previous Memories items
Memories Items from 2012:
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A memory of
Madeline Going away party The comfort of drawing Nichevo
Stephania's visit The phone Nairobi Eye Fly
conversation Harry's arm The month of May Braiding Flowers Fried flowers Chicken day Rose Hip Jam Moonflower Stuff Rae Street A thin Text The doll and the kettle Balls of fire Old fashioned elections Changing spots Christmas presents
memory of Madeline
want to share a memory of Madeline and the most recent is the one I
sent in an email to Muriel:
of your mother's death came to me from Milly. I am so sad that we no
longer have Madeline with us, but so glad that she did not linger or
suffer once she was not really here.
am sorry I will not be able to come to Saskatoon to be with you all.
I would so like to be.
used to talk on the phone often but that got difficult and Madeline
stopped enjoying the calls. They confused her and her confusion
seemed to embarrass her. And then for a while there was no answer.
But one day she answered and she knew who I was. I had caught her on
a good day; she was really enjoying the chat. She never answered the
phone again so that was my last conversation with her.
day I read her the Cloud Manifesto and she enjoyed it. A few minutes
later she had forgotten my reading so I read it again, and a little
later again, and I think a fourth time. Every time she was delighted,
commenting and laughing. That intelligent laughter is how I want to
remember her. I feel blessed by that last conversation so I can
remember her laughing rather than struggling for words.
The Manifesto of the Cloud Appreciation Society
WE BELIEVE that clouds are unjustly maligned
and that life would be immeasurably poorer without
We think that they are Nature’s poetry,
and the most egalitarian of her displays, since
everyone can have a fantastic view of them.
We pledge to fight ‘blue-sky thinking’ wherever we find it.
Life would be dull if we had to look up at
cloudless monotony day after day.
We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the
atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of
a person’s countenance.
Clouds are so commonplace that their beauty is often overlooked.
They are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul.
Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save
on psychoanalysis bills.
And so we say to all who’ll listen:
up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and live life with your head
cannot express how dear your mother was to me and how much I
love and kindred spirit. You have my deepest, deepest
relay that sympathy to the rest of the family for me.
Going away party
When we were going to Kenya, we had a
going away party. Actually, it was the third going away party in a
month, each bigger then the last. All were upstairs at the Saracen's
Head in Loughborough. I don't remember who the other leavers were or
where they were going. Ours was a very large, loud party with lots of
drinking and dancing.
A friend, Mick, had asked us to stop at
his house boat in the morning before we left town and we promised to
do that. So very hungover we drove to Mike's on the way to hit the
road out of Loughborough. Mick's house boat was moored at a canal
lock on the outskirts of the town. He had spend a lot of money and
time rebuilding the boat so it was a small but beautiful space. That
morning the sun was bright and it reflected off the ripples in the
canal made a moving ripple effect over the ceiling. There were a few
friends there. There was some good food and coffee. Then a musician
arrived and got out his guitar and played. His style was like Bert
Jansch and John Renbourn on the 'Bert and John' record, very
intricate and soft.
We could not have asked for a better
few hours before we left. It was prefect.
The comfort of drawing
Though all of my childhood and
adolescence I spent time drawing or painting, as an adult I took
photography seriously for many years. I knew that I was not at all
good at painting, only fairly good at drawing, and good but not good
enough to earn a living at photography. I was reminded of how short
of what I intended to create I managed to get when I was going
through some of my mother's things and found some of my artistic
word. Shock – it was many things worse than I had thought and I had
thought it was not good. I was glad that I didn't draw anymore.
Now I only doodle (and take 'snap
shots'). I haven't tried to seriously draw anything since the 80s.
But I was doodling the other day and I realized how comforting it
was. And I realized how comforting drawing and painting was as a
youngster. That must have been what motivated me to do it, even
though I was disappointed in the results. I am still trying to figure
out why there is the comfort and going through old memories.
In our house on the farm there was a
big blackboard that an uncle has salvaged from a school. It was
mounted low enough for me to draw things – on rain days mostly. Mom
often started something off and I finished it. So reason number one:
good times in the kitchen with Mom.
Most of school was a time not to relax
– dealing dyslexia takes concentration. Being not very athletic
made recesses not very relaxing either. But when we got to draw, I
could relax. I would know that I would come out OK because my drawing
would be acceptable. I could just relax and draw. So reason number
two: escape from effort at school.
In high school there was the French
problem on top of poor reading and spelling. I was considered 'smart'
therefore I must take French so that I could go to university. French
was the bane of my life. I asked repeatedly to drop it and finally
got a deal: if I failed it again, if I could find a teacher willing
to let me start another subject in mid-year, and if I could find an
education towards a good career that didn't require French – then I
could drop it. Thus I ended up as a medical lab tech and started
taking art in mid-year. The art teacher was willing to help me out. I
believe it was because I could draw perspective lines and a couple of
other things. Not only was the art class the one class in which I
could relax, it was also being compared to French. So reason number
three: escape from failure at school.
I don't feel like that is the whole
reason for the comfortable feeling but any others that I have thought
of seem stretched and lame.
We once had a cat, Nichevo (actually I
don't remember us ever spelling it but we got the name from a Russian
Gypsy song on a record by Theodore Bikel and it means 'nothing').
Nichevo was not the only cat we ever had, we had Pussycat when
we were in Kenya. They were two very different cats.
Friends had a cat – it got pregnant –
it had kittens – then it got sick and had an operation – kittens
had to go at a very young age. We took one and it was definitely too
young to leave its mother.
We lived in a flat in Leamington Spa.
It was the ground floor of one of those old early Victorian houses
with very high ceilings and no heating except a fire place. We had
just come to England and didn't have a stick of furniture. It was
winter and we only used one room with a mattress on the floor. The
fireplace could not heat this huge space and so it was cold,
especially at night. Poor little kitten left a warm house with
carpets and a nice mommy cat for a cold empty room. There was a
fenced little back yard where she can safely play. At night she
always managed to end up on the bed (as it was on the floor, what
could stop her).
A few days after we got her, we took
our weekly trip to a disused sand pit where we used to take photos of
the swans that lived there and other things. Nichevo was scampering
around the place and got a fair distance away from us. She took a
short cut back through some very smelly water. That was a bit of a
misfortune because we could not live in the same room as a kitten
that smelt that bad – so we washed her. From then on we had to keep
washing her every once in a while because she would get very dirty
and would not lick herself. She loved the shampoos in nice warm water
and then being wrapped in a towel, rubbed by the fire and then
She really like a car ride (really).
She sat on Harry's shoulder with her little claws in his leather
jacket. She even banked when we went around corners. It was amusing:
this little ball of fluff acting like a dare devil.
At night Nichevo would get on the floor
beside the mattress on her side with all four claws in the mattress
and sort of pull herself along the floor by 'running' along the
mattress. It made a funny noise that would wake us. Up and down the
side of the mattress she would go. The overhang of the bedding hide
her so it took quite a while the first time to figure out where the
noise was coming from.
When her mother was almost fully
recovered, we took Nichevo to see her. What a performance. First the
kitten got licked, and licked. Then she got attacked. Then licked.
Then attacked. She was not actually hurt at all. It was like her
mother was trying to teach her everything she knew in a couple of
hours. And of course she was trying to get Nichevo to smell right
after all that shampooing.
One day she disappeared. We never
figured out how she managed to get out of the backyard – the fence
was taller than me. No neighbours saw her; no kitten was found;
nothing, like her name.
When we lived in Colchester, Harry's
mother came to visit. Harry was working with the van quite often and
so I spent a lot of time wandering around with her and we had a good
time. She was 70 or so but in very good shape.
One day we were wandering around
Wivenhoe and went past the church. There was a sign on the board
saying that for a pound you could go up the steeple. I was a bit
worried but Stephania was all for it. So we found the vicar, gave him
our two pounds the follow him into the church and up the stone
staircase. There was no handrail and the stairs were a bit worn but
we were doing fine. Then we came into a room. There was a ladder going
up to a hole in the high ceiling. I thanked the vicar, said he could
keep the money but we were not going up the ladder. But Stephania was
insisting that we carry on. So up the ladder we went – first the
vicar, than Stephania, than me. At the top was another room with the
bells in it. The next ladder was on the other side of the bells and
we had to climb across the frame holding the bells. The vicar
scrabbled across and watching him do it, I started explaining again
that this was as far as we were going. But the vicar and Stephania
were not listening. He was calling out direction to her for how to
cross the bells. And then they were both directing me across. The was
a short ladder up to a door. The vicar had started up and Stephania
turned to me and said, “You go first and than if you lose your
step, I can catch you”. I was going to be catch by a very
strong-willed 70 year ago who was not going to pay any attention to
what I said so I had just better not lose my step. We walked the
little ledge around the steeple with the vicar pointing out all the
sights and landmarks. I took great care of where we went after that.
She told me about her life and Harry's
childhood as we wandered. I was reminded of one of the things she
said when I read the piece about the musical Kwasniak family. When
her husband died one of the first things she did was to sell the
bass. She hated it and hated having to play with the family group
when she wanted to be doing the housework, knowing that she would
have to do the housework later when everyone else was sleep.
Another of her stories came to mind
too. There was a famous musician giving a concert. She gave the name
but I have forgotten it. The musician peeked though the curtains to
see the audience and was horrified that there were children in the
front row. He refused to perform until the children were moved to the
back. Some concert hall people convinced him that it was just the
Kwasniaks and the Penroses and they always sat at the front. The
children would not fidget and make a sound. They came to all the
concerts, always sat near the front and never caused any problem.
Finally, thinking about her visit –
if she disagreed with Harry on something, she would want to ask Janet
because I had a degree. And if I agreed with Harry, she would want to
ask Claudio because he was a professor. Only after that would she
admit that she might be wrong and Harry right.
Recently we ran across this old article
on the Web describing Harry's family. Of course, his family was not
always such a happy group. In fact, his father was hard on the
children. But I think it is probably a fairly good description of
family otherwise. It is interesting compared to my memory of
Family Life of Six Knit by Music
Ukrainian Weekly, Saturday, June 24,
1944 - Mr. John Yachew sent to the Weekly this story by Lenore
Crawford of “The London Free Press”
Bright light shines down from the
ceiling on three violins, a viola, bass viol and flute. Orchestral
stands hold music ready for playing. More music is piled in stacks –
the best in the world.
The room might be a teacher's studio,
prepared for the rehearsals of string orchestra. For only a
leather-cushioned chesterfield and a couple of chairs are its
furnishings, beside two large wooden stands that hold the
But it isn't a studio.
It is the living room in the home of
Mr. Mrs. John Kwasniak, at 536 Philip Street, a stone's throw from
the noise and the smoke of the Federal Foundries plant, and it tells
the story of their lives and the lives of their four beautiful
children, Irene, 14; Harry, 13; George, 10; and Olga, eight.
All six play instruments – and some
of them can play two. The four children take lessons every week, on
violin, flute or cello, and each one practices at least an hour and a
half a day. Together, they study orchestral music on Saturday
afternoons, when Mr. Kwasniak is home from his work at the foundry,
or on Sunday. Today the cello is gone from its place on the big
instrument stand, for Olga, its player, has taken it with her to
Toronto. It was Olga who, at six years old, started the family taking
lessons and now she brings such deep tones from the cello when she
draws her bow across its strings that the great Nelsova,
internationally famous cellist, has consented to have her as a pupil.
The little girl had an audition with
Nelsova at Christmas time; the artist proclaimed the child's talent
as truly great and urged that her lessons begin immediately. Her
mother and father had to decide whether they could do without her in
the home and whether they could afford to pay for her lessons.
Pennies would have to be pinched harder; more sacrifices would have
to be made they knew. But they decided that Olga should have her
chance and so she has gone this week to Toronto.
When Olga began her lessons two years
ago, her father decided that the other children should begin lessons
too. They would form a string ensemble, he and the four children, for
he could play violin and viola.
“Our children are not going to find
their amusement on the streets,” he told the mother. “We will
keep them busy at something beautiful and they won't want to play on
Pretty furniture was left in stores,
while Mr. and Mrs. Kwasniak bought musical instruments for their
children to play. Hours of the father's spare time went into building
the huge wooden stand, with its two shelves to hold violins, flute
and cello, the bows for them and the music. A great deal of the music
is in manuscript form, written carefully by Mrs. Kwasniak so that each
player might have a copy of a composition, and he has made
arrangements appropriate for them. The five played together until a
few months ago when Mr. Kwasniak was drawn into the ensemble to play
the bass viol. “It is difficult,” she admits with a charming
smile, “but they all help me to learn. I studied piano for a little
while years ago, but I have never learned how to play a string
Mr. Kwasniak came to Canada in 1913
from Galicia, Western Ukraine and through the years he has been
homesteader, singer with theatrical companies touring in opera,
language teacher among his own people and organizer of societies
for the men and women of the Ukraine. Two years ago he came to live
in London. Mrs. Kwasniak, also from Galicia came to Canada in 1926,
and she and Mr. Kwasniak were married that year.
He had wanted to play the violin when
he was a boy, but village folk frowned on such a waste of time. He
should do a man's work and so his violin-playing was done only
whenever he could borrow a fiddle and steal a few moments from his
studies in a near-by city. Later he did study violin and found a
teacher for his fine voice which sent him into opera in Austria and
later in Canada.
His love for music has never died and
he and his wife, who shares his fondness for it, have handed down
their musical talent to their children. Everything but good health
have been sacrificed so that music might play a prime part in
building their children's characters.
Irene, who is tall and blond, glowing
with health and enthusiasm, told The Free Press that she would like
“to do something with the violin.” She is in her second year at
Central Collegiate. Her brother Harry, who is in first year, plays
both violin and flute, as does George. Harry was at a basketball game
when The Free Press visited the Kwasniak home and would “catch up”
on his practice after supper.
“Their father thinks they should
study most of the time,” Mrs. Kwasniak smiled, “but I think maybe
it won't hurt him to go to basketball games. He loves them.”
George lovingly fingered the violin he
played, standing straight and eager as he talked about repairs that
had been necessary for it. He showed with pride the musical
arrangements his father had made for them and explained that it was
easy for them all to get a practice schedule worked out because he or
Harry would go into a bedroom to practice; they didn't all have to
use the one room.
Mrs. Kwasniak had left a tub full of
washing to talk about her family. “They all love music,” she
said. “It has never been hard to get them to practice. They are
always “busy and we don't have any trouble with them wanting to be
away from home.”
She talked in fluent English, for she
had gone to school to study the language when she first came to
Canada. “It is very difficult,” she admitted. “I lived with my
sister in Toronto and she wouldn't let me speak anything but English
and I kept on going to school. So finally I learned.”
She studied piano for a couple of years
also, until looking after her family took all her time. “I liked
it,” she smiled, “but my husband is really the musician. Now I am
learning to play the bass viol because John and the children want me
to. They coaxed me so much and then bought me the instrument, so I
had to do it!”
Not every night is spent at home
practicing. There are grand times when Mr. and Mrs. Kwasniak and the
four children attend concerts of instrumental music and they sit
closely watching. Irene, Harry, George and Olga on the edge of their
chairs, tense with excitement and enjoyment.
Shoes shine from good cleaning, the
boys' suits are neatly pressed and bright ribbon are perky on the
flaxen curls of Irene and Olga, who dress in pretty skirts and
sweaters or crisp cotton dresses. Alongside sits Mrs. Kwasniak, her
good-looking black dress, coat and turban giving distinction to her
dark hair and fine features, and beside her sits her husband,
large-framed and blond, with the appearance of a student.
Life is full to overflowing for them
all with interest and happiness. There is no need for the children to
go out of their home for something to do and Mr. and Mrs. Kwasniak
can know that they are providing riches for bright young minds and
busy fingers and that their children are truly happy.
When we were in Kenya, I work at the
University of East Africa in the Veterinary School's Department of
Physiology as the chief technician. The phone was the bane of my life
when I was first there. My job meant many calls to suppliers,
contractors and so on and I could never get a line out of the
building. I made a angry getting-it-off-my-chest when the head of the
department was present and he said that it was my imagination; there
was never any problem getting a line. This took me aback and so I
went and talked to my counterparts in biochemistry and pharmacology.
They agreed with me. But the lecturers said they got lines although
they rarely used the phone at work. The head used the phone a lot
though and he always got a line. I began to suspect a conspiracy
against chief techs. So I talked to African techs and animal house
staff and cleaners about the woman who ran the phone switchboard. It
appear that anyone in Kenya with an access to a phone was able to
become partners with others in all sorts of businesses – all they
had to bring in exchange for their share of profits was the ability
to make phone calls. Our switchboard operator was a real
entrepreneur, part owner of a number of companies. The lines were
constantly busy because she was constantly making and receiving
calls. When the head of the department picked up the phone, she
quickly made sure there was a line for him.
I went to see her. I confronted her
with what I knew about her enterprise and said that if I had a line
when I picked up the phone then I would say nothing. But If I didn't
get lines, I would complain about her business activities and she
would probably be fired. It worked.
I felt a bit bad about it for three
reasons. I had just blackmailed someone and it didn't feel good about
it – it actually doesn't feel good to be a bully. I did not tell my
counterparts in other departments and get them a deal and that
bothered me too but my assessment of the situation during the
negotiations was that she was going to be very unhappy if every
single one of the heavy users were going to have to have lines. And I
found I really liked her.
I was reminded of this episode when a
Facebook friend linked to an article he had found on Africa. (We have
never met but have in common interests in East Africa, human
evolution and language. He has just finished a book which I recommend
called Babel's Dawn.) Here is part of the article:
“(African) building since the start
of the new century, now seems incontrovertible. In the ten years from
2000 to 2010, six of the world's ten fastest-growing countries were
in sub-Saharan Africa: Angola, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Chad, Mozambique,
and Rwanda. In eight of the past ten years, sub-Saharan Africa has
grown faster than Asia, according to The Economist. In 2012,
the International Monetary Fund expects Africa to grow at a rate of
6%, about the same as Asia. ...
Technology also plays an important part
in the new African boom. Probably the most astonishing development
success since 2000 in Africa has been the communications revolution.
A dozen years ago, merely making a phone call (or receiving one) was
virtually impossible even in Africa's most important commercial
centers. An elite business person might hire two or three people full
time simply to repeatedly dial phone numbers over the crumbling,
puny, and perversely sub-optimal government-owned telephone systems.
Nigeria, at the time a country of 100 million people, had at most
100,000 working dial tones. It was not remarkable for one call out of
every 50 made to be completed. Naturally, the effect on productivity
was devastating, but equally as bad was the sense of isolation.
Everything had to be done face to face, consigning people to long
trips for even trivial maneuvers. Waiting became a way of life.
No longer. The advent of mobile
telephones has brought instant communications to hundreds of millions
of Africans, rich and poor, urban and rural. Africans are now on the
move. Text messaging and digital money-transfer services, such as
Safaricom's M-pesa in Kenya, have transformed ordinary life. Yet this
most visible of all African advances, this gigantic step forward in
linking Africans to each other and to people around the world,
occurred with virtually zero assistance from the professional
development community of donors and economists, aid workers and
development agencies. Uniformly, these "experts" said
Africans were simply too poor to benefit from mobile
telecommunications, so they provided scant assistance in the 1990s
and early 2000s when African governments, in the main, relaxed their
long hegemony over telecommunications and permitted private companies
to lead the push into mobile phones.”
From what I have heard, more Africans
had mobile phones than addresses – no address, just a shack in a
unofficial slum, but a phone number is a must.
Nairobi eye fly
When we were
in Kenya, there were a couple of occasions where someone came to work
with a black eye. They claimed it was a bite from a Nairobi eye fly.
We thought this was a local euphemism used instead of running into a
One day we found
what looked like a tiny colourful scorpion with its tail in the air.
The neighbour said it was a Nairobi eye fly and that we didn't want
them in the house. They would fall from the ceiling onto you when you
were sleeping and crawl around on your face. You would brush them off
in your sleep and a couple of days later you have a terrible sore
bite. The bite was often near the eye because that is when you would
brush at them.
Neither of us ever
got a bite but we found a few around the house over the time we were
there. And we had a lot more sympathy for others that had bites.
We learned a lot
about 'dudu' as insects and other little beasts were called by the
locals. We battled flees, cockroaches, screaming spiders, jiggers,
safari ants and so on. We soon learned to encourage little lizards to
live on the walls because they keep the dudus down.
A friend kept a
bat and the bat liked to sleep in the toilet (dark and quiet). If you
used the toilet in this house you had to expect a bat to fly close
enough to disturb your hair. John took great delight in the reaction
of first time visitors. Harry used the toilet on our first visit to
the house. But he was not going to be catch out like he was the first
time he saw a lizard on someone's kitchen wall. He emerged and said,
“There's a bat in there, does it eat the dudus?” It made an
impression on John.
I have since
learned the the Nairobi eye fly does not bite but sprays a chemical
when brushed away. The chemical is called pedarin and is made by a
symbiotic bacteria. And it is not a fly but a beetle.
The cricket conversation
When I worked in a lab in Leicester a group of us ate our dinners
together in the University cafeteria. We were, if I remember right,
2 English, 1 Australian, 1 New Zealander, 1 American and me
originally Canadian). We were sitting around a large table.
The American had seen some cricket being played on TV and had some
questions. How are you supposed to hit a ball with a triangular bat?
There was a lot of discussion but it was obvious it was getting
nowhere. The jargon and assumptions were making communication
impossible. Finally, the older and more proper Englishman stood up
and with an imaginary bat demonstrated a few dozen ways of hitting the
ball. It was a very clear and well done explanation, also very athletic.
He then sat down and the whole cafeteria burst into loud applause. The
American looked a bit surprised and was told that “when a batsman is
retired the spectators clap him to the pavilion.” This had to also be
The American then asked if you would be clapped even it he had not done
well. Yes you would. If he had done really badly? Yes. If he was rotten?
Yes. If he had just done a very stupid thing and single-handedly lost
the whole match for no good reason? There was silence.
Finally, the Australian said in a loud voice and very Australian accent,
“I think – I think if he was so bad that you could not bring themselves
to clap you would - you would bang their beer cans together, ...real...
slow!” The whole cafeteria cheered.
Here is Little Donald, as he was then,
many years ago. When we visited, one of his favorite
treats was to sit on our motorbike with Harry while I pushed it as
fast as I could. Someone took this picture, probably his father.
Around this time, Harry dislocated his
shoulder for the umpteenth time and the doctor offer him an operation
to fix it. After the operation, his arm was taped as tight as
possible to his chest with only his hand free and placed against his
chest below his neck. Harry did the usual thing of turning his shirt
sleeve inside out and the front was buttoned up so that his hand was
not showing. The strapping was so tight that you could only just see
the bulk of the arm, but it was easy to miss.
Little Donald took one look at Harry
when we arrived and started to cry and kept saying 'where's Harry's
arm?' Everyone told him that it was OK; Harry still had his arm; it
is just wrapped up. But he kept crying and saying 'where's Harry's
arm?' So Harry unbuttoned the top of his shirt far enough so that his
hand showed and wiggled his fingers.
“Here's Harry's hand, see its OK.”
But he cried even louder. By this time everyone was consoling him and
someone asked him, “Can you see Harry's hand?” He pointed and
screamed, “There's Harry's hand, BUT WHAT HAPPENED TO HARRY'S
ARM?!” Then we knew why he was so upset, Harry had not just lost
his arm, he now had a monstrous disconnected hand come out of his
The month of May
I really feel May. When I was a child, May held Mother's Day and my
mother's birthday. Her name was May and it seemed like she owned the
month. It was the merry, merry month of May. It was a good time of
year. May was a beautiful time in Saskatchewan 'between the mud and the
mosquitos' as someone used to say. It was also the farmer's month for
hope rather than worry. It was for putting in garden.
But it was also the month in which both my mother and my brother were
buried. So it now has very mixed memories. It still is a very
special month and my mother's own but it is tinged with sadness.
One of my early memories is Mom saying an old Victorian verse, "Twenty
fourth of May is the Queen's birthday - if we don't get a holiday,
we'll all run away." Whenever I say 24th May, the little rhyme goes through my head.
When did I learn to braid?
I remember the painful months learning
how to tie a knot. I remember several different people (mother,
grandmother, cousins) trying to teach me knitting and failing –
ditto other similar skills like crotchetting. Grandmother Wight did
manage to teach me how to hand sew, hem, darn, embroider and even
button hole when I lived with them aged 6-7. I remember the sewing
lessons and grandma's approach of explaining the final construction
and why it works and had to be that way. But it feels like I always
knew how to braid, what the final structure was like and why. My hair
was braided when I was young. I felt the tug but could never see the
process or even really examine the finished braids very well. I
remember braiding onions but I already knew how to braid. Grandma may
have taught me to make braided rugs, someone did. But the most
braiding I did as a kid was to make flower chains to wear. If that is
where I learned it than it must have been Mom who taught me.
Here, right now there are daisies with
long stems where the grass has not been mowed. They look just right
for braiding. I can image Mom noticing the cosmos flowering and
wanting to turn me on to flower chains. This is what started me
thinking about learning to braid and how it came so naturally that
there is no memory of a struggle. So it cannot have been taught as a
long, handed series of arbitrary steps. These are almost impossible
for me to learn from a right handed person. I must see how each step
was done to build the finished thing (not as a hand movement step but
as a configuration change step). I remember when I was learning to be
a lab tech that I could not learn to make blood slides. Everyone else
had learned in a few lab sessions but not me. Finally someone said,
“why do you push the blood across the slide rather than pull it?”
In three minutes I was making perfect slides. Even today, I often
look at directions backwards. This is the end – this is how you get
to the end from near it – this is how you get near it – that sort
of idea I can understand and transpose into a leftie path.
But nothing has ever worked with knitting!
we lived in Austria (and in other places) we were offered elderberry
wine on several occasions, and it was very good. But once an Austrian
neighbour found out that we had never eaten elderflower. It was
blooming at the time and so she picked some and cooked them for us. The
way they were cooked was that they were dipped in a sweet batter and
fried. The result was like a cross between a pancake and a lace doily,
with a little stem handle on one side. They had an unusual and very
pleasant taste. Since then I have had elderflower cordial occasionally
to remember that taste.
In our current back yard there is an elder tree. Too small to make
cordial or wine and I can not longer eat battered food (glutin
avoidance). But I can enjoy the look and smell of the blossoms.
The whole plant is poisonous except the berries and flowers (the seeds
inside the berries are dangerous though). The elder has always been
special. A source of medicine, a holy protective tree or an evil dangerous
tree, a source of whistles and pipes, a natural quick hedging plant.
When I see elder in flower, I think of Austria and fried flowers.
Someone referred to “running like a
chicken with their head cut off” in a forum I take part in. They
wondered if the description was accurate. I answered:
“What you have heard about headless
chickens is right. I know this because when I was a little girl there
was a single day every year when my parents and an aunt and uncle
killed, cleaned and packaged for canning or freezing 100 chickens –
one a week for the year for each family. My father caught the
chickens (who were locked in a coop), he gave each to my uncle who
chopped off their heads and let them go. My cousin and I had to keep
our eyes on each chicken in turn and went to get it when it stopped.
So every year I had to watch in detail the death run of about 50
chickens. We carried the chickens to my mother and aunt who were
cleaning them in a little assemble line. The chickens ran and half
flew until they dropped dead and my impression (as a child) was that
they were attempting escape. As an adult, I know, that for
vertebrates, the rhythmic movement of the limbs in running (and in
flight for birds) is a spinal cord reflex. The brain can modify the
reflex but it does not need to produce this rhythm – just modify
it, steer it, stop and start it, etc. So the chicken's brain in its
last connected moment before the ax falls, gives the signal to escape
and the spinal cord acts on it in a reflex way until the chicken's
heart and lungs stop through blood loss. I have to say that these
were the worst days of my young life – made infinitely worst by the
macabre sense of humour that my mother and aunt had (a protective
thing obviously) and the chicken dinner we all had in the evening.”
I will add a little more detail here.
Dad and Bert would take turns at catching and killing. I did not go
into the sight in the workshop where Mom and Bea were set up. They
had a couple of barrels of hot water that they dunked the chickens in
and a hook beside to hang them on to de-feather them. Then a blow
torch to get rid of the feather roots. Between the hot, wet feathers
and the burnt bits of feather the smell was terrible. Next the
chicken was gutted over another barrel. This was done quickly with
two hands and a little knife. Feet and insides (bar the gibblets)
fell into the barrel. They were rinsed and set in a clean pile. It
took no longer to clean the chickens then Hugh and I took to retrieve
them. I don't remember a backlog at any point in the 6 people job.
But sometimes the person with the ax had to wait for the next
chicken. My mother had a trick that she had learned as a child. She
could put her hand in the cleaned chicken and pull on some part of
the throat and make it sound like a live chicken and she could flap
the wings too. Mom and Bea laughed their way through the day with
'cleaning chicken jokes' – how could they do otherwise. The
chickens were wrapped in kraft paper after all the other work was
done. Off the packages went to our lockers in the deep freeze
building in town. Before the deep freeze they were preserved in big
mason jars. I remember the jars but not the canning process for
chicken. I believe they were done the same way that Grandmother Wight
did the jars she sold in Regina in the 30s depression.
Rose hip jam
I was little during WW2 so I didn't realize until much later that some
things happened because of the war. One of those things was rose hip
jam. It was not bad but no one's favourite. Apparently rose hips are
very high in vitamin C. During the war citrus fruit was not easy to
come by and the government was concerned that children, old people, the
sick, pregnant women and so on were not getting enough vitamin C. They
suggested (apparently they were often suggesting ways to improve diets
during the war) that people make rose hip jam. So when the wild prairie
roses were done and the rose hips were new and plump, it was time to
collect them for jam.
They grew more of less everywhere that was not cultivated. I picked
along the fences and beside the railway tracks. The ditches on either
side of the tracks were fairly wide and they were not disturbed except
for being burnt from time to time. They were original prairie! Grandpa
Barmby told me that the plants by the railway used to grow right across
the land that was now fields, wind brakes and gardens.
Then we got not so enjoyable part. The hips had to be cut or broken in
two and the seedy part removed from the middle to leave the skin and
the layer of pulp next to the skin.
Mom made the jam. There was very little jam for all the work but we all had to eat a bit of it everyday.
When we first lived in Kenya, there was
a small tree by the door. It was called a moonflower in Kenya but I
believe it is Angel's trumpet elsewhere. Although it is listed as a
South American plant, it is also listed as a native tree in Kenya
(Datura suaveolens). My memory of the tree is mixed with the little
Kenyan ritual of the sun-downer. On the equator the sun rise and set
is always at the same times; there are exactly 12 hours of daylight
and 12 hours of dark. And the dusk is extremely short – bang the
sun disappears without lingering on the horizon. It has to do with
the lack of angle. Anyway, about 6:30 everyone is home from work and
has not yet started the evening meal. They (and we did too) sit on
the veranda and have a drink – it's called a sun-downer. We would
start the drink in the day and end it in the night. For a little more
than a year I had my sun-downer talking to Harry and looking straight
at the moonflower tree. See the flowers – taste the whiskey.
The tree bloomed more of less
continuously with large white hanging blossoms – very beautiful.
But we were warned that it was very poisonous and it appeared so
because absolutely nothing else grow under it; there was just bare
ground and not even moss. We were told it was related to deadly night
shade. I never touched it and I'm glad I didn't.
I was reminded of the tree when I saw
an article on Devil's breath and the illustration of the source, the
borrachero tree, looked a lot like our Kenyan tree. It is a South
American plant that is used to produce a drug, scopolamine or The
Devil's Breath, the most dangerous illegal drug. The powdered drug
can be blown in the face of someone and within minutes the victim is
a zombie. They are coherent but have lost their will; they are like
compliant children. They will help their robbers rob them. They form
no memories while under the drug so cannot recall what they have
done. It can also be fatal if too much is given. The upper picture is
the Kenyan moonflower and the lower one is the SA borrachero tree.
These two come from an interesting
group of plants, often called the nightshade family. It includes a
number of medical and poisonous plants besides borrachero and angel's
trumpet: mandrake, tobacco, belladonna, morning glory. And also a
number of edible plants: potato, tomato, sweet and hot peppers,
eggplant. All of them contain interesting chemicals – some
dangerous and some not.
I used to have a little explanation for
the amount of clutter that Harry and I had. I would say that we had
'no mechanism for throwing anything away'. (This was stolen from a
famous story that ended with the film maker telling the BBC that he
had no mechanism for returning money and the BBC accepted it.) In a
sense it was true because we had never lived in any one place from
more than a few years. When we moved we usually needed to cut down on
what could be taken with us. Sometimes as drastically as what would
fit in a car. The useless and worthless was lost in the shuffle. When
we came back to Canada in 81 we did not move much for a long time.
Oh, you can accumulate a lot in 25 years. That is one official
The other official reason is that Harry
was raised in the depression by parents who had very little at that
time. It breaks his heart to see anything wasted and he cannot resist
a bargain. To make matters worse, people who have stuff they don't
want tend to give it to Harry because 'he likes that sort of thing' –
meaning junk. An example of Harry's collecting that will always be in
my memory was from when we lived in Colchester. In our house there
were three bedrooms. We slept in one and I had the box room for an
office and Harry had the other proper sized bedroom for his room. He
made a lovely desk and drawing board. For a while he used and enjoyed
the room. Then it started to collect 'stuff'. Finally it was almost
all 'stuff'. One day Harry came down stairs and said, “Help Janet,
I can't get into my room.”
Now it is possible, many/most people do
it, to throw things away. But you have to be careful. Your own stuff
is OK but you should never throw away other people's. Something nasty
happens to people when their stuff is thrown away by someone else. It
interferes with their identity, their memories, their future plans,
their emotional landmarks and their feelings of trust towards you in
particular. Never be tempted to help someone by getting rid of their
junk. Don't even organize it without permission.
Of course our clutter is not all down
to Harry. Once upon a time I was a reasonable housekeeper. I did a
good clean once a week and tidied up after each activity was done. It
was how life was and I didn't think about alternatives. But then we
went to Africa and we had a servant who cleaned and tidied. This gave
me a lot of time to do other things. (Not having a servant in Africa
was considered extremely anti-social and we gave in when we could not
buy a washing machine – not allowed to be made or imported - and we
were told to shut up and hire a servant who would do the laundry.)
When we left and had no servant, I noticed consciously the time I
spent cleaning and tidying. It was time I was being robbed of but
resented a little. But I did start to dislike picking up after Harry.
And I was never a nag so I just left his stuff where he put it until
it got too messy and I would do a Big Clean. Many things are
important to me but having a clean, tidy house is way, way down the
I once made contact when I was in the
States with a cousin that I had not seen since childhood. We had
dinner in a restaurant and she said that she could not take me to her
home because it was a mess. Her family had had a crisis and a really
messy house was part of the fall out. I said, “you don't
understand, I also have a messy house.” She said, “No, you don't
understand, it is really, really...” When I told my mother that I
had not been to her house because it was too messy, Mom laughed till
she cried. So did several others. Now that I am old, my big cleans
are a pain, literally, and so they are less frequent. But when I am
at death's door and thinking about what I regret in my life – a
messy house will not be on my mind.
I remember Rae St. We would visit Marjorie and Walter there when I was
young. Then I lived there for a while with them, then with Grandma
there too. Finally I lived there with my family after Mom married Mel –
also there was a boarder and then Grandpa for a while. There were many
changes to that house over the years.
I was reminded of the house when Margie said that she and I painted the
bathroom for Aunt Marjorie and I could not remember that. I am sure she
is right but it is gone from my memory. We laughed at the idea that
Aunt Marjorie was able to calmly let a couple of just teen girls with a
couple of brushes and a can of pinkish (we think) paint loose on her
bathroom. But I do remember the bathroom fairly clearly.
One of my earliest memories of the words Rae Street was that we were
driving in the night up Albert Street and went past the turn so the
driver looked about and did a U turn. A policeman appeared out of
nowhere and stopped us. I don't remember whether it was Walter or
Gaylord that was driving but it was an uncle and a resident of Regina.
He pretended to be a lost farmer from the country who could not find
Rae Street. He acted really confused. The policeman believed it,
explained that U turns were not allowed on big streets in the big city,
and carefully told him how to get to Rae Street which was only a couple
of blocks away. Safely away for the policeman, I think everyone laughed
for half an hour and repeated the best parts over and over. So there
were about a hundred mentions of Rae Street between the original and
the repeats. I could never forget from then on that it was Rae Street
where they lived.
When he was small George knew the address on Rae. Once we were in town
so that Mom could go to the dentist. George and I were at Marjorie's
and when Marjorie called people for dinner, George slipped away to get
his mom. Soon we realized that he was gone and soon after that Mom came
back. We searched around for George and when we were about to panic, a
policeman arrived with George. Someone had noticed the little boy
wandering around the Malcolm Hill looking in offices. He knew where he
had come from – Rae Street. Because he knew the address he was brought
straight home. It seems that when he was questioned he said, “No I'm
not lost. My mother is lost.” And when he was back in the family he was
a bit put out by Mom not being where he thought she was. He said more
than once that he was not lost, “I knew where I was”. The whole thing
only took about an hour (because he knew the address) and the dinner
was not even very cold.
I could as a teenager, come in at night and make my way though the
house in the pitch dark without bumping into furniture. I was extremely
proud of this skill. No lights went on or off, no noises created while
I came in the back and made my way across the kitchen and living room,
up the stairs and into my bedroom and into bed.
During his second marriage to Lois, Grandpa lived a couple of blocks
away, also on Rae. George spent many evenings with them watching TV and
playing chess. Later that house belonged to a friend of ours. It was
very odd to be in that house after over 30 years. I remember Grandpa
telling Mom that George was a bit weird. He had been with him watching
TV and for some reason (not an important one) the national anthem was
played on the program. George sprang to attention and stayed stiffly
straight until it was over. Grandpa was a bit shocked. Standing in that
room years later and remembering how little space there was from the TV
to where George would have been sitting, it must have been a strange
A thin text
When I first started training in medical technology, I was introduced
to biochemistry among other new things. It was very interesting and I
enjoyed it. Sometime along the way, we got our first examination. Shock
horror! Practically the whole class got terrible marks and many of us
outright failed. The test had not seemed hard but the marking was
brutal. We sort of mobbed the professor – not really physically but
with our grumbling voices.
Our professor was unrepentant. He held up the thin text book we had and
pointed out how thin it was. He compared it to our chemistry,
organic chemistry and whopping great clinical chemistry texts – they
were not the biggest text there were. There were whole libraries of
texts on these subjects. But our little biochemistry text was all there
was of biochemistry, the most complete text we would find. That was all
the biochemistry there was to know and so we should get used to the
idea that we were going to end the year knowing all of it, every single
molecule and reaction mentioned in the little text. But the point he
was making had some logic because he said that in a few years
biochemistry would have its own library of texts. It would explode with
new knowledge and the only way we would be able to keep up was to have
a very good grounding in what was known now.
This little lesson in scientific progress happened in 1957. Four years
(1953) previously Crick and Watson announced their structure of DNA.
Eleven years later (1968) Watson's book, The Double Helix went on sale.
The C&W structure was not in our thin text – it takes a while for
texts to be written, published and take the place of older texts. But
when I first heard of the DNA structure, I said to myself how
interesting it was that it explained the fact that there was the same
amount of A as T, and G as C and how the duplication could work so
well. Although the ratio of the bases in DNA seemed an arbitrary fact
that had to be memorized from the thin book, it now became the key to
understanding the new structure. In those few years biochemistry did
explode and still is exploding.
This reminds me of the biggest, thickest text, the one for clinical
chemistry. I don't remember its title because it was always referred to
by its authors: Hawk, Oser and Summerson. Before a particular final
exam, I had a dream that made me wake up and start to laugh. I was
being chased by something horrible and found a safe place. There was a
opening of the window and I yelled, “Whose there?”. Three little men
jumped into the room, one two three, saying, “I'm Hawk”, “I'm Oser”,
The doll and the kettle
When I was only just barely into my
teens, there was a time when everyone seemed to come to Grandpa and
Grandma's place in YellowGrass. They had a spare bedroom and a big
bed and a cot in the basement, but there was not room for everyone. A
large tent was set up on the lawn and Marjorie, Connie and I slept
there. We stayed up late into the night and so slept till late in the
morning. The sun would shine on the tent and by the time we woke, it
was very hot in the tent. This set me up for having no energy during
the day. This got so bad that when everyone left, I was taken to the
doctor and had my metabolism checked with a big breathing machine. I
was OK. I could not explain what was really wrong – that I was not
going to sleep at night and sometimes we were even wandering around
the sleeping village in the night. This was not something Mom wanted to
On this visit, Calvin brought his new
wife (not Adria, but his first wife). I had always enjoyed Calvin's
visits but I didn't like the visits with his first wife (whose name I
can never remember – telling, eh?). I enjoyed later Calvin visits
too, just not those three. On this occasion, the problem was that I
did not help my mother enough. As far as I was considered this was
crazy. The house was so crowded that the children were always outside
– there was no place to sit and we were just underfoot in the
house. You could not get more than two people in Grandma's kitchen
anyway. Before they left, Calvin and wife gave me a kettle and a
little lecture on using it to help my mother. I was very angry
because I did help Mom, just not during this weird week and I didn't
need a lecture from an aunt I didn't even know and who certainly did
not know me.
The next encounter with Calvin's wife
was when I lived at Marjorie and Walter's and Grandma was living in
the front room and suffering from alzheimers. She had this mode where
she was looking after a baby – memories of Marian who was a
constant care until she died as a young child. She would take a
pillow, wrap it and rock it like a baby. At some point she would
realize it was a pillow and throw it across the room in anger. She
did not like to see herself rocking a pillow. Calvin and wife bought
her a fairly realistic, life sized doll. Then the baby rocking became
much more common but it always ended with a little lucid moment and
the doll put down in disgust and anger. Of all the weird ways that
Grandma acted in those days, the thing with the pillow and then the
doll was the one that was most upsetting to me. It also was very
upsetting to Grandpa, probably others too but I don't remember. When
Grandma died, the doll was returned and they gave it to me, “to
remember Grandma with”, she said. As soon as they were gone, the
doll was in the garbage. It was the last thing I wanted to remember.
I don't know what happened to the
kettle. I never took responsibility for it, Mom and Grandma got it.
Balls of fire
I was surprised when I found out that
there was some doubt of ball lightening - someone has recently taken
credit for showing that it actually exists. My mother had seen it and
I believed Mom. For some time the doubt has been disappearing and
people were working on discovering what it is.
Mom's story was that the ball came
through the window, wandered ( sort of an erratic drift) about the
room a bit and then entered the cooking range and disappeared. I
assumed from the story that the window was open and that one of the
covers was not in place on the iron stove. I never thought of the
ball passing through glass or iron. But a few years before she died,
she told me the story again and I questioned her about how open the
window was. She insisted it was closed and the ball came through the
glass (and through the range).
Now I read that it is quite common
(well, ball lightening is rare, but it is common for ball lightening)
for the ball to form on the inside of windows. They can drift inside
buildings and airplanes. The balls also dissipate in contact with
good conductors like large metal things. Even my mother's estimate of
size, like a big fist fits, with other descriptions. So Mom's story
was probably very accurate.
Old fashioned elections
Watching the American's struggle with
their election, reminded me of a Northern Ireland politican
explaining why it took a few hours longer for results from there. He
described opening the ballot boxes, unfolding the ballots and
flattening them, putting them in piles and counting them twice,
sorting them into piles for each party, checking the piles were
correctly sorted and counting them twice again, making sure the
numbers matched, inspecting the spoil ballots to make sure that none
could be included. Long, hard, careful work, he thanked the officials
for. Those were the good old days. The only way to steal an election
was to steal the ballots (known to happen in Montreal in the
But now there are voting machines that
can be hacked, or do not work; there are too few polling stations and
shorter hours then can handle the voters; there are hassles with
papers and IDs; there is misinformation of dates and places. Any
trick will do.
I have a memory of the first election I
was aware of. It was a provincial one in Saskatchewan. It could not
have been a federal one because one of the candidates was CCF and
they did not contest federal elections until much, much later. So it
would have had to have been either 1944 or 1948. That is a bit of a
problem because it feels to me like I was older than in 44 and younger
than in 48. Anyway, my father was a scrutineer and so I found out what a
scrutineer was. It was someone who was trusted by one of the parties
to watch everything in the election and make sure that nothing was
done wrong or unfairly. So because my father was all day attending to
the election, we were in the village throughout. I could not go into
the station but I could peek in from somewhere, maybe a back door. So
I watched Dad doing his scrutineering. There was a table with a
couple of people who checked people off the list and gave them a
ballot. The person went to the booth (with a pencil on a string) and
marked the ballot. They folded it and brought it back to the table
and put it in the slot of the ballot box. Standing behind the table,
able to see everything except inside the booth, was Dad with the
other scrutineers. Later some folding tables were brought out and
unfolded for counting the ballots. I remember Dad telling me about
spoiled ballots but I didn't see that. Apparently the head officer
and the scrutineers looked at each of the spoiled ballots and agreed
whether they were spoiled or could be counted. The whole process was
so simple that a little girl could understand it. So calm with no
queues, people came alone or in groups but one went in at a time
while the others chatted. It was not that people were not heated by
the campaign. It was the first or second CCF election, TC Douglas was
getting big crowds and there was a lot of bad feeling. It split the
Barmbys with Walter, Wally and Bert for the CCF and with Jack and
So when I watch the American election I
wonder why anyone would trust their vote to a machine – what is
wrong with people and small polling districts of a few hundred
Remembering old elections, there was
one in the UK for the first members of the European parliament. We
knew that one party was the most reasonable about Europe but we
didn't know who their candidate was. So we went in, got our ballots
and went to adjacent booths. Harry asked if I could hear him. I said
yes. So he explained that he had forgotten his glasses and could I
tell him which line he should vote for. The problem for him was that
the name was in big type and the party was in tiny type. I said that
the third line was the Liberals. He was Lord someone of somewhere and
there was a pause and then Harry stormed out of the booth, ripping up
his ballot and saying “I'm not voting for a bloody peer!”
When we came out of the booths, the
whole room was laughing. There was a waste paper basket and Harry
throw his ballot shreds in it. The official said, “Sir, you will
have to put the pieces in the ballot box or we will be one ballot
short.” So Harry had to find all the pieces and put them in the
box. It probably made their boring day. I put my ballot in the box
and we swanned out.
I worked in a lab once with 7 or so
other people. One was new to our group and a problem. He was rude and
sarcastic. He never said sorry or thank you. He argued about
everything. He came in grumpy and went home grumpy. Every day I would
be telling Harry about the things he did that day until I had got
them all off my chest.
Harry mentioned this to some other
wives and husbands and found that they were having to listen to their
partner going on about this horrible man. A few of them decided to
have a party and sort the bad feeling out, which they did.
So on the night of the party, the new
person came and was sweetness and light. He was so charming and nice
that it was almost embarrassing. Harry kept looking at me like, “this
is the guy you've been complaining about?”
Well, it turned out that our co-worker
had joined a group or read an inspiring book (I forget which) and had
a sort of conversion. When this came out, everyone thought the whole
situation was very funny. After a while, slowly over time, he started
to get some of his old testiness back but by that time we were all
friends and frankly it was a relief not to have someone quite that
I remember no Christmases when I was
very small. I think it was probably the war that had made my early
Christmases so unmemorable (as well as my young age). In my memory there were no
Christmas trees or cards or special foods (except turkey) and gifts
were useful things like scarfs or mittens. I remember the putting up
of a stocking but not what was in it. There were carols and older
children doing the Christmas story in the village but not much else I
can remember. Those were hard times – not recovered from the dirty
thirties before we were into the war.
But things improved. I remember the
first year that there were Japanese oranges and everyone was excited
to have them. They were nice. I remember the first time there were
dates, figs, walnuts and other treats. There was the first magical
tinsel and learning how to put it on a tree. I remember Mom and Dad
often searching for the one bulb that was bad and stopping the whole
string from coming on. Christmas changed from unremembered and dull
to a great shiny happy time.
The first Christmas gift I remember was
just at the very start of better Christmases. It was a canary. I had
never had a pet; I didn't expect one; and I liked it. It was not
useful and it was not food and it is not a tiny toy. It came with a
cage and little food and water containers. We can in from outside and
took off our winter coats. There was the cage when a cloth over it. I
did not recognize that it was a present, just something with a cloth
over it. Dad said, “We are going to give you your present now”,
and he took the cloth off the cage. There was the little yellow bird.
What a surprise. Later when it decided to sing, it was wonderful.
I liked having a canary but it did not
last long. It died of fright when a feral cat from the yard got into
the house while we were outside. There was a mess from the cat
climbing and jumping around. The cage was closed and the canary
inside, untouched but dead. The death did not take away the magic of
the Christmas gift – Christmas had changed and just got better and
better for quite a few years.