Old-Fashioned Christmas

In the early 1960s, our school in Hamilton still furnished their classrooms with rows of old-fashioned wooden desks, attached to each other.  They were marked up by decades of fidgety youngsters and leaky inkpots.  When they were replaced by the newer, shinier individual desks, the old ones were stored in our barn for years, along with old milk cans and other stuff destined to be part of the antiques world some day.

And that’s how I ended up with this particular item, evidently the row’s back seat.  It has a sentimental value, like many other things in my home. There’s the sampler I stitched in my 20s, reminiscent of the needlework young girls would make years ago.  There’s the cookie tin that belonged to my Dad’s mother, the only tangible item we have that belonged to her.  There’s the doll, wearing clothes that once fit a baby daughter.  There’s the jazz singer statue we picked up in New Orleans.  There are the children’s gifts and the Mother’s Day cards.

When we had to clear our parents’ home, we took the precaution of asking our aunt to go over things before they were recycled or discarded.  They weren’t necessarily things that would be valued on the market.   The old couch that we lounged on as teenagers was still in use forty years later.  There were the leather hangers my uncle had made.  There was the first radio my Mom bought with her first hospital wage earnings.  It was costly at the time, but she had an amazing radio reception from her perch on the Hamilton escarpment, sometimes even tuning into Dutch broadcasts.

It’s Christmas time, and again we bring up the boxes from under the basement stairs.  Many ornaments have been part of the collection for years.  The tree is smaller, but the creche, Sinterklaas, the carol singers, the angels, the nutcrackers are arranged once more around the room.  The wreath is hung up on the door, and the snowmen arranged in the front hallway.  It’s not even for the kids, as the family Christmas isn’t here this year.   It’s for us.

In a children’s book much beloved by my children, a young boy named Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge reaches out to an old woman to help her remember again.   A shell stirred up memories of the wonderful summer days when she collected them on the beach as a child.  Similarly, as we hold them in our hands, things seem insignificant, but they remind us of people and places and special times of our lives.

So, for now, they’re staying.




My imaginary childhood heroine was named Suzie, a choice likely influenced by the little girl who lived in the wealthy household where my aunt was working as a maid.  Sometimes when the family was away, I could stay with my aunt and revel in the luxury there.  Imagine, a princess bed!  Imagine, a real life attic you could play in!  Beautiful clothes, wonderful dolls and toys!  To a child of recent Dutch immigrants, such amenities were so far beyond having that it was the stuff of dreams.

That Suzie lived in a mansion that was set in a landscaped property at the end of a long, tree-lined driveway.  But if she was imported into my old farmhouse life, she was a princess in disguise who had been hidden away so that she would not be kidnapped.  Suzie was brave and strong, and never complained.  Suzie was the only girl, not one of four, a clear supply and demand devaluation.  In real life, people smiled at my little brother in sympathy and talked about what it would be like to have so many mothers.

But imaginary Suzie was feminine and pampered, and celebrated for being a girl.  She wore frills and lace and crinoline petticoats and fancy button shoes.  Even though you couldn’t get into our farmhouse attic, Suzie and I knew it was there, and we conjured all kinds of mysteries from the 100 years of its existence.  When my cousins would come for sleepovers, I would spin dramatic Suzie tales.

And Suzie was not above using her feminine wiles to get out of difficult situations.  I might be impulsive and klutzy, but Suzie was always graceful.  Suzie did not have onerous household chores to do, like polishing the silver on Saturday mornings.  Suzie didn’t have parents who were busy with work and a growing family.

There simply wasn’t time for frills and pampering in the immigrant struggle to establish homes in a new land.  In Europe, the women could take leisurely afternoons to do their fine needlework, but here that was a luxury only possible on wintry evenings. While my parents felt suspended in a kind of limbo between two worlds, we children struggled with shallow roots in the Canadian soil.

It’s only as time passed that I realized that this prosaic life, too, could be raw literary treasure.  Pragmatic, practical people lived workaday lives, but they also loved to gather to recount adventures, to laugh uproariously at some of their predicaments and misunderstandings with language.  A different kind of art emerged from the stuff of their lives and their hardiness.   So that being feminine also revealed resourcefulness and pluck, and a strong determination to endure.

There’s more than one way of being a girl.  And more than one way of telling her story.


A Colourful Life


We live in the country, but within a short distance are coffeehouses, shops, restaurants, a library and theatre.  As I walk the sidewalks and down the hill into the village, my solitary life becomes participation in a panorama.  There are people cutting grass, shingling rooftops, walking dogs, hammering on construction projects, smiling a greeting.

These beautiful fall days seem to beg gathering up and  I want to savour them as if they were crisp harvest apples.  The leaf canopy has exploded in vivid colour and I’m scuffling through leaves on my walk.  New vistas appear teasingly over the lake as the trees bare their branches.


A colourful life is a kind of euphemism for saying that perhaps the colouring was done outside the parameters of polite society.  But as we age along with family and friends, we are constantly reminded that our life under the sun is so fragile, our time so limited.  We hunger for riotous colours, see them in the plants and the animals and in odd-looking creatures lurking deep in the oceans.

Truly all of us have the opportunity to live a colourful life.  We just need to open our eyes to the multi-hued world around us, open our imagination to the worlds inside of us.  To stop rushing blindly on, and to celebrate the gifts of our Creator.


Working in the Apple Orchard

Autumn and the fulfillment fruit
Of blossoms’ beauty back in May
Clothes discarded on limbs of trees as
Chilly morning warms to the day.

Strapping on a basket
Reaching among the branches laden
To pluck the ripe red apples there
Cradled gently in their haven.

In autumn sunshine, the warmth
Beams on my upturned face.
A tiny owl stares unblinkingly
From its dark recess, a hidden place.

And I am filled with gratitude
Happy in the time spent there.
For all too soon the cold winds blow.
I breathe the purest, freshest air.

Fiery Trial

Gerd Altman, Pixabay

Isaiah 43:2
 When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.

Awhile ago, my sister compiled a family history, which included a list of more than a few times when we’ve come through the flames.  From my grandfather, found badly hurt on his driveway after a household fire, to my father whose hair never grew back to its original wave after a bakery oven explosion,  to my uncle who set fire to his kitchen frying croquettes in oil one Christmas Eve, to my son who ended up looking like a scorched comic character after attempting to light his ancient gas furnace.  Amazingly, miraculously, each one survived these encounters.

These are only a few examples, and only the outer incidents.  There are times in my life when the anger has raged hot in my life as well, threatening to set ablaze everything in its path.  And, like a forest fire, it seems to leave only devastation in its wake. a charred landscape.    No one likes to feel this way, and it’s physically very hard on a body.  But anger does have its place.

Fire has an aspect of purification, of burning away much of the chaff, of sending anything that doesn’t belong to the surface to be skimmed away.  Sometimes the anger is a necessary precursor, a gathering of energy to fight injustice, to provide impetus for action.  The trick is to keep it from getting out of control.

In the Old Testament story, Daniel’s three friends survived the fiery furnace because they were not alone.  There was someone with them, “like the son of the gods.”   When life’s searing experiences seem to destroy everything you hold dear, it’s time to hold on to that thought.  In nature, everything is part of a life cycle, and God, nature’s Creator, does not waste anything either.  As we trust in His allowing of these experiences, we come to sense His reassuring presence, to trust that He will set things right someday.

One of the gifts of living a long life is the opportunity to look back and see how what was truly valuable came to light in times of testing and trial.  To realize who was a faithful friend, to realize that people matter far more than objects and status and pride.

Months after a blaze, new growth appears on the forest floor, rising Phoenix-like out of the ashes.  The old has been scorched away, and light can reach the tender young saplings that are sending down roots in the now enriched soil. And so a new landscape emerges, a new celebration of life.

“What is to give light must endure burning.”   Viktor Frankl


The Web


We had only been away for about five days, but in the damp September air, conditions proved perfect for our backyard spider to spin an elaborate web to trap unwary late-summer insects.

Because of the woods and the moisture of the nearby lake, nature’s growth thrives here.  We keep a constant vigilance to make sure it doesn’t take over our little bit of civilization. The shoot of a young sapling can spring up to knee-size in our garden within a few weeks.   It may be an odd thought, but it seems that even hair grows faster in this setting (although admittedly, the nearby village still has its share of bald pates, so this is an untested theory).

Our humble arachnid is named after the Greek woman who so flaunted her weaving skills she was punished by the goddess Athena.  There is such near-perfection in the web’s design, it’s understandable that it provokes jealousy.

The web is beautiful, but it can be easily destroyed.   It’s like the fragile interconnectedness which links all of us, the silvery web-strands of virtual connections we now take for granted as part of our world.  It’s so amazing and powerful and beautiful that we can easily become like Arachne who, with hubris, challenges Divinity.

The Legend of the Spider and the Silken Thread Held in God’s Hand

There’s an old Danish Legend with a lesson for us all
Of an ambitious spider and his rise and fall,
Who wove his sheer web with intricate care
As it hung suspended somewhere in midair,
Then in soft, idle luxury he feasted each day
On the small foolish insects he enticed as his prey.

Growing ever more arrogant and smug all the while
He lived like a ‘king’ in self-satisfied style –
And gazing one day at the sheer strand suspended
He said “I don’t need this” so he recklessly rended
The strand that had held his web in its place
And with sudden swiftness the web crumpled in space.

And that was the end of the spider who grew
So arrogantly proud that he no longer knew
That it was the strand that reached down from above
Like the cord of God’s grace and His infinite love
That links our lives to the great unknown.
For man cannot live or exist on his own.

And this old legend with simplicity told
Is a moral as true as the Legend is old.

Anonymous, found in an old Bible circa 1940