Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dreaming Of A White Garden

First published in the February 22 issue of The Oxford Journal by Sara Mattinson.

What does it mean to dream in mid-February about working in a lush flower garden? Is it a sign of an early spring?
On the coldest night of the year, I dreamed about gardening, a dream likely inspired by my mother’s phone call from Georgia wanting to know what zone we live in (she wants to plant moonflowers). An armchair traveller, she’s been reading about Tuscany all winter and already has called to inform us that she wants to plant a rose garden. So while the house snapped and cracked in the minus 27 degree night air, I dreamed about the work to be done when the snow is gone and the plants are growing. 
Winter is hard on gardeners but good for gardens. Freezing improves the soil while snow insulates plants. The bitter cold kill pests and diseases. While cold winds and blowing snow cleanses the   weed-weary spirits of gardeners, it is also Nature’s time for cleaning up her space. 
Gardeners survive winter by obsessively reading plant catalogues, drawing big, dark circles around preferences and enticements, however improbable. The catalogues slip between the sheets with us, our bedtime reading full of luscious, lulling words like begonia and peony, lily and alstromeria. As a result, we dream in splashes of red and pink, yellow and purple, with long strokes of green. Sprouts of colour blooming in the dirt our of minds. 
Winter erases the gardener’s memory. We forget the failures and excesses from the year before, and begin to believe (again) that this year, it will all work out: the ornamental grass won’t spread, the weeds won’t come up, the $30 plant won’t die, the mail order roots won’t rot while we wait for the ground to drain. The long, dark, snowy days of winter allow us to forget the impracticality of gardening, the time and expense, the backbreaking work, the endless watering, the finite results we eat or gaze upon for a few precious weeks. 
In my dream, I was in the large flower garden in our front yard, laying slate rocks to widen the garden paths that are tangled under plants every year by mid-July and digging up poppy plants to transplant them to other garden beds. The dream gave me answers to questions I had yet asked, questions that would have chewed at me, like black flies, in June. What to do? What to do?
There is only one cure to this mid-winter madness of dreaming about gardening: It is time to begin ordering roots and seeds because every gardener knows, winter is over when those boxes of possibilities arrive. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

In This Week's Issue of The Oxford Journal

When you are writing a regular column, you learn to recognize the jolt of a column idea, and you go with it because that deadline is always looming. 
This week in the newspaper, Field Notes explores the idea of socializing a puppy when you live in the country. How do you find other dogs and other people and other places to expose your dog to? I think the answer is obedience classes but my husband disagrees...
My friend Jane says if you only teach your dog one command, make it the recall one. A dog that comes when it is called, or better yet, freezes when it hears its name then knows it has to return to you immediately when it hears the word "Come", is going to be safer, happier and more trustworthy (and more full of treats, in our case). She reminded me that walking in woods around my home makes it particularly essential that my dogs have total recall - hello, coyotes! - so I'm to stop thinking about columns while the dogs run wild and instead, recognize that every moment is a training moment when you are with a dog. 
In a choice between two photos, this one didn't make the cut because it needed more space to do it justice. 

Abby performs perfect recall. With ears like that, she obviously hears me calling her. The promise of peanut butter flavoured treats helps, too.

Scenes from the Outdoor Cafeteria

We feed all the traditional creatures - blue jays, finches, chickadees - but we welcome others as well, if only for the entertainment value. 

We are really enjoying the presence of this pheasant this winter. We spotted him last summer in the field out back with a hen but no sign of her lately; likely the local fox caught up to her. He is becoming more and more comfortable being this close to the house but I suppose if the food is there, the bird will come. Skittish, though; any movement inside the house sends him scurrying away across the snow, road-runner -like, to the cover of the pine trees by the road. He seems to have figured out that if the crows are feeding, it's safe. We've figured out that if we want to see the cock pheasant, we can't scare the crows away. 
Pheasants love sunflower seeds, by the way, not just cracked corn.

Our fine feathered friend has my husband on the hunt for ring-necked pheasants to bring home and become a flock with this gentleman. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

It's Coming, It's Coming

Another (small?) snowstorm is on the way but that's not what has the dogs' noses, and my colleague Jane's nose sniffing the air.
"It feels like spring," Jane said as we headed out of the office for lunch.
It was cold - minus 6 - but it was sunny. I couldn't smell spring, not today, but I knew what she meant. Even though the snowfall warning claims we're in for 15 centimetres, there is definitely a spring-like vibe in our part of the world these days. Considering our chickens have been laying between 4 and 6 eggs a day since February 2 (let's see a groundhog try that!), it seems that the true arbiters of an early spring have spoken.
I have to admit, however, that I'm not looking forward to it. I know! I know!  Crazy lady here but I have a five month old puppy that needs plenty of exercise and walking on frozen paths I've spent all winter pummeling into existence is vastly preferred to wet, muddy trails --- oh, oh, oh, I can't even think about it. The muddy feet! The muddy bellies! The muddy boots!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

In Conversation With...Shirley McLeaming

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, February 1, 2012, by Sara Mattinson.

The first impression I have of Shirley McLeaming is how pretty she is. It could be the deep magenta cowl neck sweater she’s wearing on her trim body, or the golden waves of her hair, or her sparkling brown eyes. I’m certainly not noticing that she’s in her late sixties, a mother of two and grandmother of five, or that she’s missing most of her nose. Shirley invites me into the large kitchen of the old farmhouse she moved into thirteen years ago and we sit down at her table. Shirley’s house on Route 6 between Port Howe and Pugwash sits on top of a hill at the end of a long lane and she has a sweeping view of Toney Bay and the Northumberland Strait.
“I was born in New Brunswick but raised in Wallace,” she explains. “I moved back here [from Ontario] in 1999. I’m glad I did. It’s so peaceful and quiet.” 
As the saying goes, you get what you need whether you know it or not because ten years later, Shirley found out she had a rare cancer. 
“My nose was sore but I thought it was just a bite,” she says. She saw a doctor in the fall of 2009 but it wasn’t until the following spring that she saw a specialist. “I had a lot of radiation and that didn’t kill it so they had to operate.” 
She traces a finger up the left side of her face, across her hairline then down from the tip of her eyebrow to her mouth to show where they cut the left side of her face in order to remove her nose and upper lip in the summer of 2011. 
Not only did the radiation fail to kill the cancer, it did a lot of damage. All the skin of her face was burned and the inside of her mouth, including her tongue, blistered. Shirley has been using the juice from a huge aloe vera plant that sits on another table as well as Vitamin E to heal her skin and it must be working; the surgical scars on her forehead are almost invisible. Despite this, her skin remains sensitive to sun and wind, a torture for someone who enjoys being outside.
“The sun doesn’t even have to be out,” Shirley says. “It’s very painful.”
And yet, she’s hoping to be in her canoe and fishing at Angevine Lake this spring. 
“The worse part of it was the pain,” Shirley admits. She doesn’t mean the pain of surgery; she’s talking about the pain of the cancer. “It was a shooting pain and I was on morphine for it and it was terrible. When I woke up after the surgery, the first thing I said was, ‘I don’t have any more pain.’ I still get pain but it’s not as bad. Sometimes it gets to you. I can’t do the things I want to do, like go on the four-wheeler. That’s the most difficult, not being able to do what I want to do because I suffer so much pain. Then it gets to you, you get a little depressed. But like Dad always said: Kick yourself in the ass and get going.” 
She laughs. “I’m so lucky. I could be dead.” 
Her father raised Shirley, her four sisters and their one brother on his own after their mother died of cancer at the age of 34. Shirley also lost one of her sisters in a car accident, and was herself seriously injured in an accident when she was 27. How does she explain her positive attitude and her cheerful resilience when she’s endured so much?   
“I accept things as they come,” Shirley explains then laughs again. “I kind of have to since I moved down here.” 
She lists a series of unfortunate events including a badly broken wrist, a mauling by a dog, and a finger crushed while using a saw. After that, she found out she had cancer. 
Her nose was removed last July then rebuilt in August using bone from her face and part of her right ear. There will be another surgery to continue recreating a properly working nose. Shirley points out that she has trouble breathing because her nostrils are too small; indeed, they look pinched, almost closed off. 
“When I got rid of the pain, I could take anything,” she says when asked how she reacted the first time she saw her face post-surgery. “I don’t think anyone realized how great the pain was that I was in.”
She’s practically shrugging off the dramatic change to her face. It’s shocking how upbeat this woman is. 
“Looks are a very tiny thing in life whether people know it or not,” she says. “Sure, people want to look good but I always say what you have in your heart and how you think are more important than being beautiful.” 
Nestled into the cowl neck of her sweater is a gold necklace with a pair of cutting shears as a charm, a gift from a friend because Shirley was a hairdresser in Ontario. She also crochets and quilts and paints. She repaired and renovated the old farmhouse herself (there are sparkles in the paint she put on the kitchen floor). Cancer and the other tragedies have not altered her positive outlook or her creative energy. These days, Shirley is excited about taking up one of her favourite past- times again. 
“I couldn’t paint for the last two years on account of my nose,” she explains. The smell of the oil paint, as well as perfume and cigarettes, made her eyes water. She’s pulling out canvases to show me, and a calligraphy set, another hobby, so it’s inevitable she’s going to bring out a photograph. 
It seems brave of Shirley to show me a photo of herself from the days before cancer invaded her life because she was a very pretty woman. Yet as I glance away from the picture to look at Shirley, the truth is as plain as the nose on my own face. She is no longer pretty; now she is beautiful. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Walking In A Winter Wonderland

What great days we're having for walking, whether in the woods, in town, or along the old rail bed trail. There is no excuse for not being active in the wintertime although those of us with puppies that have reached that age when they could run and play for ten hours a day without stopping, we love it whether we want to or not.
I once worked at a summer camp with a woman who claimed she was immune to mosquito bites because years earlier, she'd allowed them to swarm her and bite her all over. Whether it's true or not, the theory is kind of the same for weather. I've always found that being forced to be out in whatever the weather makes you more immune to it. Living in Vancouver, where it rains A LOT, you not only accept rain as a near-daily part of your life, you also appreciate that spending $400 on a Gortex jacket is more than worth the money.
Right now in northern Nova Scotia, we are enjoying fresh snow that isn't too deep for walking. My friend Jane and I also are enjoying a new discovery: the trail that once was the old train tracks through south Oxford. It's a new discovery only in that we realized it's the perfect place to walk the dogs, thanks in great part to the snowmobilers who have tramped the snow down, making for excellent walking conditions. With the woods on either side, we were protected from the chilling wind; we actually had to loosen zippers and remove gloves. On a beautiful day like Sunday, it was hard to believe we didn't encounter anyone else out with their dogs, reveling in a perfect winter's day.
It's what we learn from living with dogs: Carpe Diem!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Heart To Heart

First published in the February 8 issue of The Oxford Journal by Sara Mattinson.

When my niece was four years old, she learned how to sign her name. She loved to draw so, suddenly, she was able to sign her name - Mimi - to every picture. She then went through a phase of drawing hearts on all her pictures.
At the same time, I read an elegant phrase about how the hoof prints of deer look like the hearts that young children draw. Although I can’t remember the author or the exact quote, this idea has stayed with me because a few days later, a picture arrived in the mail from Mimi, who lives in the southern United States. On the back, she’d signed her name and drawn a heart. A perfect hoof-shaped heart.
I’m not clever enough to explain what the deep, symbolic meaning of that could be but Mimi is seven now and I still have that picture. Perhaps the way it happened, the quote then the proof, made the connection indelible to me, for every time I see deer tracks in the field or on the lane behind our house, I search until I find the one that looks like my niece’s heart.
Tracks are easy to find in winter, the snow providing a blank canvas for deer and fox, rabbit and squirrel, crows and pheasants, and if very lucky, the wing tips of partridge. Sometimes I worry as I walk around our property with my head down, looking, that I am not paying attention, yet in truth, every sense is engaged. While my eyes scout for tracks, my ears are tuned to the call of a pileated woodpecker or the sound of water running under the snow or the whump-whump of  the wings of  crows cutting through cold morning air. My nose draws in the smells of frozen air and earth while my hands tingle from the cold. (The dogs love these walks because I pay no attention to them; they are free to follow a trail of rabbit tracks into the copse of poplar trees.) Every step makes me feel acutely alive and grateful to be in this place. 
A few years ago, just before moving here, I stepped out of a coffee shop with a large cappuccino in my hand. I took a sip then looked down at my topless beverage. The tilting action of my sip had caused the cinnamon and foamed milk to swirl into the shape of a heart. I stood in the parking lot, astounded and searching for someone, anyone, with whom to share it. It was a random occurrence, but part of me believes it was a simple affirmation of my decision to follow my heart.  
When I come across a line of heart-shaped hoofs in the snow, it reminds me of my (only) niece and how much I wish I could share these walks with her, show her the connection she created for me with the deer. Dropping to my knees, I deglove a hand to trace a finger in a perfectly-shaped hoof print, drawing a line from the deer through me into my niece, connecting us through the heart.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Mid-Winter Night's Dream

Minus 22. Coldest morning of the winter. I let the husband get up first so he can build up the fire again, get the house warm, heat the kettle. 
A frigid mid-February night (only one of a few in this mild winter of ours) yet last night, I dreamed about gardening. Prompted by my mother phoning from Georgia earlier in the day to ask what zone we are in. We built onto our house for her and she has a second floor balcony. Not sure if she wants to plant in pots on the balcony or plant in the ground to entwine around the posts but she wants moonflower and jasmine; what she wants and what our zone will allow may not be compatible. 
I'd already planned to put clematis there. The gardening wars are about to commence. 
In my dream, I was in the big flower garden down front, the one that needs work. Much work. We renovated last summer and so lived away from home, and away from the gardens, for four months. I don't think I even pulled weeds, let alone tended the garden the way I had for the four previous summers. In my dream, I was digging up poppy plants and knowing where to move them; I was trying to place chunks of slate in order to widen a pathetic stone path that gets overgrown and unusable by mid-July. 
It was all so real. But the best part, now that I think about it, in my dream, there were no mosquitos and the work I was doing didn't hurt my back. 
What does it mean to dream in mid-February about your gardens? Is it a sign of an early spring? 

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Deer In The Moonlight

The deer have found the carrots hidden in the garden. We didn't insulate them under straw to overwinter them; we simply never got around to eating them all, even with the rabbits, or tilling up the garden to rot until spring. Yet the carrots are frozen and buried under snow, and the deer have never bothered our vegetable garden before. 
There was one, a doe, standing in the garden when I arrived home from work, and two more, her old fawns, in the back field. They took off, but not in a great panic which is nice to see, the old girl picking her way slowly, without real concern, across the snowy field to catch up to her two offspring who had disappeared awhile ago into the woods. When I told my husband, he said they might return at night to feed again.
At midnight, under that great spotlight of a full moon, when the pup stirred, I got up to see if she needed to pee but no one was stirring in the dog bed by the time I reached it. Luckily for me. If I'd opened the sliding door to let the pup out, I would have disturbed the three deer standing in the garden munching carrots in the moonlight. 
I wonder why this winter, a mild and easy one, they found this buffet. Is it the only time we've left food on the earth's table? Or are they beginning to believe that they are truly safe in our backyard? My sleepy eyes were filled with loveliness and I returned to bed to dream about green grass and flowers. 

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Send Someone To Fetch Me

This column was published in the February 1st issue of The Oxford Journal by Sara Mattinson.

As we waited for the snow/rain storm to hit last Friday, forecasters kept talking about it starting in the west and then saying, “it’s already snowing in Yarmouth.”
Wait a minute, I thought. Aren’t we in the west? Isn’t Cumberland County the west part of Nova Scotia while Yarmouth is southeast? Or are we north? But when I drive home from Halifax, I’m heading west...right?
It appears I can only drive in this province when there is cloud cover. If it’s sunny, I have no idea what direction I’m heading. The sun is never where I expect it to be. When I drive out of Halifax at four in the afternoon, I expect the sun to be in front of me, because I’m heading west. But look! It’s shining in the driver’s side window and that should be south. 
“I don’t get how this province is situated,” I complained to my mother as the sun tucked in behind the car. 
“That’s nothing,” she replied, “I don’t get debit and credit.”
Which just proves the importance of good signage, and that some people aren’t ready for a cash-less economy. 
It’s not that I don’t have any sense of direction; I only get lost when I don’t know where I am (and that only happens when we’re four-wheeling and my husband decides to “see where this trail goes”). Perhaps I’m turned around here because I was born and raised along the 401 corridor between Toronto and Kingston. It’s a straight highway running across the southern part of the province. Head east in the morning, the sun is in your eyes;  head west in the afternoon, the sun is in your eyes. It’s all perfectly obvious. 
Yet here, I can’t even tell where north and south, east and west when I’m standing in my backyard. Here’s what I think the problem is: The roads in Nova Scotia are crooked. It appears they were built according to the local geography, not the 90 degree angles of the compass. Winding river? Build the road alongside it. Hills? Go around them. Hey, let’s follow that eagle! I hope I don’t come back in my next life as a Nova Scotia crow because I’ll never be able to get around the way I’m supposed to.
Maybe a map will clear up my confusion. Or appears that the actual land mass of Nova Scotia lies north and south, which still  doesn’t explain why Yarmouth is considered west. Cumberland County still looks “west” but definitely “north” of Halifax. I might as well drive with my eyes closed.
All I know for sure is this: No matter where I am in Nova Scotia, no matter where the sun shines or where the snow starts, I am where I am supposed to be. And if the road signs in this province ever fall over, I’m lost. 

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Lost And Found

For my column next week,  I need a particular drawing from my niece and a particular quote from a writer. As it goes with life, when you need something, even though you can picture it in your mind, you simply can't find it.
You know messy people say they always can find what they need, that they know where everything is but to the rest of us, we can't imagine how? That's the order to chaos: Until you move it, it stays right where you put it. But we renovated most of our house last summer and my office was packed up then rearranged and unpacked weeks later. So my organized mess So when I decided to write about this particular topic (hint: it's about deer and love), I knew I wanted that drawing and that quote.

But I couldn't find either. All week, I searched. Finally, I found the article online but after reading through it, I couldn't find the reference. That's frustrating. I'm sure this is the author (Rick Bass) who made a comment about deer hooves being shaped like hearts that a young hild draws but I don't know where I read it. Finding it, however, gave me a point of reference (date) and since the drawing, and hopefully my copy of the quote, wasn't where it was supposed to be, perhaps I had tucked it inside one of my notebooks.
Oh, sweet taste of surprise success! I found it in my May 2009 notebook (which is still not where it should have been!). Oh, bitter taste of disappointment. There is no quote with it.
The point of this little tale? Just that writers get a bit obsessive when they have a story to tell. Oh, and we keep EVERYTHING.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

More Snow Today

Yesterday was a bona fide snow storm; the ten-minute drive home from work took twenty minutes and my hands were cramped by the time I pulled into our driveway. So, to the guy in the large red pickup truck that came barrelling up behind me, what were you thinking? And no, I'm not going more than 50 km/hr on an unplowed road. Yeesh.
Halfway home, where the road curves into the opening of the river, a fox trotted out onto the road. When it finally saw me coming, it gave a little jump - 'Oh, what are you doing out on the roads in this weather?' - then leaped over the ditch and disappeared into the woods.
More snow today but manageable; pretty and wintery, not blustery and stressful. Speaking of which, I'm supposed to be planning my hand-outs for the editing workshop on Saturday but I can't stop staring out the window. Thick or light, I am a fan of snow. It is quiet and beautiful, not noisy and wet like rain. Already had the necessary walk in the snow but perhaps this loveliness calls for another indulgence.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

In Conversation With...Frank McQueen

First published in the January 18 issue of The Oxford Journal,  by Sara Mattinson

Frank McQueen married late in life, at the age of 57, once he was introduced to the right woman: Etta Wilson Montrose of Wallace. They met in Ontario but settled in Pugwash after their wedding and will celebrate their 12th anniversary this summer. Those vows – In sickness and in health, Till death do we part – must resonate deeply with Frank these days. Shortly after their 10th anniversary, at the age of 84, Etta was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. 
“First of all, she had a fall,” Frank explains. 
Etta broke her hip and spent three weeks recovering in hospital, and Frank believes his wife started to decline after that. 
“We noticed that she was forgetting stuff and getting confused. She started having problems that she didn’t have before. It got more and more noticeable. I hate to say this but you figure, ‘If I could only ignore this,’ but you can’t. It’s something that has to be dealt with,” Frank says. “It was hard. It’s not an easy thing for a spouse to go through that.”
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, fatal neurological disease for which there is no cure. It is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 64 per cent of dementia cases in Canada. Symptoms include having difficulty remembering things, making decisions and performing everyday activities. Of the half a million Canadians who have dementia, three-quarters are women.
It was a family member who brought up the possibility that Etta might wander away from their home.
 “The greatest fear is that she would go out in the middle of the night and I wouldn’t hear her,” he says. “Goodness knows how far she’d get before I woke up.”  
Since the couple frequently took their lawn chairs down to Eaton Park and watched the water for hours, Frank was concerned Etta would head to the water and that’s when he faced one of the most difficult decisions a spouse will ever be forced to make. 
Etta moved to East Cumberland Lodge in Pugwash in November 2010.
“It’s a heckuva job,” Frank says of the decision and the resulting process. “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
Fortunately for Frank, Etta has 10 children. Some live in Ontario (including the daughter who introduced her mother to Frank) but the rest live in Nova Scotia, a few as close as Westchester and Amherst.  He considers himself lucky.
“Someone having to go through that with no family? Gut-wrenching. I’m thankful [Etta’s family] was supportive. They realized, too, that she was different and felt that something should be done.” 
According to Frank, after the assessment by the geriatric specialist, it was simply a case of waiting until a bed became available. Not everyone will find a bed in their home community but the McQueens were fortunate that when it was Etta’s turn at the top of the waiting list, the first available bed was at East Cumberland Lodge. 
 “Now don’t you think that wasn’t a hard day,” the affable Frank says of moving Etta to the Lodge. “We told her she was going there to visit. We had to tell her eventually that she was staying.” 
He admits the first four months were hard. 
“She asked ‘Why am I here? Why can’t I go home?’  She was constantly on my case: ‘You don’t love me anymore. Why did you put me in here?’ That was the first thing that came out. That hurt but I often think now how I would react. In all fairness, I really shouldn’t say anything because I don’t know how I’d react. All of a sudden, someone’s going to tell me I’m going there.”
With the passing of time, however, comes acceptance. The couple were spending Christmas Eve at the home of Etta’s daughter who lives in Westchester when Etta signalled her desire to leave. 
“Etta said, ‘Frank, I want to go home.’ She knew where home was. I took her back to her room and she never made a fuss. It’s a lot easier than it used to be.”
But just days later, they would be separated further. The Lodge closed on Boxing Day because of a virus and Frank hasn’t seen his wife since Christmas. 
The phone rings. Because Frank is hard of hearing, his phone is turned up so it’s clear the Lodge is on the other end. Normally a call from the nursing home means a problem but not today. It is the relief co-ordinator inviting Frank to visit his wife in a room near the main entrance. Leaving the dirty tea mugs right on the table, he pulls on his coat, eager to get there, to see Etta for the first time in almost three weeks
“Oh, I talk to her on the phone every day,” he says. “I call her and she calls me. It’s funny, if I don’t call by a certain time, she gets on the answering machine: Where the hell are you?” 
At this, he laughs, a big, loud belly laugh. He is a friendly, good-natured man, kind and devoted. Frank McQueen may not be able to name every one of his wife’s 20 grandchildren but it’s clear that he will enjoy every lovely, poignant, tender moment he gets to spend with his bride.