Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Perfect Evening In August

My favourite morning hour is 6 to 7 before the world is awake and bright and loud. This is when I walk the dogs.  My favourite evening hour is 8 to 9 after the sun has sunk below the treeline but there is still light in the sky and in the shadows.  This is when I tend my gardens. 
"What are you doing?" came the voice through the dusk.
"Collecting rocks," I replied. 
We have a pile of slate rock at the edge of our property -- there is nothing better than a rock pile in the backyard -- and after the sun goes down, I know I won't come across a snake snoozing on a warm stone. While tending my gardens, I notice places that need something -- helenium there, echinacea here, rudebekia everywhere -- and often I choose to fill gaps with rocks. So in the evening, when my energy has returned after supper, I fill the wheelbarrow with thick, flat rocks. The chickens have gone to roost now and my husband is shutting them up for the night.
"Want me to help?" he calls to me. He doesn't understand my fascination with rock but he's put in a call for more.
My standard answer: "No. Thank you."
None of this is work. It is a meditation. Crickets and peace are found in the tall grass. 
Then there is the ritual of communion. We built a deck on the south side of the house, off the bedroom, so that my husband can sit and watch the ospreys. Morning, noon, evening, that's where you find him (unless it's Happy Hour, when I get home from work; then he's on the front deck keeping the wine glasses topped up). He swears the ospreys talk to him.
It's our favourite deck now because it sits under two expansive maple trees so it is shady and cool even on a 33 degree day. We like it so much, our only cushioned deck furniture is out there (which the cat appreciates as well). 
A different happy hour after the sun has set. After my bath, after boiling the kettle, I join my husband last night on this deck with my mug of lemon water. It's late August and the change came a few weeks ago: shorter days, cooler nights, the disappearance of bugs. I want to buy notebooks and pens, embrace the thrill of clean slates and the promise of days to fill with words and drawings and new clothes. 
I wished to stay in Grade One forever but I had to learn to read. 
We sat out there until ten o'clock, giving it up only because it was bedtime. Said good night to the moon filling the rabbits' eyes with light, good night to the stars quivering on the tips of leaves. Reading helps me fall asleep, helps me sleep well if it's not a mystery. Last night, I started reading a memoir written by a woman who watched her husband have a stroke. A Hundred Names For Love is the title of the book. I could find a hundred names for peace.  Doesn't matter if the book is sad (we've all been there, haven't we?) because her writing is rich and pure, like a meditation. 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

If Music Be The Food of Life, Play On

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, August 8, 2012 by Sara Mattinson.

In the early 1980’s, my sister and I belonged to a cottage band. 
Someone had given us an old drum set so, along with our two best friends, we created a band called “The Goldenrods” and wrote one song. Our only, captive audience was our four parents, who graciously and uncomplainingly listened to our one and only concert, performed in a cottage with no ceiling, just open rafters. Imagine the acoustics. 
We were 10 years old and we were bad but thirty years later, my sister still knows the lyrics to that song. That’s what music – the homegrown, kitchen party kind – is meant to do: Leave a lasting impression. 
That’s why the various open mic/jam sessions/kitchen parties that are offered on a regular basis around this county need to be supported.
Because you won’t believe the talent that’s out there. As my husband would say, “Bar none, that was the best night of music we’ve ever heard.” And he’d be right in saying that every Friday night. The talent that shows up at our preferred venue in Pugwash – but there are regular nights like this in Oxford, Wallace and Tidnish Bridge as well – actually takes our breath away, and not just from singing along. 
These homegrown performers don’t make any money; they come out simply for the love of playing, for the thrill of getting up in front of  both friends and strangers and doing something they enjoy doing, something they are really good at. The crowd – especially those of us with no musical talent –  is always appreciative.
One evening, two brothers, high school students, came to sing, accompanying themselves on guitars, and the younger had a tough time hitting a note up in the range. He got embarrassed, hesitated, but the crowd wouldn’t let him off easy; we egged him on to try again and when he nailed that note on the second try, we clapped and cheered. In front of a crowd, once the first song is done and the rush of nerves passes, you can see these young performers expand, grow more confident, mature. Last week, a 17-year-old visiting from Cape Breton wowed the small audience with his guitar and vocal skills. Afterwards, a seasoned veteran of performing told him, “Keep at it.” That’s all that teenager needs to hear.
How many generations of families have passed their evenings singing and playing instruments in their own home, music and laughter the soundtrack of most Saturday nights? How many young people, when handed a harmonica or fiddle or guitar, learned how to play on the spot? Now that ear buds and smart phones distract and consume attention, we might be in danger of losing this unique musical experience. Nothing compares to live music done in a small venue like a kitchen or cafĂ©. Could we be raising a generation that doesn’t know the thrill of a spontaneous jam session that breaks out at the end of the night when no one wants to stop and go home, when three guitars, a banjo, bongos and two harmonicas play their hearts out while a young woman sings? These moments are a testament to the quality of talent, the joy of the audience.
Kudos to everyone who hosts an open mic event, who provides a venue for performers young and old to share what they love with friends and strangers, who send people home to bed with a song in their heart and the promise to keep at it.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The 4th Annual Beckwith Bash

This festival of music and food is becoming one of Cumberland County's don't-miss events. Happens the third weekend of August.
Doubling as a CD launch for the hosts and host band, Fresia, six bands performed on the main stage while several others kept us entertained between sets from the lounge.
Mark this on your 2013 calendar. Worth the drive to Beckwith!

Belly dancing workshop with Griselda Manning. 

Isaac Fresia stirs the big pot of gumbo.

Keeping cool at the pond. 

Ricky Ferris performs in the lounge. 

Slainte! Toasting the amazing weather, I'm sure.

Definitely kid-friendly. Even the children get a special place to play, including dress up. 

Kim Harris of Amherst entertains the crowd. 

The new, double CD from Fresia and Charlotte Fresia.

Hosts Sam, Eric and Charlotte Fresia begin their two-hour set at seven o'clock.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

In Conversation With...Jean Smith

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

Ever wonder about the old house tucked away at the corner of the beach road and Norm Greene Trail? Or that spry 83-year-old woman who walks the beach twice a day, all summer long, in sunshine and in rain? Ever wonder why it’s called Heather Beach?
“As far as I can make out,” Jean Smith says, “my father’s family lived down the bay road and my mother lived up the shore. They all went to school together in Port Howe. They would meet back here at the beach.”
After Jean’s parents, John and Sarah Dunbar, married, they decided they wanted to buy the beach property. According to Jean, her grandfather had a share in the land and the newlyweds bought it in 1917.    
The piece was 135 acres of farmland along the Northumberland Strait, stretching, in modern terms, from the park to the end of the Norm Greene Trail. It was owned originally by a man named Henry Heather, whose house burned down around 1900. A few years after purchasing the home-less property, the Dunbars tore down a house in Carrington and rebuilt it at the beach. Jean’s oldest sister Margaret inherited it and her son John lives there now.  
“They farmed the land,” Jean says of her parents. “It was pretty well cleared as hay fields and grain fields. There was a barn over there. From far and wide, Linden, Shinimicas, all those areas, people would come by horse and buggy on Sunday. They’d tie their horses in the shade of the barn and put on their bathing suits then picnic on the beach. Around 1920, people from Oxford came and they wanted a piece of land from Pa to build cottages. They bought a strip of land from here down to what we call the gully and they subdivided it.”
Those first cottages are closest to the park and the road is the same farm road from 1917. Later, people from Springhill bought a lot of land “back this way,” says Jean.
Her directional gestures are referenced from her own cottage sitting on two acres at the corner of the beach road and Norm Greene Trail. 
“Pa sold the best lots to other people,” Jean says.
Born in 1929, Jean has only known cottages on the beach and she remembers how the cottagers would arrive for the summer. 
“They would come for two months. They would have a truck and they would take their stoves and fridges and mattresses and kitchen tables and chairs and bring everything from home to the cottages. When they were finished at the beach, they would tote them all back home,” she says.
The farm provided milk to the cottagers as well as ice, blocks taken from the river during the winter and preserved in hay to be cut into chunks for people’s ice chests throughout the summer.  
Her husband, Harold, says that about half the original Dunbar land is gone to cottages; what is left is far from the beach. Based on a meter reader’s total back in the 1970’s, which was 300, he guesses there are at least 450, maybe even 500 cottages at Heather Beach now. 
“We associated with the beach people,” Jean says of her childhood. “We would meet them on the beach and know them. In the wintertime, there was nobody here. It was vacant, the snow blew around. So we were isolated. In the summertime, everything opened up to a whole new way of living.”
She remembers lying in bed, listening to the music from Merlin’s Dance Hall but she was not allowed to go there. Yet it would be Jean, the youngest sister, who met and married one of those beach-goers. 
“I sort of strayed into her yard,” Harold grins, looking happy and still dashing at the age of 89.
As Harold remembers meeting his wife, another memory surfaces. 
“Jim Gogan from Springhill, he used to have some movies,” he says. “That was interesting and drew a lot of people. You brought a blanket and watched the screen. They played the same movie two or three times a week then they’d make a change. Partway through, they’d come around and collect 10 or 15 cents from each couple to help with expenses.”
After Jean completed her nurse’s training, they married in 1957, bought their 2-acre property from a brother-in-law in 1968 and built their bright, spacious cottage. Of the five Dunbar sisters, only two are still living and Sybil also has a cottage near the old farmhouse. 
“It’s quieter now than it ever has been,” Jean observes about the beach these days. “There’s not as many children coming to the beach. Years past, on a day like this, you could hear children laughing and playing on the beach, screaming, crying, dogs barking. Now, it’s almost like a resort.”
At 83, Jean relishes her two months at the beach she has known all her life and walks on the sand twice a day. 
“Since John retired, he tends his two old aunties,” Jean says of her nephew with a laugh. “He walks with me morning and night, just so the old girl won’t fall but I’m okay. We always walk the beach and that’s the part I like the best. In all kinds of weather. I love the storms.” 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

True Patriot Bird

This is one of the young from this year sitting on top of our flag pole. It is skittish, sitting this close to the house, so I had to sneak up on it to get just this one shot, the first shot I've managed since it started perching on the flag pole a few weeks ago.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Cumberland County's New Tourist Attraction?

Drivers along Route 301 near Riverview might be forgiven for thinking we have our own Loch Ness monster trolling the channel of River Philip. 

It only appears at low tide so it is safe to say it's only an intriguing piece of driftwood. On the other hand, there have been several sightings by credible witnesses - including my husband - of a fish as large as a small shark or whale. On Monday afternoon, while fishing River Philip for bass, my husband noticed a distinctive wake coming in the opposite direction, fell a hit against the side of his aluminum boat hard enough to push the boat over, then saw the wake carry on up the river away from him. 
Now that's spooky...

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Secrets To A Long And Happy Marriage

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, July 25, 2012 by Sara Mattinson.

Six years ago this week, I went on a blind date with a Nova Scotia country boy. Five years ago this Saturday, we were married so I’d say our matchmaker knows me better than I know myself.
In advance of this anniversary, I phoned our cupid , a.k.a. Gary Mundle, to ask him what he thinks the secret to a long and happy marriage is (I realize people don’t have to be married in order to enjoy a long and happy relationship but for simplicity, one word includes all partnerships). 
According to Gary, “Marriage is only what partners put into it. You have to talk. Every day, every night. It’s all about communication. I find most couples who break up don’t know how to talk to each other.”
And even after 22 years of marriage, Gary said, “I never leave for work without kissing Carol good-bye.”
My father-in-law Donn expressed the same idea when I sat down on the front porch with him and Mary, his bride of 64 years.
“I kiss her in the morning and I kiss her good night,” he said. 
Their union, too, came out of a blind date. A mutual friend fixed them up on a double date (although they don’t remember the movie they saw in Springhill) and two years later, at the ages of 19 and 21, Mary and Donn married. What do they think is the secret to a long marriage? 
“You just make a point of getting along,” Mary told me. “Years ago, when a couple got married, it was for life so you had to overlook things.”
A lot can happen in 64 years years, let alone five. There will be challenges, there will be trials.
“Through a long marriage, you hold each other up,” she said. “And there are a lot of times when you have to hold each other up.”
That’s what my friend Jane, married 21 years to Jerry, told me, too. 
“Whatever is going on, we have each other’s back,” she said.
She also echoed something my father-in-law said about being happy despite being poor. 
“The fact is we didn’t have a lot of money,” said Jane, “ so we couldn’t do anything and get in trouble. We had to make our own fun and make our own fun with the kids.”
My parents’ 46th wedding anniversary is coming up in August so I couldn’t write about marriage without talking to my mother, who lost her husband three years ago.
 “You have to love the person almost more than you love yourself,” she told me. “You both have to love each other unselfishly. We’ve lost the word ‘cherish’ in our society. That covers love and trust. And you have to laugh. You have to be able to laugh with each other and at each other when things happen.”
Watching my mother take care of the husband disappearing into dementia made me aware that whatever time we have together -- six years or sixty -- should not be taken for granted. 
“We had a good life,” my mother-in-law said. “And it’s almost over. We’ve climbed the mountain and now we’re heading down the other side.”
Which is both a blessing and a miracle. And a lifetime of good night kisses. 

My in-laws in 1948:

My parents in 1966: 

Monday, August 06, 2012

Before Everything Dries Up

Boy, was I disappointed to see periods of rain disappear from the forecast for today and tomorrow. This is a hot, dry summer and now even the mosquitoes are disappearing because of it. Not that I'm a fan of those but we know how these things work: the mosquitoes go then what do the swallows eat?
Not using our precious well water to keep the mostly-perennial gardens going so here are some photos of my flowers while they are thirsty but not yet dried up. With no rain in the forecast this whole week, I don't know how much longer we can keep the gardens of 2012 alive so must enjoy the beauty while it lasts. Everything is coming and going sooner this year. People complained about all the rain last summer but for the flower gardeners, it was lush.
I don't even want to think what the vegetable farmers are enduring right now.

Liatris, a totally cool plant to have.

Echinacea, my favourite, so stiff and prickly with soft petals.

Bee balm behind the garden shed.

Phlox which has a scent that reminds my mother of her family cottage.

Lily, a beautiful surprise since I don't remember planting this.

Fern, named because that's the first place I saw her as a stray kitten, in my ferns, now likes to lounge in the creeping thyme (that hasn't done much creeping this year).

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Life's A Beach

Here's the thing about Nova Scotia: Our beaches are so great, they're almost better in the rain. In fact, I know an 83-year-old woman who stands on the bank of the beach by her cottage in Northport and watches a storm move in.
Today, however, we just played in a gentle rain at Blue Sea Beach near Malagash. A hidden jewel, for sure. It's quite a long beach and at low tide, the sand goes far out. We had it to ourselves on a rainy Thursday afternoon and the dogs played just like dogs should while we gave our legs a workout walking through the shin-deep water.

And there was nothing we deserved more on the drive home than an order of large fries from McMahon's in Wallace. Even wet, sleepy puppies will raise their heads for those thick, golden fries.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

In Conversation With...Bette & Alton MacAloney

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, July 18, 2012 by Sara Mattinson.

When I met Bette MacAloney five years ago, she was pale and thin, very frail-looking. I was told she had cirrhosis of the liver and assumed she was an alcoholic. 
This is what I know now: Bette does not drink but she did have cirrhosis and she was very sick. When we met, she was just completing treatment for hepatitis C, which she contracted at the age of 22 through a blood transfusion given to her after the birth of her second child in 1974.
Sitting in the cozy living room of their log home in Mount Pleasant, I ask Bette and Alton, her husband of 42 years, why they are talking about this now.
“Because there’s such a stigma that goes with hepatitis C,” Bette answers. “The whole stigma is because of ignorance. People don’t know and they don’t want to know.”
“Maybe her story can help someone,” Alton says. “Worldwide, one in twelve has it and doesn’t even know it.” 
Hepatitis C is transmitted through blood so that means anyone who gets a tattoo, shares needles or has unprotected sex could be at risk (receiving hep C through a blood transfusion is no longer an issue).
“It can kill you,” Alton says. “Untreated, you will develop cirrhosis of the liver.”
After 37 years and one long, hard battle to save her life, Bette decided it was time to speak out in the lead-up to World Hepatitis Day on July 28.  She hands me a bookmark. On one side is a photo of a  heavily tattooed arm and on the other side, a few facts about hepatitis C: It is a serious liver disease that can kill; 5,000 Nova Scotians are living with hepatitis C; it is 10 times more common than HIV in Atlantic Canada; it can be prevented but there is no vaccine.
Back in 1974, three months after the transfusion, Bette could see something was wrong with her.  
“I had yellow eyes, I had yellow skin, very dark coloured urine. I was very, very tired.” 
Recognizing the symptoms, her doctor admitted her to the hospital. 
“Back then, it was either serum hepatitis or infectious hepatitis,” Bette explains. “That’s all they knew about it. A nurse told me I’d contracted it from the blood. They told me I would be sick, tired, not feeling well, no energy for at least a year. And there I was with a new baby.”
The doctor assured her she would get over it and sure enough, a year later, Bette started to feel better. There were no letters for hepatitis then, no A, B or C. It wasn’t until 1998 that Bette learned which hepatitis she had. 
“Then it’s like you’re labelled,” she says.
She didn’t feel like anything was wrong and her doctor didn’t recommend any treatment but six years later, she had a new doctor who learned she had low platelets and bruised easily. A specialist discovered her enlarged spleen, ordered a biopsy of her liver and the next thing she knew, she was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. 
Without treatment, the hepatitis C in Bette’s system had not gone away; it had retreated to her liver, symptomlessly attacking it for more than three decades.
Without treatment, Bette had five to eight years to live.
“By the time we detected it, she was in early stage four of cirrhosis,” Alton says. “After all those years of flying free as a bird.”
The treatment was brutal. Bette’s condition was so advanced, she needed the heaviest dose she could stand. It lasted 18 months but Alton calls it 72 weeks because Bette had to have a needle a week and Alton gave her 71 needles after the nurse showed him how with the first one. The pre-loaded syringes cost $2,500 for a month’s supply but luckily, Alton’s health plan covered them. Bette also took six pills a day plus two sleeping pills. 
The effects on her, both physical and emotional, were wicked. She was flattened and strungout. 
“I felt sickly all the time,” she remembers. “I was cold all the time. I couldn’t stand motion; I couldn’t watch TV. I couldn’t even read. I continued to go downhill from day one. I was alone a lot because Alton had to work. We talked every hour and I rested a lot. Every little thing stressed me.”
Bette’s friend Debbie was not deterred by the impact of the treatment. She stepped up her visits, coming every other day, even in a snowstorm.
“I felt much better just having her company,” Bette says. “I named Debbie as my angel.”
According to Alton, they didn’t tell anyone that Bette’s treatment was for hepatitis C. 
“We said it was cirrhosis,” he says. “It wasn’t a lie. Would you sooner tell people you are an alcoholic or that you have hep C?” 
Except...it’s not contagious. We can drink out of the same cup, we can shake hands, she could even sneeze on me. Infection is only blood to blood. Alton has been tested and he is clear, concerned not for his health but his wife’s. Bette continues to test negative five years after treatment.
There were some really bad times – Alton says they could fight viciously over nothing – but that’s made them stronger, closer and more appreciative of their time together. Even though it took her another two years to recover from the treatment (which created other problems in her body), they’ve been to Disney World four times. 
 “There were times when I wanted to walk off the face of the planet but I would go through it again if I had to,” says Bette. “What else are you going to do? We’re not quitters. I want to be here.”