blackout blind and swung the flash light from side to side on the small roof below the window looking for the beast, but none was there. She checked the roof on the other side. None there either.

Now slightly puzzled, she stopped again to listen. Yes, the scratching of sharp paws continued in it’s rhythmic pattern, but now it was coming from below. She felt the fine hairs of her ears twitching, turning, casting outwards for the source of the sound.

She checked the closets and around the room, but there was nothing to be seen. Still, the sound continued, a persistently scratching. She returned downstairs to listen from the middle of the living room. Much louder now, the sound continued just up above the lighting.

Disgusted, Kay picked up the phone and dialed.

“Guess what I’ve got” she announced to Mrs. Stepford, only one house away. “Critters inside the house”

“What makes you think that?” asked Mrs. S and Kay proceeded to recount everything that had occurred in the previous twenty minutes.

“Are you sure? Mrs. Stepford asked. “Do you want to have Mr. Stepford come and see?”

“He can come if he wants. There’s nothing to see. It’s just a persistent sound, that’s all. But it just takes the cake!” said Kay rather defiantly. She didn’t need to have her perceptions confirmed; she knew she had a critter up there. But it was very comforting to have a neighbour who would come at ten thirty at night to support her in her tribulations of home ownership.

When Mr. S stood with Kay not five minutes later listening for the sound, the animal was still scrabbling away at his noisy activity. Mr. S. repeated Kay’s investigation, listening intently for the beast’s location. By elimination, the sound certainly was not coming from the roof; it was not coming from the walls; it was not coming from behind the closets. It was loudest in the floor of the bedroom and in the ceiling of the living room. Returning downstairs, they noted that the space between the floor and the ceiling could be no larger than six inches deep. It couldn’t be a raccoon; not the thirty pounder that had stood sassily defiant on the shallow slope of the roof. It must be a rat or a squirrel. Perish the thought for either of them.

“You’re going to have to get a pest control company out to get rid of it,” counseled Mr. S. “But what I can’t figure out is what it’s doing. That doesn’t sound like he’s eating. Anyway, the critter would be full by now if it was eating. It sounds like it’s rolling something across the floor. It just doesn’t make sense.”

“Besides, what could be up there to eat? Fiberglass? And it can’t be building a nest; not with that sound. It’s rolling something. What else could it be?”

Mr. Stepford left after we’d batted all the possibilities around.

“Get Mrs. S to tell you what company she used; You don’t want to call them. They scammed us. They promised to put traps in to capture the critters, insisted on being paid up front and then never came back.”

Kay couldn’t stand listening to the animal scrabbling away and went to the study to play a noisy computer game. It was time for bed but the whole event had unsettled her. How could she sleep if the scrabbling continued on hour after hour into the wee hours of the night? Green dollar signs for Pest Control floated before her eyes. Why did this have to happen now? The beast had to stop sometime. If it was eating, wouldn’t it be full now and want a siesta?

Half an hour later as Kay went back out past the living room to the kitchen for a soothing cup of tea, she listened. There wasn’t a bit of sound. Oh, yes. There was the soothing sound of the refrigerator and the whir of the lights.

The next morning, Kay was sifting through possibilities, trying to apply some sort of Algebraic logic to the problem. The animal had to be a smaller animal to fit between the joists. It couldn’t have been eating, because the scratching had been continuous – there had been no time for stuffing it’s mouth with food. It couldn’t have been eating because it would have become the size of a big balloon had it continued to eat for an hour like that and then it would be wedged in solidly. And that rolling objects sound that came with it, as if it were moving things from side to side: what was that about?

It was while Kay was exercising in the gym, early evening, that the answer came to her. She’d noticed the soft, collapsing holes in the garden. She’d counted the less than dozens of tulips coming up.

The critter was some kind of Animal Kingdom billionaire wanna-be. The winter takings were stored in this very safe vault between floors. She preferred to think it was a squirrel. The idea of rat was just too creepy.

The squirrel was counting it’s wealth:

Twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine parrot tulip bulbs.

Stepford Acorns: Sixty, sixty one, sixty two, sixty three, sixty four, sixty five.

Lily bulbs – bigger and rarer – ten, eleven twelve. Well! He thought he had had fifteen of them. “Oh yes, here they are in the walnut pile ” Thirteen. Fourteen Fifteen.

Old Mr. McGregor’s Walnuts; One, Two Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. That makes one pile. Start on another ten. One, Two, Three….

Kay’s Red tulips: One. Two. Three. Four….

Daffodil bulbs: two too many, by mistake. Squirrels don’t like Daffy smells.

Wilson’s Hazelnuts: None left, all consumed. What a mess! All those shells, but they sure had been good.

Conkers: Six.

When he finished his inventory he turned the key in the vault and turned the tumblers; he flicked his tail, fluffing it up with pride. Some haul! The best savings account he had ever had for March of any year, and this winter had been a hard, cold one. Maybe this year he could win Suzie Squirrel over with his March bank account! And he turned his tail on his visible trappings of squirrel wealth and crept quietly out of the squirrel cache, shut the door and headed for a tree.

Cleaning house and gardening

February 25, 2008

I’ve had a visitor, Saturday and Sunday, which made me very happy. She’s a former colleague from work who has become a very good friend.

Used to be, when Mother came to visit, I’d go on a cleaning binge, and now that Mother’s gone, I do it for visitors. I’d been brought up better, you see. A house should be spotless. Cleaning should be done on a rotational basis. Mondays for laundry, Tuesdays for ironing, Wednesdays for dusting, tidying, mopping and vacuuming, Thursdays for washing floors; Fridays for special projects like the drapes, polishing silver or cleaning out a cupboard; Saturdays for shopping; Sunday for Church and meditation.

Or that’s how it used to be – before wash and wear clothing. Before automatic washers and dryers. Before stainless steel cutlery. That’s how it used to be when I grew up. Girl children were trained to take over all these functions and Mother was an exacting task master. She knew she was preparing us for life. She was preparing us to be acceptable, admired even. What would people think if they came into your house and saw a speck of dust.

On the days that Uncle Keith came, we did extra cleaning because he was exceptionally tall for his time – six foot three, maybe – and Mother imagined that when he came, one of his guest duties would be to examine the premises for dust lurking in high places. Before Uncle Keith came, we got out the ladder and dusted the tops of door surrounds. On the upstairs landing, we dusted very carefully between the posts of the banister and railings. We dusted the light fixtures. We would not have wanted him to go home after a visit and expound to Aunt Kay, his wife, on layers of forgotten dust That could not be borne!

I hated all that mindless cleaning. I do understand its value, but I don’t have to like it. Avoidance is my favourite response to cleaning requirements. I had wonderful excuses to get out of it when I worked full time.

When I lived with Mother, caring for her, she already had a cleaning lady who came in once a week to help her with the harder tasks, even though, in her lifetime, conveniences had been invented and the tasks had become a quarter of what she had needed to do when she first got married.

Friday was the housekeepers day and in Mother’s leisure days of retirement, no engagements for lunches, tea, bridge parties or walks in the park would be made for a Friday morning.

Esther, her housekeeper was “professional” domestic. She came from an early pioneer farming family in the Lower Fraser Valley. Her parents had felt that she would always have work if she had this training and they were right. She knew what to do. She was immersed in the feminine arts of housekeeping. Though she was from a farming family and they were not wealthy enough to have such niceties as silver plate and fine china, she knew and understood the care and keeping of them. She knew how to set a table. She knew all the arts of laundry – how to get out certain stains, how to keep things looking white – and the arts of pressing clothes to look crisp and sharp, rivaling or surpassing how they now come, straight out of a dry-cleaning establishment.

She knew how to polish wood so that it gleamed, without using silicone laced sprays from a can. She knew how to fix scratches in walnut furniture. As children, before housekeepers, we had the task of taking fresh walnuts and rubbing them over minor scratches in the French polish of the dining table, rubbing, rubbing, rubbing, rubbing until the scratches turned dark with the nut oil and the white stains from water damage or heat regained their dark hue.

Esther knew how to organize her work efficiently. In the three hours that she came, she would start with gathering up everything for the laundry; separating out whites and lights from dark clothing; putting the washer on to work while she dusted, mopped, tidied; cleaned the venetian blinds, polished the mirrors; cleaned the bathrooms; vacuum the rugs.

For a little extra money, she would do mending for Mother. She was also a fine seamstress. When Mother came home from Bangkok after a tour in the Orient, she brought back some fine Thai silk yardage. It was Esther who made up the cloth into light, airy summer dresses for her.

Somehow, the work of the house has been tainted in our minds as menial; but it was never so to Esther. She was proud of her abilities and proud of her finished product – a well-kept home. She walked to out place, decked out as a lady carrying a generous-sized designer carry-all; when she arrived she would change into cleaning clothes; when she left, she was again dressed as a rather elegant lady with clothing she had designed herself, a hat and gloves, and would walk back to her home as she had come.

Now, as I stood looking at my new home, my very own home, my dream come true, I was appalled at my housekeeping skills. I had not really dusted since I had taken possession of the house. Oh, occasionally I had wiped away something obvious. I swept the floor when my feet started to stick on it; the laundry gets done when I need clean clothes to wear. But now I had a guest coming. A very neat and tidy guest. Ack!

I had cleaned it out thoroughly when I came in (I can live with my own dirt, but not with other people’s dirt), but had done very little since. In my defense, I’ve been working pretty hard at dispersing Mom’s estate and I’ve had more of my share of boxes of stuff impeding movements in my house. There was not much opportunity to do vacuuming, for instance, because I couldn’t have moved one around the house with all the stuff that had been unceremoniously plunked into my house as we hastily emptied Mother’s house for sale and brought the unknown boxes of stored items to my house for sorting, distributing or chucking.

I could hear that guest going back to the office saying, “It’s a cute little house. Very cute. A heritage house. But you should see the dust on top of her furniture! And the kitchen floor? Looks like it hasn’t been swept in a week. The windows? I don’t think they’ve been cleaned since the ‘Fifties. Her front steps are covered in green algae. The rugs are littered with bits of fluff and dirt tracked in. There are boxes everywhere. I don’t know how she lives in it!!!”

I could see myself being nominated for the “Housekeeping Failure of the Year” award.

My friend came and went. We had a lovely time. Food is always a more important thing to me than cleaning. I gave her two impressive meals. Lunch on Saturday was a home made fennel soup and a Caesar Salad. I put out some Camembert and paté to have with French Bread. We had little slices of an apricot and almond paste that she brought for dessert. For dinner, we had Basa filets and fennel root in fresh parsley and garlic butter with rice. I still had fresh frozen blueberries in the freezer which I thawed, heated and put over a tiny portion of ice cream. (We are watching out line.) I used the dishwasher (which I only use as a dish dryer when I’m alone) so that I didn’t have to do dishes.

When I dropped the milk jug on the floor and an entire jug of milk spread all across the kitchen from the living room side door to the outside back door and from there to the floor beneath the kitchen sink, she helped me mop it up.

“Never mind,” she said, “the jug didn’t break. That’s got most of it. You can get the rest of it when you get around to washing the kitchen floor.” I picked up a nonchalant hint of laxity in that comment – “when you get around to it” – as if she, herself would tolerantly let what was left, if any, to dry and flake as milk does, until she had time and inclination to wash the floor properly.

We went out walking in Kanaka Creek Park in the early afternoon, and then I wanted to show her Jerry Sulina Park on the Pitt River dykes. It was a fine sunny day with the Golden Ears peaks still holding onto winter snows and the purple crocus and tiny white snow drops pushing up through the pale gold winter grasses. There were lovely reflections of the clear blue sky marrying with the mountains and the grass tangles and wintering ducks gliding chevron patterns over top of them.

We spent the evening beading, which she came prepared to teach me, and watching an English murder mystery. She confessed over the beading tray that she had just left everything, at home – the dinner dishes from Friday and her breakfast dishes – in the sink; she hadn’t done laundry since her husband had left on a vacation two weeks before. She didn’t like housekeeping any more than I did!

She left early on Sunday morning. I went out into the yard and did a bit of maintenance there. I’m still pulling out or cutting out winterkill for the irises and the phlox. There’s lots of tree debris from the windstorms to be picked up that I haven’t bothered with since it’s been too rainy to go out there and enjoy the fresh air and to do raking. I puttered at putting together a compost bin that the next door lady gave to me when her house sale deal went through. I tied up some honeysuckle so that it will thread long the trellis slats above the solid fence. I watered some plants that the neighbour gave me – some fall crocus, liatrus and butterfly bush.

The grass seedings that I planted in the fall are coming up, covering the trampoline area from the previous owner’s arrangments. Crocus are pushing through. I planted two big bulbs that might be Allium or might be Elephant Garlic. I took some time to think how I might put in pathways and more plantings since I don’t really care for too much lawn in the back yard. It was glorious – the physical activity, the fresh air, the warming sunshine.

So, who wants to clean? I’d much rather be out in the back garden with time to think, with time to dream, breathing God’s good air and taking in the mild scent of the old cedars that surround the property.
And thank goodness for visitors, or the house would never be cleaned!

Dinner at Mrs. Stepford’s

February 14, 2008

I had a great dinner at Mrs. Stepford’s house tonight. It’s Mr. S’s band night and he doesn’t come home for dinner. Wednesday night dinners are getting to be an institution either at my house or hers. On cold winter nights, we like to spend an evening laughing and we’ve found that Wednesday programming on the television is scheduled just as we like it.

I like Doc Martin, that BBC comedy of an asocial doctor in the tiny seaside community of Port Wenn. Mrs. S likes Little Mosque on the Prairie. I admit that it has a wacky Canadian sense of humour and I like it too. Then there is the new Sophie comedy slash drama, also Canadian, that can get us rolling in the aisles.

I thought dinner was the black bean soup that was filled with vegetables and it should have been enough. However, Mrs. S had a spaghetti squash concoction in the oven, topped with spicy sausage sliced in rounds. We had to taste it even if we had filled up on the hearty soup. It was just heavenly. She has a way with spices that is most agreeable.

While we were just beginning the new wine discovery, a Cano Casecha 2005, a red that is best taken with food, Mrs. S. got a call from Lindsay, a single mom whom the Stepfords have figuratively adopted into their family.

Lindsay is a nurse and like many nurses I have met, she has a bawdy sense of humour. She’s full of life and fun; but she is also full of woes with her two teenagers that are being, well…., teenagers, pushing the limits as far as they can go.

Tomorrow, Lindsay is bringing over her son to do some labour for Mrs. S., clearing up the basement which has been torn apart for some renovations and needs serious help before anything further can be done.

I was sitting across the pinewood kitchen table as Mrs. S fielded a call from Lindsay. I only got one half of the conversation, so some critical information is missing here.

“Tell Lindsay to come over while there’s still a portion of wine left for her.” I insisted, since I had brought the wine.

Mrs. S relayed the invitation then sotto voce, her hand over the mouth piece, “She can’t come tonight but she’ll come tomorrow.”

“Come to the gym with us,” Mrs. S. commands Lindsay.”We’ll lock Peter in the house and he can do his work while we are away!”

“Tee hee hee’, she laughs, “A teenage abduction!” a wicked smile spreads over her face, one mixed with glee.

“She’ll come!” she relays to me. And then back to Lindsay, “Can’t you just see the headlines. Three portly seniors, ladies, overtake the Leisure Centre,” and she starts to laugh again as I shake my head from side to side, a wide grin on my own face.

“That’s what you get for going to all-women gyms!” she admonishes Lindsay, then….

“We’ll fix you up with some good looking gymnast!” she promises. “There are lots of shapely men around.” She’s always promising to do Yenta matchmaking for Lindsay (and for me and for any number of unattached mutual friends). I’ve not yet heard of any successful matches, though the intentions are well-meant.

She covers the mouthpiece again and says to me, “Lindsay has just lost twenty pounds. She’s looking pretty good now.”

I could just picture it. Three two-ton tessies hogging the treadmills, then elbowing the young bloods out of the way as we hilariously pedal our way through our aerobic preliminaries. we ladies have lost our inhibitions. We are not shy.

Later, using our practiced motherly glares, we will succeed in overtaking the rowing machine, the bicep and tricep building contraptions, the pulley activated weights. All the while, yours truly, a seasoned gym aficionado of six long weeks now pontificating on form and instructing these other two in the use of ten to fifteen different models of exercise equipment.

I just realized as I was writing this how similar the quiet chapel-like halls of the art gallery are similar in their concentration to these temples of body building. I realized that no one speaks to another whilst treading or pedalling or weight lifting. All the voices are low, with minor bits of instruction going on from time to time. It’s a serious place. People are there to make muscle. There is no time for socialization. If there are three of us there tomorrow, the others won’t know what hit them!