Gratitude – Post 141 – 215 children

To say I am grateful that the remains of 215 children were found seems an unthinkable thing to say, but now they can come home, they can be honoured, and they are … found. They were missing, forgotten by many, but not forgotten by all.

More than grateful, I am feeling anguish over the May 27th announcement of the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, a school that existed for eighty years, operated by the Catholic Church from 1890 to 1969, and by the government as a day school until 1978, a school that reported only fifty deaths during the school’s operation. Fifty deaths. 50. Yet here were two hundred and fifteen little bodies, their burial unrecorded and unmarked. I wasn’t sure which emotion I was feeling was the stronger – rage, heartbreak, hopelessness. But then it all became painfully clear. Shame was the top of my list of emotions. Shame. Shame over the inaction of my government and shame for my own inaction, for my silence while the struggles of indigenous people continue, day after day, year after year, decade after decade, century after …

We act surprised by this news of the discovery of these remains of children, as if this was a one-off occurrence, a single piece of evidence of the unimaginable treatment of indigenous children and their families in this country since 1863 when the Indian Residential School system was established. The system saw 150,000 children, children as young as three, removed from their families and homes to attend these schools for no other purpose than, as Duncan Campbell Scott proclaimed in 1920 as the Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs to a parliamentary committee, for residential schools “to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic”. For more than 130 years indigenous children were subjected to this so-called education, that saw most of them suffer from malnutrition and abuse and loneliness and inexorable neglect. We called it cultural genocide, words to mask its abhorrence, but in truth it was more far-reaching than that, more calculated, more cruel, more devastating. It was genocide, pure and simple. The government had a plan to annihilate the “savage” from the Indian, as John A McDonald so loudly proclaimed in the House of Commons.

We throw up our hands and shout in our own defence. “We didn’t know. We didn’t know.” We knew. Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, the founding member of Canadian Public Health Association became the chief medical health officer of the then Department of Indian Affairs in 1904. In 1907, he reported to the government the shocking high death rates of indigenous children in the “care” of Residential Schools, deaths caused by negligence. Scott dismissed Bryce’s recommendations and Bryce was removed from his position. Instead of heeding Bryce’s warnings and implementing his recommendations, the government went after his credibility, his reputation, disparaging him, preventing him from speaking publicly. He wasn’t deterred. He wrote a book in 1922 – The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada where he exposed the high number of deaths and the government’s inaction. We knew. We knew.

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was formed on August 26, 1991. The commission issued its final report in November of 1996 with a 4000-page document, setting down a 20-year agenda with 440 recommendations. Those twenty years have come and gone. Paul Chartrand, one of the original commissioners, said in 2016, “I don’t think it’s changed much.” One of the recommendations was for the creation of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was established thirteen years ago, on June 2, 2008. Thirteen years ago. The commission heard the testimony of 6000 witnesses and survivors, most of whom attended residential schools after the 1940s. The findings of the commission were reported in a summary published in 2015. In 2016, the new Liberal government VOWED to “act on every single one” of the 94 Calls to Action. In the final report, the commission stated, “Now that we know about residential schools and their legacy, what do we do about it?” We wear orange to honour the children, we fly flags at half-mast, we wince, we ache, we feel shame, we wear red to honour missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. But what do we really do about it? What action are we taking? How do we keep the energy in the movement for change? How do we stop saying things like get over it, it was in the past, when the racism continues, when indigenous peoples face challenges every day in the health care system, challenges in simply being. How do we stop our indignation when First Nations people express their despair and rage over the disparity in this country, over the denial of honouring treaties, over the rampant racism they are subjected to, living in communities where systemic racism in law enforcement has been clearly identified. How do we not react to the United Nations report of Canada to the world of indigenous people living in “abhorrent housing conditions in Canada” (CTV October 21, 2019). How do we not take action of the Human Rights Watch that reported in September 2020, that 56 indigenous communities are subject to long-term water advisories.

The promise of reconciliation made in 2008 has faded. We forget we are all Treaty People, we all have an obligation to honour what was signed and agreed upon. And we all have an obligation to demand the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission be enacted. As of 2020, 10 Calls to Action have been completed. 10. 10 of 94. I will no longer hide behind my shame. I will play a role in change. I will demand of my government to do what they vowed to do.

 If you still want to claim we didn’t know, remember this. CBC reported in 2015 that the “odds of dying in residential school was 1 in 25. The odds of Canadians soldiers dying in the Second World War was 1 in 26.” We knew. We knew.

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Gratitude – Post 140 – Spring, Glorious Spring

I’m grateful for Spring and it has me singing. Spring, glorious Spring! I’m channelling Oliver Twist when he sang “Food, glorious food,” in the musical Oliver, my arms outstretched as I spin around. Are you familiar with the musical? Don’t worry, if my neighbours could hear me, they too would tell me to pipe down.

We all need Spring. We need warm days and trees budding and grass growing and blossoms exploding and … wait for it … my precious dandelions. I know you with your pristine lawns have a major hate on for the glorious dandelion. I haven’t a pristine lawn nor do I want one, and I adore dandelions. As I have said before, on more than one occasion, on probably too many occasions in your opinion, dandelions are sunshine growing on the ground. I won’t bore you with another round of dandelion facts, but I will mention the precious bee who desperately needs us to leave as many dandelions upright without herbicide as we can.

The trees are straining to burst into leaf, the tulips are stretching, and I can almost hear the blossoms getting ready to explode. We have coltsfoot in Nova Scotia. What a great name – coltsfoot. It is a small cheerful plant, though some call it a weed, that grows in disturbed areas, usually on road edges and the like. It first bursts into yellow flower and then grows its leaves. I like that; it has its priorities straight. Coltsfoot can bloom as early as February when conditions are right, a cheery sight as the days slowly start to get longer.  I don’t remember coltsfoot growing up, so I looked it up and it doesn’t grow in northwestern Ontario. It isn’t native to Canada and was introduced from Europe in the 1920s. I guess that’s why I don’t remember it. But I do remember marsh marigolds who are native to Canada and love to grow in marshy areas. They were tough to pick for a bouquet without getting my boots full of water, but oh how I loved the marsh marigold. Still do. I don’t come upon them in my spring hiking travels here, another good reason to have stayed in northwestern Ontario.

Some years Spring lasts a day and then we are in full-on summer. Or the contrary, heat one day and snow the next. Today is much like that as I am writing this. Yesterday was spectacular and warm and lovely and invigorating and today it is cold and pouring rain and threatening snow and I am shivering and thinking of going back to bed as if I had wakened from hibernation to discover I was too early and need to return to the den to sleep it off.

I always hope Spring takes its time once it has arrived, that it might waddle instead of gallop, in no particular hurry, just meandering with no intention of ever leaving, dragging its fingers across my face, like the feeling I get when my daughters visit and I hope they never go home, that they lose their tickets and throw up their arms and decide to stay. I know that is highly unlikely, but I still imagine it every time they come. It has been far too long between visits now, for most of us. My arms ache on a daily basis and though I blame it on arthritis, I am more inclined to think it is from hug-neglect. I can’t use bad language in my thoughts on Covid:19, but I’d like to.

I know we’ll get through this. That life will again become something we recognize, and I will be able to hug my daughters and breathe them in and never again have to be separated by such uncertainty. Hang on, I whisper to myself. We’re almost there.

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Gratitude – Post 139 – My Cousin Randy

I am grateful for my cousin Randy. He was named Randall John Stewart, the John part of his name in respect to my father John Richard Stewart and to our great-grandfather John O Stewart. I’m not sure what the “O” stands for or at least I don’t remember now. He was referred to as John O and that stuck, the way that some called my father John R. I liked that, the feeling of being worthy of a special moniker.

Randy was born three years after me and when you’re the youngest in a family with strong-willed siblings, it’s nice to have someone you think you need to show the ropes to, a leg up so to speak in the game of growing up. I had the privilege of thinking I knew more than someone and when you are a child and the youngest and always obligated to sit in the middle on every and all car outings, never getting to be by the window, it’s a big deal to have a younger cousin. There were three of them, three little boys who were like three little old men, who discussed life as if they’d been to the top and surveyed the entire scene called life, and carried back the information to discuss with each other and sometimes with me. They were their own version of the three little bears – the oldest (Randy) ready for fun and daring, the youngest (Rickie) who wanted to be certain, and the one in the middle (Robbie) was the gooey marshmallow centre of a perfect three-layered cookie. They made me laugh, but most importantly they made me feel warm inside, the connection one feels when we have an extended family. Cousins become the best friends we never have to earn, we never have to audition for, just about the only guarantee we have in life aside of its ending.

Robbie, the gooey marshmallow centre of the perfect three-layered cookie, went on ahead, much too early in the game, long before anyone was ready to let go his hand, on a day that would become the worst day, the kind of day no mother really recovers from, no brother stops aching from, but just learns how to put one foot in front of the other, and to try to remember to keep breathing, the kind of day that is revisited year after year, the distance never great enough to stop a family’s hurt, to stop the wish of if only. An accident, we call it, when circumstances line up in the worst possible way.

Randy was struck by lightning when he was just about to have his ninth birthday. His heart stopped more than once and he was given life-saving CPR by a relative on the way to the hospital. I don’t remember who saved him, but I credited him with saving himself. He was that strong. I was certain. Someone may have thumped his chest and breathed some air into his lungs, but it was his heart that decided to start beating again. That’s how I looked at it then. That’s how I look at it now. Randy was strong. Randy was determined. Randy could do anything. Almost. Even Superman has to battle kryptonite.

Randy’s kryptonite was mental illness, bipolar disorder. It was a hard fought battle, and a cruel one. I sometimes wonder if that lightning strike had something to do with his brain being assaulted, leaving it injured, beyond repair it turns out.

We don’t talk about mental illness. Science struggles to understand the brain and its deep secrets, and so do we. We’re afraid of mental illness and it seems easier to look away from its victims, too uncomfortable to see its by-products, too uneasy to offer comfort, too judgmental to say I see your pain. Instead, we whisper behind our hands, and in those whispers, we speak of blame not help, we shake our heads with fatigue not kindness, and in our silence, we all too often leave those who struggle with mental illness alone with their battle. When the battle is lost, when the load has become too heavy, when the soul is just too weary, they slip away from us and could easily be forgotten. Their legacy of laughter and love and creativity seems to vanish almost in its entirety, and they are often remembered for their death rather than their life. If only there was a way to share the load. If only there was a way to say talk to me. If only there was a way to make space in our lives to offer solace and rest and comfort. If only.

I don’t want my tears to be the only measure of my loss of my precious cousin. Instead of tears, I make the choice to remember, to remember three little boys smoking a cigar on a Sunday morning in front of the cabin’s fireplace, laughing too hard to think they might be in trouble, to remember building blanket forts and hay forts and snow forts and crawling inside and thinking we were safe from absolutely everything life could throw at us. I will remember his love of Rainy Lake, a genetic predisposition that allowed him a second sight of the shoreline and waterways as if he could maneuver a boat through the many channels even if he was blind. I will remember him water-skiing as if he could almost fly and didn’t need a boat towing him but instead could glide over the water on his own magical power. I will remember his woodworking that was more about art than function, more about beauty than nails and paint, more about creativity than work.

Randy was far more than the mental demons that tortured his soul, was far more than the pain he endured while he struggled, was far more than the shame he felt at not being perfect, was far more than a man worn weary by his illness. Oh, how he loved his three sons, the details of them, the beauty of them, the near perfection he saw in them. He wanted to hold them and breathe them in so they might remain forever with him, melded to his soul, would always be his little boys. Oh, how he wished it was different, how he hoped it could be different, how he prayed it would be different, how he so desperately needed it to be different.

Mental illness won the battle. Part of me is relieved for his freedom, relieved he is no longer in pain, relieved he no longer has to feel he is half a person, half a man, half a father. He was always whole. He was always all in with everything he did, in everything he was, but it’s just too hard to hold on to that when one’s brain is hurting, just too hard to believe it’s still true.

It’s up to each of us to tell the story of those who leave us behind to carry on, to remember the tiny details of someone, details we can’t etch into a grave marker, that we can’t paint across the sky. It’s up to us to remember Randy’s hearty laugh, so like his father’s, and to remember his eagerness for fun. It’s up to us to remember he was precious and loved and in his human imperfection, he was almost perfect, all that any of us can be or will be. I’m so very glad and so very blessed to have shared childhood with him, to have called him family.

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Gratitude – Post 138 – Mighty Mouse

I am grateful for Mighty Mouse and his example to me when I was a child. Let me explain.

I had visions, when I was eight years old, of becoming a super-hero, once I had conquered the ability to tell time. First things first. It is essential that superheroes be able to tell time. I struggled with time telling, I confess. My mother was disappointed, but she shouldn’t have been. I can now decipher the time with relative ease and can be relied on to report the correct time, if asked.

My plan was to do a superhero apprenticeship under Mighty Mouse, if he would have me, and I was prepared to plead my case. I did have a Mighty Mouse lunchbox and if that’s not warranty enough then something is seriously wrong. I wanted to be able to fly with a cape and not need wings or other contraptions. I wanted to be very strong so I wouldn’t have to ask for help when lifting things and reaching things from the highest cupboards. My course was set. I’m not sure what went wrong, but I can neither fly nor lift cars off babies and as of late, opening jars is giving me grief and I need a chair for all reaching activities. Sadly, I have remained a mere mortal. But … it got me thinking.

My list of superpowers has changed over the years. I no longer need to be able to run faster than a speeding locomotive or leap tall buildings in a single bound. Those activities require too much enthusiasm but if I was making a list of essential superpowers today it reads much different than it used to.

The ability to fold a fitted sheet. It seems I require too much space and more patience than I have on any given day, to get it right. Superpowers required. Falling asleep immediately upon crawling into bed would be a superpower of the highest order. Some nights I can feel panic climbing up my spine as sleep evades me and my brain is doing mental burpees, jumping up and down, without much ease I might add, darting left and right and visiting the history that has long washed away under the bridge. I have at times resorted to begging for sleep, but nothing helps.

I would like to have a firm enough grasp of memory, so I don’t buy another bottle of ketchup every second time I visit the grocery store. If it’s on sale, I stand in front of the bottles and have an internal debate. Do I have enough ketchup? I do. It is fair to say that once I have decided to venture out into the world my memory is wiped perfectly clean. I’m not sure I could be counted on to remember the day or my name in those precise moments and more often than not the grocery list remains behind, all alone on the kitchen table. Superpowers required.

Superheroes definitely use the telephone. Clark Kent used a phone booth for his transformation into the man of steel, probably making a few calls while he was in there, to book an appointment for a teeth cleaning or a haircut, so it goes without saying I should be able to pick up the phone when necessary. Superpowers required.

I wish my superhero qualities allowed for getting the vaccine to every person on the planet in a single day, not unlike the abilities of Santa to circumnavigate the planet with relative ease and with few delays. I would be glad to wave a wand over everyone’s eyes so they may see no difference when looking at others, can see we are all the same and of equal value. I’m pretty sure even Mighty Mouse, a legitimate superhero, wasn’t equipped with such abilities.

I haven’t heard from Mighty Mouse since he went off the air when I was twelve and I’m not sure what he’s been up to but suffice to say he hasn’t dropped by for a visit in fifty-three long years despite my repeated invitations. He may be retired and busy writing his memoir. Mighty Mouse, created by Paul Terry, appeared on television ten years before Superman. Superman found his birth in the creative minds of writer Jerry Siegel and Canadian artist Joe Shuster, and in his first stories, Superman was a villain. Just saying. I think Mighty Mouse is the better choice and I’d be very glad if he dropped by to help me build an underground house, like the one I imagined when I had a bad dream when I was a kid, and one where I wouldn’t have to hear the wind roaring by my window at night. Did I mention I don’t like the wind? Most superheroes don’t. 

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Gratitude – Post 137 – My Bed

I am grateful for my bed. I love my bed. Not the specific bed that I currently occupy at night now, but “my” bed, in general terms. It is my safe place, my place of comfort, my place of big ideas and small wishes, my place of remembering. I tuck myself into my bed when I am sad, when I feel disconnected, when I am homesick. My bed takes me home. Home.

I remember asking Annie, when I was little, or more correctly when I was young, because I’ve always been little, how her milk cows knew which stall to go into when Annie opened the barn door. She smiled at me, that wonderful loving I-see-you smile of hers, and said, “It’s their home. Of course, they know where home is.” Home.

Remember the forts you built on your bed when you were a kid? My bed was tucked into a corner with walls on two sides and a closet closing in half of a third side, perfect for fort building. I piled blankets high and created a tiny den to climb into with my flashlight and Lone Ranger books and sometimes Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins. I can feel it even now, the safety of it, my breath lengthening and my heart slowing its beat, all the lights out except my small flashlight or my fluorescent study lamp on the little bedside cupboard my Grandpa Stewart made for me the Christmas I was eight. Home.

Mother Nature hit us last night with a heavy-duty storm, a Nova Scotia dump of snow. I went out before bed to shovel out my driveway, in an effort to keep ahead of the accumulation of snow. It felt a bit like bailing the Atlantic Ocean to keep the tides out. When I got up this morning the pile of snow on the other side of my porch door was overwhelming to say the least. Had I not shovelled last night I doubt very much I could have opened the door. When I looked out at the wall of snow that was waiting for me, I wanted to go back to bed, to crawl into a freshly made fort and refuse to come out until spring. However, that wasn’t going to work. I strapped on my Joan of Arc armour and got on with the business of living in a land of snowstorms.

I have made two stabs at the pile of snow and my driveway is now cleared out. The snowplow went by and left a great wall of snow for me to deal with. I had to laugh at the incredible mountain of snow, the snowplow guy and I exchanging laughs and waves on his way by. But … he circled around and came back to make three pushes at the wall of snow in my driveway, leaving a manageable pile for me. I put my hand on my heart and waved as he zoomed off. Home.

I was remembering, while I shovelled, the snowstorms of my childhood. They were spectacular. We couldn’t wait to get outside to see what we might create with the mountain-sized drifts. I tried to find that enthusiasm this morning and though I maybe came up a bit short, I did feel the sensation of awe as the sun reflected off the snow and reminded me that life does come with snowstorms. So, as I shovelled, I journeyed home to the farm on Wilson Road, the mighty Rainy River as my backdrop. Like Annie’s cows, my heart knows the way home.

When I crawl into my bed tonight, I will feel warm gratitude for the snowplow guy doing something he had no obligation to do and extended his kindness only because he could, no other reason. As I snuggle down inside my heavy blankets, remembering the joy of tired muscles from snow fort building and play in childhood, I will think of the words of Ram Dass when he says, “We’re all just walking each other home.” Let’s meet up there. See you at home. Home.

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Gratitude – Post 136 – Kindness

I am grateful for all the kindness that has been extended to me over my life, some of it planned and some of it random.

We tend to make lists this time of year with plans to better ourselves, to take up physical fitness, to stop anything that we find bothersome about ourselves, what we consider our flaws and oftentimes, said list can be very long. It’s easy to spend time thinking about what we are not. I’m not a neurosurgeon. I’m not astronaut nor a superhero. I can’t recall what I wanted to be when I grew up aside of being a farmer and maybe have my own unicorn, one that could fly would have suited me. That was the extent of my plans. I don’t think I thought of being a concert pianist or an Olympic gymnast, which in hindsight was a wise decision considering my skill at both. In Grade Thirteen, I was desperate to figure out what was the next step for me. My father insisted I have an education first and then I could come home and farm with him. We had a deal, using words like I promise. I spent hours searching university syllabuses for the answer. “Go with your strengths,” Mr. Ross said. I wasn’t sure what my strengths were, or if I even had any, but off I went to the University of Manitoba in pursuit of my Bachelor of Physical Education with a minor in Calculus. The whole time I was there all I wanted was to come home, every second of every day.

My dad didn’t keep up his end of the bargain. It wasn’t intentional, of course. His heart let him down a few weeks into my first year of university, so my one big plan was removed from my now empty list, the unicorn going with him.

It’s true, there is a long list of things I can’t be or can’t do. I can’t be famous, nor do I want to be. I can’t be rich, which I couldn’t care less about. I won’t travel much but I am very fond of my own back yard. I won’t solve world poverty or be part of a dialogue that creates world peace. I won’t have a hand in finding solutions to pandemics and disasters caused by climate change. But there is one thing I can always do, and it doesn’t require a degree or a sizeable bank account or height or perfect eyesight, nor must I be able to run fast or jump high or speak many languages. I can be kind.

I was remembering the long list of those who have extended kindness to me over the course of my life. I could fill pages. Mrs. Mason always set books of horse stories on the corner of her desk, downstairs in the library’s children department. Barry Cox always shared his wonderful smile from a very tall place over the counter at the post office. Mr. Quesnel offered solace and safety in home room so that each morning, before classes started, I felt a sense of belonging and safety. Betty with her lovely white hair twisted at the back of her head and exotic eyeglass frames asked me what I was going to create with the fabric she was cutting for me and told me not to be afraid to imagine something that seems out of reach. Annie’s kindness to me and the lessons she taught me while I was on her knee changed me profoundly and there isn’t a day that I don’t call on her example. Or the person that held the door for me at the post office or a neighbour who waved and shouted good morning on a day when I needed to feel connected or the person who brushed the snow off my car in the grocery store parking lot just because. It all matters.

The fundamental truth is there are more things that I cannot do than what I can, but every single one of us can be kind and it is that very kindness that changes the world.

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Gratitude – Post 135 – Wonder

I am grateful for the sense of wonder that still lives within me.

I was thinking about “wonder” this morning when I woke early, not sure what had wakened me but remaining curled up in my bed while the first thoughts of the day eased out of the small corners of my brain and into my thoughts. Wonder. What is it exactly? What experiences in our life would we list under “wonder”?

 Wonder is defined as “a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration”. That seems a bit of an understatement to me. My memories of wonder are those moments that filled me with a sense of floating, of total exhilaration. The first time I rode my bike and felt confident I wouldn’t crash into the ditch filled me with wonder, as if I had somehow developed superpowers where before there had been none, riding like the wind under my own power. Or the time I climbed to the top of the barn and sat on the peak of the roof and could see farther than any human had ever seen before, or so I thought, and was amazed that the world might actually extend beyond the Rainy River District. I thought Bonnie Brae Farm on the Rainy River was the centre of the universe and I think perhaps I still do, and I am still filled with the wonder of that sense of home whenever I conjure up memories.

I remember gazing into my newborn baby’s face and seeing complete and utter perfection there and the wonder of this miracle took my breath away, and the humility washed in of my inadequacy to be granted this wonder-filled child on loan, to keep her safe until she could keep herself safe, to guide her path until she could choose her own.

I remember my father pushing me on the swing, higher and higher, my legs pumping with a determined urgency to capture that moment where you are neither going up nor going down, but the world has paused for that tiny second, held on the air, weightless and motionless and ungrounded as if in that space of time anything might be possible.

I remember galloping on Nassau, my grey Arabian gelding, like riding a rocket, with bare legs and bare feet, his mane flying back in my face as we covered the ground, his feet seeming to gallop on air. Even now when I can’t sleep, I close my eyes and gallop with my friend of twenty-five years once again, the steady rhythm of his hooves like a beating heart, his ears moving back and forward to capture my voice urging him on.

Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge” and it was his imagination that allowed Einstein to solve some of the mysteries of the universe. Imagination allows us to think outside the box, to solve problems with creativity, to take an idea and give it shape and substance. Imagination gives us the means to dream that things will be better, that all of us will one day be equal, and let that day be soon, that no one will go without because of the colour of their skin, or where they were born, or whom they love, or anything else that we see as a divider rather than a connector.

Einstein went on to say, “For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

It is in imagination where wonder is born and given sanctuary.

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Gratitude – Post 134 – Gertie Bujold

I am grateful for the life of Gertie Bujold. She is the mother of one of my dearest friends. Gertie worked as my father’s secretary in his car dealership when she was young, before she had children, and my father thought the world of her and for good reason. And as fate would have it, many years later, Gertie’s daughter, my friend also worked for my father and he admired Angie with equal fervour. Gertie has recently died and her passing reminded me of the advice and wisdom she passed along, not so much in her words, but in her actions, in how she lived her life, and …. it got me thinking.

I recently watched a video of a woman in a wheelchair, her body tired and thin, looking frail, and her memory had been stolen by Alzheimer’s. The music began to play, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and this woman began to move, her arms raised gently, her head swaying, her body remembering what her mind no longer could. It was claimed in the video clip that this woman was Marta Gonzalez, a former Prima Ballerina who had once danced to Swan Lake. Fact-checking has revealed that she may or may not have been a prima ballerina and isn’t who the video claims she is, but there is no doubt that this music spoke to her and her body responded when her brain no longer could.

As we look at the elderly, it is easy to forget what stories the cells in their body could tell of them. We tend to think they were always this old, always this frail, always this forgetful and slow. And to be honest, there are days when I forget my younger self galloping madly on my pony my bare legs holding me in place as if the two of us were one, I forget I once ran barefoot at track events, did back handsprings and walk-overs and spun around on the uneven bars and fell off the balance beam with alarming regularity, when now I can hardly turn around quickly in my kitchen without getting dizzy. But what if we paused and simply remembered and celebrated all the pieces of who we are and carry along with us and do so for everyone we meet. What if we remembered this body once pumped higher on a swing than it ever had before, learned how to ride a two-wheeler with no hands, arms raised high above her/his head, tobogganed down long steep hills with cold snow rushing into our face making us feel more alive than we thought possible. What if we remembered she once hit a home run and won a dance-a-thon and she still blushes when she remembers holding hands for the first time. What if we remembered when we look at someone who has lost her luster that she once had command of her days, once struck out in life knowing where she was going and fixing her internal compass in that direction. What if we remembered she survived childbirth, and in doing so, learned she could now survive anything.

And yes, my precious friend has just bid her mother farewell and her heart feels as if it is breaking. Her mother would tell her she will be okay, that life is travelling the road as it is meant to, and she would be the first to slap her knee and say what’s next and let’s get on with it. I hope Angie finds comfort in remembering her mother bustling around the kitchen, sewing great creations, her fingers knowing exactly what to do with hardly any thought, her wonderful laugh and willingness to find the joy in absolutely everything, her good-natured teasing and encouraging, her no-nonsense view of life, never asking more of anyone than she asked of herself and her always being up for any kind of fun with her laugh always locked and loaded. So, I won’t remember Gertie as she was waiting for release from her failed body, but I will remember who she still was inside, right to her very last breath – the woman who raised nine children and instilled in each of them a sense of purpose and curiousity and a profound ability to laugh even when it seemed impossible to laugh, who fostered and fed their musical abilities and intelligence and desire to be the best version of themselves. And who leaves them now, blessed to have called her mother and whose memories of her, all the versions of their mother will keep them warm until they too say, let’s get on with it.

ANGIE AND WENDI – University of Manitoba days – 1974

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Gratitude – Post 133 – Community

I am grateful for community, specifically the community I grew up in, in Northwestern Ontario on the Rainy River, just outside of Fort Frances.

I was thinking when I woke up this morning, while trying not to think about what may or may not happen south of the border today, November 3rd, 2020, as I sit at my desk to write, thinking about community and what it means now as compared to what it meant when I was a child.

In late spring/early summer my father would move his herd of Herefords from winter housing to summer pasture, down our long lane and across the River Road, through a barb-wire gate to fresh green pasture. It was a big deal. I felt like my siblings and I were on the Ponderosa, my father the Crozier version of Ben Cartwright. My father would make some phone calls to organize a “posse” to move the cattle. Doug and Blair would show up on horseback, Rock and Stormy their faithful steeds. Aarne, Annie and Ralph would be poised at their side of the highway and Cleve, Julia and Don on their side to prevent any strays making a run for it. But more often than not, neighbours would just appear and park their cars and wave their arms, blocking off potential “off ramps” and held their ground as the herd moved up our lane and across the highway. The older cows knew the drill having done it before, the younger ones falling in behind the leaders. It was usually uneventful in terms of escapees, the cows following my father’s voice more than they were chased, but oh my goodness it was exciting. The cows were bawling as they ran, the spring calves leaping and bounding as though with springs on their feet. There were whistles and shouts and sometimes the honking of horns and it was an utterly glorious chaos.  

The sense I had as a child was being part of a collective, a group of nondescript neighbours who would step up at any chance to lend a hand to each other when the need arose, often without plea or invitation. I remember the feeling of excitement, my stomach bubbling, my hands clutched in front of me to hold me together. I remember feeling immense pride for my father, his voice calming and steadying his cows, and the comfort that came from the feeling of belonging, the sense of community.

People went for drives on Sundays, dropping in to see friends when I was a kid. This wasn’t a choreographed event, but rather an impulse – pile into the car and see where you end up. Winter Sunday afternoons were meant for tobogganing and our hill was often covered with friends, with dogs running up and down, with children of every size. A huge pot of cocoa was brewing on the stove for after, when everyone came in to warm up. My mother would often bake a cake on Saturday, and the cake sat in the fridge at the ready in case someone “dropped in” and it was a “hands off” sort of thing, until further notice. Though Saturday was house-cleaning day, I don’t think it mattered if things were out of order if someone dropped by on Sunday. We didn’t fret or fuss to make the house look as though no one lived in it, ready for a photo shoot for Better Homes and Gardens. Life was cluttered and sometimes messy and you made the best of it. Sometimes the storm windows weren’t taken off until summer was in full swing. The grass got cut when someone had time, when we were little, and more regularly when we, the children were responsible. Mud behaved like hitchhikers, following us indoors without invitation, horsehair clung to every piece of clothing my sister and I had, and dust was a living breathing dragon. My mother may have worried about appearances, but if she did, she never let on.

No one drops in anymore, not without announcement or invitation. We’re all too busy, too afraid of interfering, of interrupting, or inconveniencing. I wouldn’t think of doing the “pop in”, as Jerry Seinfeld called it, to any of my friends without calling first. Why is that? What has changed? Is it the telephone, the internet? Is it that we now care more about what we look like than who we are? I hope not.

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Gratitude – Post 132 – Grandpa Stewart

I am grateful for my Grandpa Stewart. He took me on adventures, before I was old enough for school and while my father was busy clearing land and though it seems in my memory as if there were only a few such adventures, the importance is found in the details.

Frank Ezra Stewart, his middle name exotic to me, was my grandfather. I do not know a single other person with Ezra in the middle of a name or otherwise. My grandfather was amazed by the magic of cameras and as a result, photography became his hobby, a passion he passed along to my father. He crafted fine furniture, especially the size that would fit inside the doll house he built for his granddaughters, my sister and me. His adventures included walking in the woods with me in tow, walking back as far as the beaver dam on our farm, which was quite a hike for a five-year-old. He always brought along a small tin pail for me to carry and with it his wise words. “If you are carrying a pail to gather up treasures you come across, you will always see something you would otherwise have missed,” he said. And he was right. The only salamander I ever saw in my whole entire life was while on adventure with my grandfather and while carrying his pail. I didn’t carry the salamander home with me, but I did spend a lot of time examining its interesting body, the flecks on the side of it and its shiny blue back and how it slithered more than walked, but always in a hurry. We found the salamander under a log and no matter how many logs I turned over after that grandfather adventure, I never saw another.

Grandpa Stewart took me to the Alberton Municipal Office, a small white building that seemed more like a playhouse than anything else. I remember it being only one room, but I suspect that isn’t accurate. He opened the giant ledgers on his desk, and those ledgers seemed to fill the entire space, the covers thick and heavy, the pages wide, and the numbers he entered in the columns on those pages were precisely formed, each number a work of art. He was the keeper of all the important kind of information that a municipality needs to keep. Those ledgers housed the secrets, the instructions, the magic clues of life, in number form, written by his hand.

I had a lot of questions for my grandfather while we walked, most of them beginning with the word why, and the one that sticks in my mind is why do the leaves turn colours? He gave me a scientific answer, while I gathered leaves for my pail – the chlorophyll that allows a plant to make food from the sunlight is reabsorbed to be used in the next growing season and this allows the other colour pigments in the leaves to show through. He would have made the explanation plausible to someone my age, but I remember him pausing mid-sentence, as if examining his own concept of the process. “It’s magic,” he finally said. As I grew up, the sense of autumn magic prevailed.

I walk along the roads in my neighbourhood now and though the trees are mostly of the conifer variety – hemlock and pines and balsam – there are enough maples and birch for the forest to sing like an autumn philharmonic choir. As a result, autumn is my favourite season of the year. I remember being told, and I don’t remember by whom, but the words have stuck with me all these years – Leaves don’t fall in the autumn, they fly. A happier image there is not.

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