Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Happy Blog News

A few weeks ago, I learned about the stats option on my blog, whereby I can see that you all are out there.

Now I've learned that I can change the settings so that you don't need a Google account to comment here.

I'm expecting you peeps to say more here now.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Family Christmas

Family holidays tend toward complication in my extended family. That's just how it is. The flip side of it is that there is also a lot of laughter and music, good food and fun.

I admit I was more worried that usual about what complication might look like this year. Nine or ten months ago, my brother and his wife announced they were divorcing. Two weeks ago, my grandmother broke her hip and went through a week of hell in the hospital. My parents, upon whom the caregiving burden falls very heavily, had lost their senses of humour in the last few weeks.

My sister was hosting in her new house in Toronto, a beautiful house, well-suited for absorbing crowds. Plans ranged from "show up whenever you like" to "we must all wear red." We prepared food, wrapped gifts and set out, hearts in our throats, hoping for the best.

At the last minute, my brother's dog kennel cancelled his reservation for his Boxer. The dog made the trip and was accommodated in my other sister's basement, with hopes that he would Behave.

There was less drama than I feared. The conversation was somewhat scatological, thanks to my mom's hospital stories and my sister's tales of her three young kids. Dave woke up with a full-blown wicked cold and slept half the day away.

There was more joy than we dared to hope for. The dog did behave. My other sister brought Christmas crackers that contained musical horns, each set at a different pitch, and a songsheet to direct us in Christmas carols. Two people cleared the table, mid-song, so we had no notes 3 and 8. Note 5 thought it funny to play at random intervals. Note 2 - who was keen - had surprisingly few notes. Note 1 kept coughing. Note 4 stopped to eat and drink. Our gifts were appreciated and we appreciated the gifts we received. My sister, who is seven months pregnant, took my kids and hers swimming. My mom got a much-needed break, letting other people cook and tidy up. She got great gifts, really well-suited to who she is.

My brother, who talked of the neighbours he was meeting and the people he was getting to know in his work at a bank, spoke of how he had been struck repeatedly by the fact that, even within a family, every person had different values and priorities.

With minimal drama, that was perhaps what struck me most at Christmas. I wanted to be able to decide that my way was right, but I couldn't exactly. My siblings and I are sometimes drastically different in our priorities and choices. And, old sibling squabbles do break out if we spend terribly much time in close proximity to each other.

But, I thoroughly enjoyed having our different choices brush up against one another over Christmas. At times, I felt appalled and at other times envious. I got ideas from my sibs and saw them nod at some of my own. For days afterward, I was fascinated by the different measures of success we each use, the different priorities we have, even coming from the same family.

And yet...I have to admit that part of me heaved a sigh of relief to head for home, family Christmas successfully weathered for another year.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Sucre a la Creme

It was a very bad idea to read about someone making Sucre a la Creme. And an error in judgment to google the recipe. A crime to make it. A mistake to taste test it. A problem to shave bits off to even up the rows.

So I will make amends by sharing the recipe with you, Gentle Reader.

Sucre a la Creme is a traditional, oh-so-simple Quebecois fudge. We often buy a chunk of it while we are in Quebec. Sans preservatives, my version is similar but actually even better.


Here you go:

In a microwave-safe large bowl, combine 1 cup each sugar, brown sugar, whipping cream. Cook in microwave for five minutes. Stir. Cook another five minutes. Stir. (I added a splash of vanilla at this point.) Let sit five minutes. Beat with electric mixers on high for 4 minutes. Pour quickly into buttered 8 x 8ish casserole dish. Cover and refrigerate until set. Then, sample and REJOICE!

Friday, December 17, 2010


I wanted to go dancing last night, or to see a movie that would pull the tears from my eyes. I had spent a lot of the day - between work assignments and meetings and other parts of life - advocating for my grandmother to get her surgery. Which, I might add, she still hasn't had. We're hoping, in a realistic way, that it will be tonight.

All this to say that I'm more than a bit spent emotionally. So maybe that's partly why this story hit me hard, but maybe there's more to it too. Maybe there's something in it that should hit me no matter what else is going on in my life.

My oldest son is in grade 8. Last week he told me he was part of two Secret Santa exchanges - one within his homeroom and the other with Athletic Council. The AC one involved four one-dollar presents with clues, followed by a ten-dollar gift and reveal. The classroom one was simpler - one ten-dollar gift on the appointed day. He had planned to spend his own money on all these gifts, but I offered to give him ten dollars or so, to help subsidize the expenses.

He got nice gifts along the way and then a box of gourmet jelly beans on the last day. The problem was the gift HIS Secret Santa received.

It was a used, cigarette smoke-scented stuffed duck.

My son explained that the kid who gave it came from a poor family, but that the kid was always joking around and never took things seriously in class, so he figured the gift was partly from a lack of means and partly as a joke.

We were less sure. And my heart broke.

Apparently the duck has become a kind of mascot already. It has been regifted along with some chocolate, and people think the duck is awesome. Except not on its own as a Secret Santa gift.

All the exchanges were optional and at least one person opted out of one of them, so she could focus on the other exchange. The giver of the duck didn't have to participate. There would have been no stigma in not participating. But he did and he gave a duck.

Our family talked about this at length. About what the kid could have done, what the teacher could have done (our other son's class did a two-dollar exchange, and the teacher said she would bring a couple of extra gifts in case either a child forgot or was unable to purchase a gift), what the school could have done. My son said another class did a more extravagant exchange: with four three-dollar gifts followed by a twelve-dollar one. Did that teacher not think? Is school designed for the wealthy? My husband's school identifies kids whose families are in need and makes sure they quietly give a gift to those kids, so that they don't go without at Christmas. He also said that sometimes programs that make it easier for kids to participate can encourage them to stay in their current situation, rather than either saying no to participation or finding a means of earning income themselves.

I hate child poverty. I really do. Because what choices do kids really have? A lot of my work has been with charities that come up with good solutions for child poverty, but it's so dreadfully wrong. It upsets me to no end that the duck smelled of cigarette smoke, because I wonder how many packs of cigarettes could have been foregone to buy a Secret Santa gift.

My family has choices. We don't choose to buy into every program the school offers, nor every trend, but we can find money for kids to participate in the activity of their choice. Some kids don't have that luxury. Some kids, at precisely the age where peers mean so much, jokes that deflect attention must be cultivated and excuses must be made, don't have choices.

And worse, some kids don't have the choice to eat in the morning.

The really awful thing is that more than one in seven Canadian kids lives with this on a regular basis.

I don't know what to do.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Victory Garden

I kind of finished a draft of my book, The Victory Garden, this week. Today, with sick kids and still waiting for my Grandma to have her surgery, I went through and put it all in the same font and adjusted the spacing and the indents at the front of paragraphs.

I've been looking forward to this part of the process.

It's kind of like the part in a jigsaw puzzle where you have all the border done and you've separated the green parts from the blue parts. Everything is on the table now and you have some idea of where it will all go.

This draft came together really quite quickly - five months - but it's partly because it's the third book with the same characters, so I know them well, and partly because I pondered and researched all summer and then exploded into writing when the kids and husband returned to school this fall. Also, because paid work has been spotty all autumn.

There are two major challenges with the book right now.

One is that it's too happy. If you read early drafts of my first novel with these characters, you may find that hard to believe, but it's true. I need to really look at whether it's legitimately happy or whether it's cheesy.

The second problem is that it's a bit more of a play than a novel. Today as I was indenting every paragraph, I was struck by how often my characters toss lines back and forth with each other. As I said, I know the characters well - I know how they talk and there's a good rhythm to their dialogue. What needs fleshing out - and a lot more - is the setting. I realized early this fall that this was happening with the book. It was very peculiar because when we were in the town that inspired the book this summer, I sucked in the atmosphere of the place, made detailed notes, really inhabited the place. And then, as the story of the characters took hold, it might as well have been set on a dusty stage with blackout curtains behind them. Well, not quite. Still, that's one of the things that needs addressing.

What I can never remember now is how to do this. Do I print off a copy? keep notes of repairs needed? cut and paste in literal ways? There is no actual right way, I suppose. You do whatever works and that can be different from story to story. I have written books longhand and books on the computer.

What I do know is that this revision process stretches my brain like nothing else I know. I have to simultaneously keep the big picture and the little details in mind. Try doing that for a while. Sometimes it feels like a muscle is being exercised between my ears. For real.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

My Grandma

It would happen at a church ladies' party.

My grandmother, who is 90 and a half, changed churches two months ago after her old church closed due to lack of attendance. She decided which church she would attend - one that the majority of her friends would be going to - and started going, without missing a single Sunday.

Today, she was at one of their houses for a Christmas lunch after church, and put her hand out on a chair to steady herself as she crossed the room. The chair, as it turned out, was none too steady itself, resting on the edge of the carpet and a wooden floor. It slipped out from underneath her and she fell down, landing on her hip, unable to move.

They called the ambulance, called my parents. I got a call to say she was en route to the hospital. I was home with my influenza-ridden, feverish son. There was a lot of snow between me and the hospital so I stayed here and did laundry, prayed, made supper, imagined the worst, shoveled the driveway three times and waited.

About six years ago, I sent her a bouquet of flowers because I wanted to give her flowers while she was still living, while she could smell the roses. She was somewhat creeped out and told me she had lots of living left to do, but thanks for the lovely bouquet. I want to send her flowers tonight but she's stuck on a spinal board in emergency, drugged up on morphine.

I've been thinking lately about the passage of time, how my kids are big kids at Christmas, how things just change - sometimes for the better and sometimes not. When my oldest turned one, I remember thinking that I had savoured his first year of life like nothing else, and even still, it was over. This past summer, I watched a documentary about the street artist Banksy that also told about an obsessive videographer whose mother had died while he was at school, when he had no idea she was even very ill. For the rest of his life, he had tried to catalogue every moment, taking endless video of mundane and important moments. He never watched the videos again, but he could.

My grandma looked after me for much of the first year of my life, while my mom worked. We both have always enjoyed cooking and people. We share a faith. She calls me dear. I would call her homely, but you would probably misunderstand and assume I meant ugly, when I mean radiantly beautiful in the same kind of way Mother Teresa was beautiful. The food she makes is delicious - paper-thin oatmeal cookies spread with cold date paste, bean soups, carrot cake. Simple foods well made. I can see her shadow side too, but I've always been one of her favourites and she is certainly mine.

This past year, I had a chance to honour her by throwing her a big birthday bash. It was a great success and she loved every minute of it. I've also spent the fall writing a book that rehearses my grief for a time when she is gone: one of my characters recovers from the death of her beloved grandmother and makes it through on the other side. But first she goes through what she calls "my hard year." The first year after someone dies or something bad happens is very hard because you can say, this time last year, we...

She told me this fall, at a time when her medicine for various ailments was out of whack and she felt horrible, that she still had tremendous quality of life and lots of living to do. Today, I clung to that. Dave was going out to do errands and I asked him if he would stop at Canadian Tire to pick up something my grandma mentioned recently she needed, a new mailbox. It's sitting on our kitchen counter now, waiting for her to come home to get my love letters.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Best Little Christmas Pageants

Imogene Herdman: I'm going to be Mary in the Christmas play. And if you try to be, or raise your arm, you'll wish you didn't.
Alice Wendlekin: I'm always Mary in the Christmas play.
Imogene Herdman: Go ahead then. And next spring when the pussy-willows come out, I'm going to stick a pussy-willow so far down your ear where nobody can reach it. And it'll sit there and grow and grow and grow so for the rest of your life, there'll be a pussy-willow bush growing out of your ear.

My husband is the staff sponsor for the Muslim Association at his school. He asked them once if they would be offended by a Christmas assembly. They looked at him like he was crazy. Of course not, they said. Go right ahead.


Last year, our daughter was Santa Claus for a third of a school play in which the Claus had developed amnesia about the true meaning of Christmas. Different classes of children tried to jog his memory with songs and dances. In the end, two children who decided to make the day meaningful for others reminded Santa that Christmas was about love and compassion.


Tonight I went to the smartest school Christmas event I had ever been to: we were each given a program with precise times on it. At those designated times, classes came on stage and sang a song. My son sang Dona Nobis Pacem as a canon with his class. Some chairs were set up, but many people came and went between songs. The rest of the school was set up as an Open House. There was face painting, a family literacy centre where you could write letters to Santa or follow a writing prompt about Christmas. There was a room in which I was nearly dragged into learning how to mambo with Santa. One could learn origami, learn about celebrations around the world, do a variety of Christmas crafts and songs. Students organized a coffeehouse with donated hot drinks and cookies, with all proceeds going to support education in Pakistan. Mittens and hats were collected for cold fingers and heads in the community. People of all faiths and nationalities came together to have fun as families as a school family. It was creative and compassionate. The teachers could participate as they chose: no one got stressed out, except possibly the music teacher, but I suspect stress is a requirement in a music teacher's contract.


I've been in a few Christmas pageants. I remember dying to be Mary as a child in the Presbyterian Church, but Fiona Yeudall always got to be her. (I did not threaten her.) I have no idea what I got to be though. Maybe a shepherd. I did get to sing a solo in verse 2 or 3 on Christmas Eve when our junior choir sang See Amid the Winter Snow. One of the first years we were married,we helped out in a Nativity Tableau in my uncle's church which was held in a wedding chapel in Burlington. I played the piano. My dad and my husband got to be shepherds. They came in pretty early and had to stay kneeling on bended knee for a long time. I knew my husband was close to losing it when he started turning the stuffed sheep's head around to gawk at the audience.


I have been to some very very dead Holiday Evenings where political correctness drowned out spirit more than Scrooge ever could have. I've also been to evenings I've loved, where the door is opened wide so that all faiths and their music are welcomed.

But, while I believe in the Christ of Christmas and the story is still filled with wonder and truth and joy for me - Fear not. Glory to God in the highest - it's just I'm not sure it's always the most religious pageants that have the most sense of what the first Christmas was really about. That Christmas was a time when God came to be with us and showed up to the most unlikely people in the most difficult conditions in a way that they were able to respond with incredulous joy

Ralph Herdman: What did she says the play is called?
Leroy Herdman: "Christmas Pageant."
Ollie Herdman: That's no name. That's what it is.
Gladys Herdman: I know a name. I'd call it "Revenge at Bethlehem."

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Green Stars

I got married in 1991, a time when the most beautiful colours were forest green and dusty rose. I had a fondness for a country look (sans ducks and plaid) and so, where most of my friends were opting for duvets, I wanted a quilt for our marriage bed - a dusty rose and forest green quilt.

My grandmother – who was buying us a bedroom suite – told me that she had a cousin who would make us a quilt, for relatively little money. Her cousin’s name was Tiny. Tiny lived in Exeter, Ontario, and one day, my grandmother drove me up to Tiny’s place to talk about what I wanted.

You would think I would remember what Tiny looked like, but I don’t. I remember our conversation where she steered me away from 100% cotton to a cotton-poly blend, told me I didn’t want a pure white background – it would be too stark, said yes, it could have a great deal of forest green in it, and that I should send her the different fabrics and she would make the quilt.

I visited fabric stores and bought single yards of a variety of fabrics, mostly floral patterns in pinks, greens, purples and blues. The pattern that felt the most daring was an off-white with baby blue alphabet letters dancing across it. To me that pattern was the promise of children who would trace their hands across the stars of the quilt, find letters they recognized and patterns they liked. Imaginary children who would come out of this bed, from under this quilt.

The quilt arrived in a garbage bag, rolled up. I unrolled it and was a bit daunted. The green fabric Tiny had used to make prominent bars around each colourful star was a brilliant kelly green. But – as I did on the morning of my wedding when the flowers arrived and they were lovely and absolutely other than what I had ordered – I nodded my head and accepted what had arrived.

Our first home was a narrow apartment in a post-war divided house on the west side of Toronto. It was an ugly neighbourhood but the buses ran by the door, it was halfway between our parents and I was seduced by the rounded doorways, the burnished wood trim and the old radiators. Plus, I could see a billboard from my kitchen window if I looked straight up. The quilt kept us warm two winters there, one in a townhouse that felt luxuriously spacious by contrast, and about a dozen years in our first home in Waterloo.

By then, three children had arrived and two cats had clawed their way across the bed. One child was even born in the bed, although with the quilt removed for the occasion. I don’t recall a child ever tracing letters or patterns, but the green bars served as benchmarks for babies, lain on the bed to be photographed to see how they had grown.

Some of the fabric looked nearly new, some had faded and others had frayed and torn quite badly. I should have sewn each tiny hole closed each time one appeared, but I didn’t. A finger would catch on a piece of fabric, or a toe, or a cat paw and it would pull a little farther.

A friend was an excellent seamstress. I hired her to sew a few replacement stars, and to insert them into the quilt.

One day a few years later, I went to the outlet mall and bought a new burgundy and navy quilt, probably made in China, certainly not made by Tiny. It never worked for us – it was heavy and it reminded me of the time I had bought it – not a terribly happy time.

We stayed at a cottage and slept under feather down duvets and melted with delight. A few years later, we decided we would buy a duvet. I gave the burgundy quilt away but the green starred quilt got tucked away into a cedar chest.

This year, we moved our tall teenaged son into a double bed. For a while, we turned the comforter he had used on a single bed, sideways, and this worked until the weather grew cold. I wish I had a duvet like yours, he said.

One day, spontaneously, I put our duvet on his bed and reached into the cedar chest for the old green quilt. It sits on our bed now. It’s thinner than it used to be and there are two or three stars that badly need mending. But somehow I like it.

Nearly twenty years later, I still like it.