Monday, December 29, 2014

A Glimpse of a Girl

Once upon a time in England, lived a quiet, shy girl, who loved nothing more than to lose herself in the pages of a book. She also loved to draw, write and take photographs. When she was 12 she started 5 years of Domestic Science classes at school, in which she discovered a passion for cooking. She loved English, art and history and singing hymns. When not reading or drawing, she was always busy sewing, knitting or doing embroidery.

The year she turned 12 her parents gave her a five year diary for Christmas. It only lasted her for four years because once she turned 16 she couldn't fit everything she wanted to say into the small space available.
In 1963 her father made his two children a heavy wooden sled, (which English children call a "sledge.") It was painted maroon, and because he also nailed aluminum strips to the wooden runners, it ran as swift as the wind! That winter the girl developed chilblains--painful itchy patches on the backs of her heels, from prolonged time spent outside in the cold in damp footwear.

This is what she wrote on this day, December 29th, over the four years she kept the diary! 

Daddy's finished our sledge. But a sledge isn't much good without snow. Oh, for the fun of whizzing down the hill at top speed. 

Today the snow thawed a little and I was the only girl on the sledge track. They waited for me to go down and then raced down after me and pelted me with snow.

Today the ice thawed and then froze again. There was a queue of about 20 cars up Bear Hill. One overturned and another skidded right around. I had a Christmas card from Han. It was sweet; much nicer than the one I sent him. I realize now that I never really liked Andrew. It was four months ago exactly yesterday since I met Han at Eskaline's party.

After work today Eileen phoned to invite me over on Saturday night. Di phoned later, when I was having a bath, so I had a mad dash out. I helped Margaret type out some addresses. It is nice to spend an evening at home for a change. There are so many little things to do. Di has done her hair like mine.

On December 30, 1966 she wrote:
Tomorrow will be the last time I write in this diary. Sad in a way, but I've grown out of the ink blot and funny lyrics on the fly page stage. I wonder what will become of me in the next year. So much has happened in the past two years especially...I cleared my bedroom out tonight. That has changed too, from a mess of school books and satchels to a place full of little bottles of perfume and boxes full of treasures and mysterious sweet smelling jars.

It is hard to believe that the girl that I was, wrote those words almost 50 years ago! Eileen is still my friend--we spoke by phone just yesterday, but Diana, mentioned in the 1966 entry, died in January 2003 of breast cancer. We were friends to the end.

Although I haven't recently whizzed down a hill on a sled, all the things I loved then, I love now.

I felt so completely different to everyone else in my family back then that I wondered if I had been planted among them by aliens. It has taken all of the intervening decades to relax into my skin and recognize that like every other person in the world, I have my place and unique purpose to fulfill, just as I am. My purpose, and how it fits with all that I am, unfolds daily.

I don't believe God is threatened by our questions and uncertainties, and as I continue my journey of life, it is as a seeker of God's truth; growing in an ever deeper understanding of who he is and who and how we should be that rings true to my heart and spirit. From girlhood to womanhood the journey of growth continues!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Life of Celebration

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

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

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

"And we celebrated everything!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Traditions Held Dear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Happy to be "Here"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Sale of the Century is indefinitely postponed!

Sunday, November 23, 2014


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

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

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

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

"I worked at Ardills!" I said.

"When?" asked Magda.

"1969," I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Prayer for Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 10, 2014

In Remembrance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Leaving Mish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Gentle Teachers

When we got permission to stay at Missabay Community School for our week in Mish, I thought that our team would occupy the sprawling large school alone, since it was closed for the summer. But that was not the case. People came and went at all hours. I got up early each morning to have time alone, and sometimes; as I padded my way to the girls' washroom on bare feet, with the early morning sunshine pouring through the windows at 6.00 a.m.; would cross paths with Marita the custodian, coming down the hallway to start her day's work. 

 I was always looking for somewhere to be alone for a few minutes before the busy day got started, and one morning I thought that the office was the ideal place where I could close the door, read for half and hour, and write in my journal. But one of the staff came in to use the computer and started filling out some paperwork, nodding hello to me and carrying on with his business as I sat awkwardly with my journal. It dawned on me slowly that we were invading space belonging to other people, but they, whether out of kindness or politeness, never made us feel that way. Instead they graciously shared the school with us.

There was laughter in the air every day from the Ojibway people at the school; a gentle "He he he!" as they joked with one another. I never heard voices raised in anything but laughter.

Marita sat quietly on the bench lining the wall, hands folded in her lap, when we were at the dining room table having breakfast on our first morning there. Not knowing who she was, I went over and invited her to join us ,and she smiled, nodded, and came and sat at the table. As she spoke with us, I felt humbled. She uncovered prejudices and assumptions I wasn't consciously aware of, just by her presence. She was a woman like me; a mother, grandmother, and someone who shared our faith in God, I had not realized until then that I had seen her as "other" than me.

Mary sat on the bench one morning in the same way as Marita had done, like a wallflower at a dance. I went and quietly slipped onto the bench beside her and she began spontaneously to share some of her stories with me as if she had been waiting for someone to tell them to. She was probably about my age and she told me that she had been born in the bush--women used to go into the bush then to have their babies. Sometimes as children, she said, they would watch white people in the bush from a hiding place. She laughed softly as she remembered, "They would sometimes leave little things behind for us--sandwiches or an orange, which we had never seen before, and we would creep from our hiding place and take these gifts to our parents. But they told us not to eat them, so we threw them away!"  

One day she was with her father and playing in a river in the forest when she found some shiny stones in the river that were different to the rest. When she showed them to her father, he told her, "Those special stones belong to the Creator, put them back." She did as she was told, but never forgot the beautiful stones that were so precious that her father would not take them. She has never been able to find out where the river of her childhood was.

The qualities I observed in the people we met in Mish were gentleness; a peaceful quietness; humour; love of music and dance; spirituality; and a lack of possessiveness over material things. They also asked for what they needed, something I thought that we from the south could learn from. How often I have held back from expressing a need for help out of fear of refusal or rejection; in effect robbing someone else of the gift of sharing or giving. The people of Mish had no such hangups and were my teachers in that among other things.

I often wonder what they thought of us. We came, meaning to share God's love in action. We left with so much more than we came with.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

How We Lost our Hearts

One week in Mish left me with a heart undone. I have only to close my eyes and little Tabitha is sitting beside me in the front seat of my car with her laughing, dark, almond eyes. She is smart and funny and makes me laugh when she tells me that someone wanted to buy her puppy from her. "Give me the money first and I'll give you the puppy," she said she told the potential buyer. She still had the puppy, so I guess the money didn't materialize.

As we drove into the parking lot of the community centre on Sunday, our first day on the reserve, some children ran up to our cars, recognizing members of the team from earlier visits. Christina, a spunky little girl with a serious expression and hair falling to one side over her eyes, knocked on my car window and motioned to me to wind it down.  Her sharp eyes had spotted something of interest. Pointing to the almost empty bag of chips on the car seat, she said, "Chippies! Can I have some?" 

The children of Mish were a subculture, a tribe that ran together and free as wild ponies. Sometimes pushing boundaries and listening when they chose, they were captivated and calmed, for the most part, by the fun activities that Christy had organized.

Jamie loved the children and was determined that we pick up as many
as possible. He went from house to house letting them know of the week of activities, and he urged me to pick up Marita's three grandchildren at her house on the way to deliver the lunch.

One of the children Jamie discovered going door to door was a girl with autism named Bobby. Her parents were happy when we picked her up and she stayed as long as she wanted, included in the fun. 

There was another child with autism; young Joey; who Susan kept a watchful eye on, and Micah, who Jamie at first thought couldn't speak, but then realized that he couldn't hear.
From then on he stood facing him when he spoke so that Micah could read his lips. Micah's face was covered in a severe skin rash--excema, and he hid it by wearing a hoodie even in the 29 degree heat. It was wonderful on the last day at the beach to see Micah take off his hoodie, and splash in the water with the others, with the sun and wind on his upturned face, a visible sign of the acceptance and love that had melted his shame away.

Later that day the mother of one of the children, who had come to join us on the beach, said quietly to me, "Micah has had a rough couple of months since his mother died."

I looked at her questioningly, and she said, "Brain damage."

My heart plummeted with sadness at the hidden burdens that some of the children carried among their carefree peers. One of the elders said to Paul, "It's good that you give so much love to the kids. We don't get that at home." While I know that isn't true of everyone because I saw love for myself--I also saw brokenness; a remnant of generations of relationships torn apart and a culture shamed through the residential school system.

On the last day there were hugs and sad farewells, but there was no doubt in anyone's heart. We would come back...

Luke 18: 15-17 --The Message
People brought babies to Jesus, hoping he might touch them. When the disciples saw it, they shooed them off. Jesus called them back. “Let these children alone. Don’t get between them and me. These children are the kingdom’s pride and joy. Mark this: Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.”

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Love Gifts

Several weeks before we began our journey to Mishkeegogamang, Paul commissioned a painting to be done by our granddaughter Tippy, as a gift for Chief Connie Gray-McKay, both an honoured leader and friend. 

Tippy did her very best, painting a beautiful picture in vivid primary colours, of a crouching wolf with other creatures within its flowing frame. The colours and creatures were each chosen for their symbolism.

I was worried about it's fragility and wrapped it carefully in two soft pillowcases, surrounded by generous layers of bubble wrap. Over our three day journey I made sure that the picture was safe as luggage went in and out of the vehicle. I could not wait for Chief Connie to see it.

When we arrived though, Chief Connie was away, and not expected back until later in the week. After all of my anticipation, it felt anticlimactic to have to wait longer, and we weren't even sure if we would be able to see her then!

One of our team, Sharon, had been working on a beaded scarf for Chief Connie, finishing it on the journey. Sharon is a Metis, and for her the trip had deep personal importance. She too, was hoping to give her gift in person.

On Friday, after we got back from the beach, we decided to drive after supper to the nearby village of Ten Houses, where Chief Connie lives; Paul, Joyce (the leader of our churches' Missions Committee,) Sharon, and myself.  We thought we would take a chance that might find her at home. To our delight, her car was in the driveway. We knocked on the door, and it was opened by Chief Connie!

She and a handsome young man, whom she introduced as Apollo, one of six children, were just back from shopping for groceries, which they were still unpacking and putting away; but she welcomed us and invited us in warmly.

 It felt so exciting to place the package that had traveled 2,000 kilometers, into Chief Connie's hands at last.

I only wished that Tippy could have been there to see her delight as she opened it and saw the painting.

"Is this for my office?" she asked. 

"No, this is a personal gift for you!" said Paul. 

Chief Connie then took the painting straight to her bedroom, took down a picture that was hanging on the wall and replaced it with our gift.


 Sharon presented her scarf to the chief and that gift too, was received with deep appreciation.

Sharon had sewn 1400 beads into the scarf, each one representing a member of Mishkeegogamang Ojibway First Nation. (Today about 900 live on its two reserves, while 500 live off the reserve.)

Joyce gave greetings from our Missions Committee to the chief, a woman of deep personal faith who has worked hard to better the lives of the people she serves; battling the social problems that plague this community, as they do so many other remote communities. Under her leadership there is so much progress, obvious to repeat visitors. The visits of various teams from our church over the years, have been meant to be a support and encouragement to Chief Connie. We left her home thrilled that another part of our mission had been successfully accomplished!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

For Serenity and Neesh

Like crimson flames the leaves are turning the page on summer, but the memories continue to glow; embers that won't die.

On our last day with the children of Mish we drove them the 8 kilometers from the village and through the cemetery to the beach one last time; an end of the week celebration tinged with sadness at what that meant. 

The children ran from our cars, not to the beach at first, but to visit the small white wooden crosses marking graves, looking for those of people they knew, pointing them out to one another. Death seems an all too frequent a visitor to the families of Mish. 

"My auntie's here; she burned," said one little girl. Her tone was as matter of fact as if burning is as normal a cause of death as old age. But then, on the reserve, tragically, it is. Buildings burn often and the people in them die.
Down on the beach the first children to have arrived were already shrieking with joy. Their laughter carried up to the hilltop where I stood, at a grave from which a young man's face smiled from a photo: Gary "Neesh" Fox; he should have been the promise of the future for his community--"Top Student Phys Ed," "Most Improved Social Sciences." He died at 21 in a fire.

My heart broke and I am angry at the level of acceptance that this happens. This is not okay. It is shameful that in our proud country, people have no choice but to live in flimsy inadequate housing in which they struggle to keep warm in the bitter cold of winter. 

 In Missabay Community School, our friend, Isaiah Roundhead, pointed out one of the banners hanging among the other richly coloured hand sewn flags and banners representing other First Nations or events. This one, a single feather, he said quietly, was made in memory of Serenity. 

Last year Serenity would have been one of the children at the beach. She joined in the children's program we ran for a week. And she was one of four occupants who died when the house they were in burned down in the early hours of one morning this past February.  We saw the empty piece of land where their house used to stand.

John Kiedrowski wrote in an article in the National Post last January, that: 
The fire incidence rate is 2.4 times greater per capita than that for the rest of Canada, the fire damage per unit 2.1 times greater, the fire injury rate 2.5 times greater, and the death rate 10.4 times greater.
There are many underlying reasons for this, including substance abuse, lack of adequate housing and lack of emergency services, to name a few. 

Listen HERE to Chief Connie Gray-MacKay, on CBC Radio, February 18, 2014, responding to the tragedy in which Serenity died, and calling upon the Federal Government to address the challenges faced in making First Nations communities safe places to live for their children and grandchildren.

Serenity and Neesh, this is written so that you will be known beyond Mishkeegogamang and so that people will know of the challenges and the help that is needed for them to be overcome. 

Your lives were precious. You had promise and hope. You are not forgotten.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Prayer

In the continuing story of our week long adventure in Mish, this story of the evening after our outing to the beach on Thursday, is from Susan Stewart. 

When Paul mentioned that he was disappointed that Belinda wasn’t going to be at the community center that night to take photos, I completely understood her position.  The night before, I felt just like I suspected she felt now - like I had “hit the wall”. 

Everyone else had headed over to the community barbecue and the dance that followed it, but though my spirit was willing, my body told me in no uncertain terms, “there’s absolutely no way you’re going anywhere tonight where there are people”.  My muscles were aching and my brain was fried – to a crisp. I felt like I couldn’t answer one more question, make one more decision, or interact with one more person.  So I stayed back while everyone else went to the dance, knowing I was probably missing something very significant, and quite possibly even “wonderful” but I also knew that after a solid week of no more than 4 hours of sleep per night, I just had to stop and get myself re-centred.   I thought I would be napping, but instead, I found myself just relishing in being “alone”.  I desperately needed that time on Wednesday evening, and I could understand perfectly that Belinda needed it tonight.  It was her turn to “hit the wall” and say “no, I want to, but I just can’t”.

Paul, Jamie, and AJ had gone ahead with the truck to unload and set out the many donations that had been collected and set aside by the church back home.  Christy had gone with them too, with the keyboard, so that she could play and sing while people browsed and sorted and picked up items that they could use and which in the far north are shockingly expensive – items which we might consider staples are simply out of reach even for someone with a decent income up there.  It’s difficult to imagine how people on a limited income can make it at all. As soon as the kitchen was tidied after supper, the rest of us followed the truck to the Community Centre. 

By the time we arrived, there was already one pickup truck loaded up to capacity and pulling out of the parking lot which was abuzz with activity.   Although we were quite late by that time, there was still lots of “shopping” going on, as the contents of the truck had been laid out on the outdoor stage and people were going through boxes looking for items they could use and even a few treasures.  

Sharon pitched in and started unpacking boxes and helping people find the right sizes.  Jamie picked up some men’s ties and took them over to a man who had tried on a beautiful men’s suit and need the finishing touch.  Kids were flying by and threading their way in and out around the adults on the roller blades.  Almost everyone seemed to have a bag of chips or crackers that had come off the truck.  It felt like a party.  I headed toward the keyboard where Christy was playing, snapping a few photos and saying hello to some of the people I had come to know in our few days thereA, and of course the kids...
I felt a tug on my sleeve and looked down into  Johnny’s shining black eyes.  They were so hopeful, so imploring, with not a hint of greed.  Just hope. 

“Are there any more roller skates?”

My heart snapped in two right there.  I knew the roller blades would have been the first thing to go. And yet I wanted more than anything in the world in that moment to meet the desire of that little boy’s heart.  His request was so quiet, so humble.  There was no sense of demand in his voice, no hint of entitlement.  Just that heart-wrenching “hope”!

All I could think of was to try and comfort him in his disappointment.  “I’m so sorry Johnny!  I think the skates are all gone, but you know what?  I will pray and ask God to send you some skates.  He will hear our prayers and I’m SURE he’ll send you some skates.  Maybe Paul can bring them up next time he brings a truck.”  I made a mental note to try not to forget to go skate shopping when I got home.  I HAD to make sure that someone answered that kid’s prayer!

As I threaded my way through the crowd and the boxes toward Christy, I saw Belinda’s friend Eva there with her daughter looking for cloth to make blankets.  There were boxes of shoes and men’s suits and so many other good things that would help people through a long cold winter.  One of the first things to go was the cases of Habitant pea soup, and after seeing the price of basic food in the only grocery store in Pickle Lake, you could certainly understand why such a staple would be in high demand.

I finally reached Christy’s side and joined in the song she was singing…
“ At the cross I bow my knee
where your blood was shed for me there’s no greater love than this 
You have overcome the grave
Your glory fills the highest placeWhat can separate me now…”

Hearing her sing of God’s love for all of us in that circumstance was one of those poignant moments which will stay with me a very long time.  It was what “this” was all about-  why we were “here” in Mish.  Because God loves us – every one.  We were giving a little of our time and some of our excess  in the south, but there in the north, we were getting so much back – in different ways perhaps, but we were certainly on the receiving end.   God showed all of us riches there  that we had known nothing of in some of the lessons learned from the hearts who touched ours in Mish. 

Slowly the loaded pickups left the parking lot one by one, and the crowd gradually diminished.  We began to pack up the music equipment and speakers, and started to pile up boxes and clean up.   Christy and I loaded the keyboard into the back of my vehicle and then we headed back to clean up some more stuff.   We passed a table that had been laid out with goods, and I looked down.  I couldn’t believe my eyes…

A pair of roller blades!!!  But they couldn’t be the right size – could they?  And where was Johnny?  Even if these skates fit him, I’d never find him now.   I bent over to scoop them up.  I would set them aside and maybe – hopefully – he would be there for the children’s activities tomorrow.   “They’re probably too big,” I thought, but I figured that at the worst, he could grow into them.

I stood up with the skates and started to tell Christy the story of Johnny’s request.  As we walked and talked, there was Johnny right in front of us.  For the second time in two minutes, I couldn’t believe my eyes! 

“Johnny!”  I called, holding up my prize.  “Look!  God heard your prayer!  Skates!”  I got ready to apologize to those shining eyes because surely they couldn’t be the right size, but before I had a chance, he was down on the pavement and with Christy’s help, was strapping on his answer to prayer.  His smile was wide and, oh, did those eyes sparkle.  But I’m sure he didn’t feel half the joy I did in that moment.  And can you believe it? They fit!!! 

We finished packing up and drove back to the school with tired but happy hearts.  I couldn’t wait to tell the story to Belinda, who listened with eyes as shiny as Johnny’s. 

The next morning I found the skates on the stairs to the stage inside the Community Centre.  At first I was surprised, but as I thought it through, I realized that this was no sign of carelessness.  Rather it was evidence of one of the lessons we had learned, one of those aforementioned gifts we had been given during our time in Mish.  Possessions in this culture seem like they are loosely held, even seemingly coveted treasures and answers to prayer like Johnny’s skates had been.  Much like the boat left behind “in the water” at the beach earlier that day, and which Belinda told us about in a previous post, after a little boy had the joy of playing with those skates for a whole summer’s evening they were left behind to be discovered by another child – whose treasure they would be for another day.  Who knows how many children will end up having the use of those skates before winter’s cold creeps in and the snow falls and those roller blades will no longer be of any use.  But seeing how much they were enjoyed during the short time we were there, I’m still going skate shopping before next summer.  J

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Dogs of Mish

The dogs of Mish live on the fringes of the community, or if lucky, on a porch or under a deck.

They know their place, and it is generally not inside a house.

Sometimes we passed a puppy walking along the road at his master's heel without a leash, obviously a loved pet, but the pampered life of many pets in the south, is very different to that of the dogs of the north.

They exist like a separate tribe among the humans and are ever present. At lunch time, when Joyce and I arrived with sandwiches, spaghetti, or macaroni cheese, they circled hopefully, willing the food out of the children's hands, and if dangling at all, it would be gone. It was impossible to harden our hearts though, towards these poor beasts, so many of them sadly neglected.

There was Princess, who had evidently recently had puppies, and King who was a male version of Princess, both of them the colour of pale sand with pointy ears and curly tails. There was a big black dog, with intelligent eyes and a slash down his side that seemed to be some kind of wound or skin problem. He seemed to be the Alpha dog, but his pitiful appearance won my sympathy vote.
Photo by Susan Stewart

In spite of their hunger, they were sometimes surprisingly careful with the food they "acquired." I saw Princess trot away stealthily and vanish into the trees with a grilled cheese sandwich, instead of gobbling it on the spot. I wondered if she was taking it to her puppies, but more likely she was taking it where it would not be swiped away from her. And Tori saw a dog take some small crackers and bury them in the ground.

At the school we had visits from the two dogs that belonged to Marita, the school custodian, and lived beneath her porch. One was a tiny tan puppy, and the other was a brown and white St. Bernard, named Butch. He was shaggy and big, and drooly and he reminded me of the powerful dogs in the story of the Tinderbox, one of the fairy tales of my childhood. Tori fell in love with all of them.

We had been home just a few days when I saw a post on Facebook written by Kendra, Marita's daughter, about her two nephews, Ishmael and Salvator. She wrote that they had been fishing all day long until in the evening when they finally caught one fish. They came running up the hill with the fish, jolly and happy; until Butch ("their beastly dog," said Kendra,) came from behind and stole the fish. They chased him down but couldn't catch him. And they had been so happy...

But what is a dog to do when a fish is dangled so tantalizingly before his nose?