Saturday, June 28, 2008

Draw the Circle Wide

The problem with the world is that we draw the circle of our family too small.

Mother Theresa

I came across this quote today and it got me thinking about a wonderful story I was told the other day. A friend of mine quietly told me of something she’s been doing for the last several months and, despite Mother’s Theresa’s observation of our world, this story is one of widening our circle of family.

My friend and her husband have a favourite restaurant here in Saint John where they go for breakfast on the weekend. Usually they are served by the same personable young woman, Melissa (not her real name). Melissa looks straight into your eyes when she speaks to you, I was told, and she holds your gaze. While this is an engaging habit, it became apparent to my friend that Melissa also held her gaze to ensure that her customers looked at her eyes, too, and not at her mouth.

Melissa is missing two front teeth, has other teeth that are misaligned and cavities that need to be filled. In short, her mouth is in a bad state.

By now my friend knew that Melissa was a single Mom with two teenage daughters. And my friend also knew Melissa would always be relegated to waitressing if her teeth were not fixed. So she told her husband that she would like to offer to pay for Melissa’s dental work. Her husband was supportive so the next time they saw Melissa my friend asked Melissa if she would meet her for coffee the next day as she has something to discuss with her.

Melissa’s first reaction was to ask, “Have I done something wrong?”

When they met the next day and my friend told Melissa that she would like to pay for her to go to the dentist, Melissa burst into tears and fled to the bathroom to compose herself. They talked for a couple of hours over coffee and tears in Tim Horton’s.

“There are no strings attached,” my friend told her. “I was once a single mother, too, and I’d just like to do something to help you.”

Melissa countered that she’d never be able to pay her back and my friend told her that she didn’t expect to be paid back. She told Melissa that she had confidence in her and that she believed that someday Melissa would be in a position to help someone else. “Just pass it on if you can, that’s all I want,” my friend assured her.

My friend told her to go home and think about it and make sure she was comfortable with the proposal.


My friend went with Melissa to her first appointment and introduced her to the dentist. She still continues to go with Melissa when she can. Melissa has now had another couple of teeth pulled, the gaps - and several cavities - filled. She has one more dental appointment left.

The dental work tally has now hit about $2,500. and my friend told me with a conspiratorial grin that her impulse to help must have been right because “I haven’t even missed the money; it just seems like it was a little bit here and a little bit there.”

My friend also tells me that “You should see Melissa now. She not only has a beautiful smile, she has self confidence. She walks with a spring in her step. It is wonderful to see.”

I went to my friend’s home the other day and there was a small statue of an angel on her table and a wonderful letter from Melissa telling her how her life has been changed by this act of kindness.


My friend’s circle of family just got wider. I’m wondering how wide I can make my circle of family. How wide can you make yours?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Travelling with Mum

This weekend my sister Shirley and I took Mum to Fundy National Park for an overnight visit. This may sound like a simple exercise but my Mum’s mobility is severely impaired: she walks with a walker for short distances only; a prolonged outing usually means taking along a wheelchair.

Mum shakes: not just the small tremors of old age but her legs shake and wobble making even walking with the walker a supreme effort. Getting Mum in and out of Bessie the Bus was a feat of ingenuity and strength even with both Shirley and I participating.

My mother is a study in growing old gracefully. She has a wonderful sense of humour and has the ability to laugh at herself when the indignities of old age present themselves. Each mounting of the steps into Bessie resulted all three of us bursting into gales of laughter at the wobbling and bobbing that inevitably resulted.

Mum and Shirley tell the story of the time they were trying to get Mum into the front seat of Shirley’s car. Mum was standing outside the car with her back to the passenger seat, bobbing and weaving as her bottom hovered over the seat trying to land. Finally she collapsed into the seat prompting a passerby to comment, “It ain’t pretty but it works.” This cracked Mum and Shirley up. We heard this story several times on our brief adventure until one of us would break out laughing and say “it ain’t pretty but it works” before we heard the whole story again.

My mother also lives with dementia, another indignity of old age. She is only mildly impaired cognitively though. Mostly she just gets confused sometimes. As we drove to Alma, she asked me who I thought would win the U.S. election this year and was quick to voice her opinions. She still reads the newspaper every day. And she is very aware of her own struggle to communicate. She struggles to find the words to get her thoughts out to others. So we play a kind of Charades: is it this? Is it that? Or we say “sounds like” as we pull an ear. This again results in great laughter and sometimes when the struggle ends, the word will come.

Mum apologizes for her slowness in putting thoughts together, her inability to find the right word. We tell her not to apologize, that it doesn’t matter to us. We tell her that we can’t begin to imagine the frustration that she lives with. We tell her that we marvel that she has kept her good nature and sense of humour as old age chips away at her. We tell her that she is teaching us to laugh at ourselves, to grow old gracefully. And whether Mum believes it or not, she is teaching us to live the best life we can whatever our limitations.

This trip we ate a lobster dinner at The Tides, Mum’s favourite thing to do. We returned there for lobster rolls the next day for lunch; We drove along the coast to Cape Enrage. We stopped in Sussex to buy an ice cream cone on the drive home. On Sunday morning, all three of us piled into the same bed for a cuddle.

Last year, Shirley took Mum to Fundy National Park by herself. Last year, Mum still managed to struggle up the stairs to their room. This year, it took two of us to help Mum get around. None of us know what next year will look like. But the annual trip to Fundy National Park is still penciled in our June 2009 daytimers.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Radio

Yesterday I bought a radio. I went to four stores before I found “just a radio”. You can buy boom boxes, mini stereos, clock radios and any number of Ipod docking stations just about anywhere but it took a little digging to find my radio.

My radio is a small box (approx. 5” X 5” X 2”) and runs on my choice of three AA batteries, a lithium battery, AC power (with an adapter- not included) or you can crank it by hand in case of emergency. It also has an emergency light and a siren. But all I really wanted was a small radio that played AM/FM/SW (shortwave) and had a decent speaker.

I remember my father sitting at the kitchen table with a radio much like this. He’d sit with his ever present home-rolled cigarette and glass of rum and listen to programs from around the world on shortwave. His radio could also pick up police and marine broadcasts. It was the marine broadcasts that I liked the most: ship’s captains talking back and forth to one another. We’d listen as the tug boat captains gave orders to the ships they were leading into the harbour; we’d hear captains talk among themselves about where they had been or where they were going.

I had a tenuous connection with my father. His alcoholism was a barrier to the kind of relationship I would have liked to have had but we could sit and listen to his radio and be transported to a different world where there was no rum or cigarette smoke.

This morning is a grey Maritime morning. I am looking at the Bay of Fundy from my window and listening to classical music on CBC Radio Two. In a few minutes I’ll switch to shortwave and see who’s out there in that other world. And I’ll remember Dad with fondness.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Living Small

Bessie is parked on the vacant lot next to my friend Sandra’s house. Sandra owns this lot and has nicely landscaped it so it looks like her house sits on one big lot. There is a separate driveway to this upper lot and it’s covered with a new coat of limestone gravel. This is a wonderful surface as it cleans off the soles of my shoes and reduces the amount of debris that I track in.

Bessie is nestled against a wall of cedar trees on the driver’s side and I can see the Bay of Fundy from the windows of the passenger side. I have opted to live in Bessie rather than join Sandra inside her comfortable and much larger home. I am living small.

Living small is teaching me a lot about the footprint I leave on this planet. I am acutely aware of each precious resource I use. Most of my resources – water for drinking and washing, propane for heat and cooking, gasoline for the generator and for driving – are stored in tanks. And every time I flush the toilet or turn on the tap, the waste water goes down the drain and into two other tanks.

I have a test panel that tells me when these tanks are getting empty - or full in the case of the waste water tanks. And each time I need to fill or empty a tank, I have to pack everything tightly away and drive Bessie to the appropriate destination.

There are benefits to living small. Two days ago I decided that I needed to do a good clean up. I tidied and stowed things away (there is only one place for each item to go so that part is easy). I pulled out the mats I have laid over the carpeted floors and shook them outside. I swept the carpeted floors with a whisk. I took a Norwex microfiber cloth and wiped all the interior surfaces. I sprayed Clorox in the kitchen sink to disperse the tea stains. My home was clean and tidy in approximately 20 minutes.

I must confess that I’ve tapped into Sandra’s power and use her shower. Last night I even snuggled up in her living room to watch TV while I waited for Sandra and her sister Heather to return from a shopping trip to Calais, Maine.

It was raining when I returned to Bessie for the night. I flipped on the furnace for a few minutes to dispel the chill, then snuggled into bed to finish Eric Clapton’s autobiography. The sound of raindrops on the roof lulled me to sleep in short order. Living small keeps life simple.

Friday, June 13, 2008

We made it!

Thursday, June 12, we arrived in Saint John NB, my home base for the next three months. Here’s where we’ve been since last Sunday.

We left gorgeous Ste. Agathe with equally gorgeous Catherine, Mary and Mark’s daughter, and drove to Quebec City. Catherine is a law student at Laval University and was returning home to Quebec City and her summer job. The bonus for Dianne and I was having Catherine as our own private tour guide. We poked along the secondary route on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River for part of the way and then Catherine took us through old Quebec City. We stopped at a lovely little restaurant for supper. Then we pointed Bessie back to the north shore and spent the night in a nicely wooded campground at Beauport.

Last Sunday when I called my brother Jim’s home to speak to Mum (who was there for supper), Jim pointed out that the largest pilgrimage shrine in North America, Ste. Anne de Beaupre, is just 30 kms from Quebec City. So that’s where we headed on Tuesday morning. The basilica is magnificent – the mosaic art and statuary is a real testament to the creativity and artistic ability of the hundreds of artists who have plied their craft there. While we were touring around, we could hear singing in the main part of the basilica and returned there to find that mass was starting – in French. So we stayed. The liturgy followed a familiar pattern even if we didn’t understand the words.

From there we took the bridge to Ile d’Orleans. We drove around the perimeter of the island (64 kms) through lovely villages with old homes, farmland and vineyards. We also discovered that the oldest golf course used continuously in North America is located there.

We left Ile d’Orleans and hooked up Bossy (GPS in case you’ve forgotten) to help us navigate Quebec City and lead us to the south shore. Bossy spewed out her directions – and led us right back down to the old town! Yikes – in right in the midst of supper hour traffic. Big Bessie and narrow streets, not a great combination. We unplugged Bossy, reset her and tried again. Same result. So we did what one does when you need directions: we rolled down the window and asked people. The first person didn’t speak English, but the next one did – she got us on the right track and soon we were over the Pierre La Porte Bridge and on the way to Beaumont where Dianne’s ancestors landed on the shores of the St. Lawrence in 1672.

Beaumont is a beautiful village just a short drive from Quebec City. It still has some original old stone homes. It is a clean and tidy village with an air of peacefulness about it. We first stopped at the local restaurant (there is only one) to have supper. The proprietor, who also seemed to be the cook and server, didn’t speak English. She was very accommodating as we ordered in very broken French and even managed to produce both Yellow and White Pages in response to my badly delivered request , “Avez-vous un livre de telephone?”

The library is housed in one of those original stone buildings with two-foot thick walls and we headed there after supper to see if they had any information on Dianne’s people. They had a couple of local history books for sale that mentioned them so Dianne bought them and photocopied some other information – all in French. The next day we went to the local historical office and gathered some additional information from records from the old church.

Then it was on to New Brunswick. We camped that night just north of Fredericton on the Saint John River and headed to Kings Landing, an historical village, first thing in the morning. Kings Landing depicts life along the river over a couple of centuries and requires a lot of walking to cover it all. We ate lunch there and left feeling virtuous for having gotten some exercise after so many days in the car.We headed to Saint John after lunch and reached my sister Shirley’s around 3:30 pm. My Mum was there waiting for us and we had a lovely supper and visit.

Today, Friday the 13th, Dianne flew back to Edmonton ending the first leg of this adventure.
I’ll be reconnecting with old friends over the next couple of days, doing laundry, finding a site for Bessie, making arrangements for a small economical car, etc. And then I’ll be back to blogging. I have discovered much to my delight that one of my sister’s neighbours has an unsecured wireless connection that I can “borrow”.

So watch for upcoming blogs on speaking English in Quebec and eating “Dianne’s way”. (I even lost weight over the last two weeks though our exercising was sparse!)

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Ottawa ON to Ste. Agathe-des-Monts PQ

Ste. Agathe-des-Monts. Sunday afternoon. Plus 30 and high humidity!

It’s been hot and steamy since we arrived at Ruth and Pat’s in Kanata on Friday. Amazing how much the temperature can change in just a few days. There seems to be no let up in the heat and our poor bods are trying vainly to adjust.

We slept in the van outside Pat and Ruth’s and were lulled to sleep by the sound of rain on the roof. In the morning we headed into Ottawa after Ruth and Pat went to work. It took a while to find a place to park but we did finally find a spot in the Byward Market and headed up to Parliament Hill. We watched some boats coming through the locks on the Rideau Canal, picked up coupons for a free tour of the Parliament Buildings and then decided to have lunch.

I figured we had to “do lunch” at the Chateau Laurier so we joined the business crowd in our rather touristy attire. As we were finishing lunch, I pointed out to Dianne that Joe Clark was sitting at the table next to us. My decidedly extroverted friend decided that she would stop by for a chat with Joe as we were leaving. This was not as quite as an audacious undertaking as it might seem at first. Dianne is a long time resident of Joe’s old Yellowhead riding and we also knew that one if Dianne’s fellow parishioners at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church in Spruce Grove had managed at least some of Joe’s campaigns. Joe was unfazed at being approached and introduced us to his lunch partner Sen. Norman Atkins who has family in Jemseg, NB and who was coping with the flood damage to his NB cottage on Grand Lake.

From there we joined up with our tour to see the Parliament Buildings. I had never taken a tour of the buildings although in my days with TELUS I had been in various parts of the buildings for meetings and even had lunch in the Parliamentary cafeteria on one occasion.

After the tour concluded we had a short stroll back to Bessie and decided to leave the oppressive heat and drive to Kingston to see Cousin Jane and her husband Mark Banyard.

We arrived in Kingston (which appeared to be even hotter than Ottawa) and parked at the waterfront to have a bite to eat. We made ourselves a nice cold meal and Dianne headed off with our garbage to find a garbage can. She returned a few minutes later minus the garbage and with an invitation to have a glass of wine with a lovely couple who had been admiring Bessie from their patio a few metres away. So wine and conversation it was. Mavis and Dennis had emigrated from England shortly after WW II and, as Mavis put it, “I think we’re going to stay.”

On to the Banyards and their much appreciated, air conditioned home. Mark had just returned from Japan the night before and Dianne was intrigued by work they have been doing there. ( We had a lovely, relaxed visit with the Banyards. We slept in Bessie again and joined the Mark and Jane for breakfast before leaving for a tour of St. George’s Cathedral and the farmer’s market. Rebecca and Oliver surfaced before we left and all four bid us good bye.

Jane told us that it was only a four-hour drive to Ste. Agathe-des-Monts and Cousin Mary’s home. So, ever the intrepid adventurers, we decided to brave driving across the outskirts of Montreal to reach Ste. Agathe and visit Mary and Mark Gibson.

Ste. Agathe is a beautiful little city on a lake in the Laurentians. Homes dot the shore line, many with boat houses where you can just open the garage-type door and drive your boat right in. Years ago Ste. Agathe was populated by hotels, where vacationers would settle in for the summer. Over the years as people have bought and built cottages, the hotels have become fewer in number. Some of the older, opulent cottages and summer homes are still in use by subsequent generations of the original owners.

Mary and Mark welcomed us with a luscious meal including barbequed steak, fresh asparagus and a rhubarb torte made from rhubarb from their garden. We opted to sleep in our familiar Bessie beds and got up early to attend communion at 8 am at Mary’s church. Mary presided and it was very special for me to be there. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with all of my family, Mary is an Anglican priest.)

Last night Mary and Mark took us on a long walk around town; after church this morning, Linda, one of the parishioners, took us on our own personal guided tour of the area.

As I write this, Mary and Mark have just returned from picking up their daughters Sarah and Catherine at the airport. Sarah and Catherine have been in Wales. Tomorrow Dianne and I will take Catherine with us to Quebec City where she has a job.

I’m writing this in Mary and Mark’s screened gazebo as the sun drops behind the Laurentians. A brief thunderstorm has cooled the air. I’m beginning to think that this place is a little bit of heaven on earth.

Bon nuit...

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Ahhh...Ottawa at last

Sheesh. It only seems like northern Ontario goes on forever! It ended today and I’m sitting at Cousin Ruth’s dining table in Kanata as I write this evening.

We stopped today in the wonderful little town of Deep River to stretch our legs and take a look at an artisan’s co-op. My chatty friend (and potter) Diane soon managed to get us an invite to the local potter’s guild. Next thing you know, we were directed to a local eatery, The Bean Pot, on the main street. So we had lunch (borscht for Dianne; lentil soup for me) and ate surrounded by the work of more local artists. Deep River is a pretty town of 4200 souls – clean streets, newer municipal buildings and friendly people. After lunch we gassed up and headed towards the Capital Region.

This morning after dodging clouds of mosquitoes we left the campsite and I finally got up on the local wireless network and posted a blog. I also checked the comments and see that my cheeky friend John purports to have bought Walmart stock based on the number of visits we’ve made. And he didn’t even know about the trip we made yesterday! I think Dianne and I should offer to do one of those commercials like the Tim Horton’s commercial where the young men stop at each Tim’s on the way across the country. For those of you who are interested, I want to say that we did NOT stop at a Walmart today!

While we didn’t go to Walmart, we did walk to the Dairy Queen after supper and buy a cake for Dianne’s birthday. So now we’re settled in for the evening and it’s started to rain, nicely cutting down humidity.

Tomorrow we’ll head into Ottawa and do some sightseeing.

From the Soo to North Bay

Tonight we’re on another lake. This time we’re on the shores of Lake Nipissing, camping at Champlain Park in North Bay. We’ve just come back from a walk to the beach where boats are floating a short distance away over an underwater ridge, fishing.

Dianne just came back from loading our laundry and reported that a father and son combo down the lane from us caught a 43” pike! She’s gone back to take a picture of it. They almost swamped their fiberglass canoe when they landed it.

It is gorgeous here and I’m thinking about Mary Pat spending her growing up years in this lovely environment.

We got a late start today. Bessie needed an oil change and yet another fill up. We seem to use a tank of gas a day at an average of $130.00 a fill. We also needed to have a huge rock chip filled in the windshield compliments of a large truck we encountered yesterday. Thanks to Dennis at Gus’ Auto Body and Glass, you can hardly see where it hit.

We made yet another trip to Walmart this time to pick up a TV antenna. Yes, Bessie has a TV but somehow I managed to break the antenna as I tried to stow it away the other day. I do swear Bessie gets smaller each day.

We expect to reach Ottawa sometime tomorrow and will visit Cousin Ruth and her family. We’ll tour around the nation’s fair capital for a day or two. It will be a welcome respite to not be confined to the car all day although when I called Ruth last night she told me it is supposed to be plus 30 in Ottawa on Friday. I hope she is mistaken!

Tomorrow is Dianne’s birthday. I’m not sure how we’ll celebrate. Life on the road calls for some ingenuity and I’m sure we’ll figure something out. I guess I can always wake up our fellow campers with a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

How big is northern Ontario anyway?

Monday morning we left Kenora bound for Rossport Campground in Rainbow Falls Provincial Park. We left with our Check Engine light still brightly burning. The light had come on as we arrived in Kenora. Dianne, who worked for 15 years for the Edmonton Firefighters Credit Union, says the best place to go if you run into trouble in a strange place is the local fire hall – there’s always someone there and there usually one of the firefighters will know what you need to find out.

So we headed to the fire hall. While one firefighter came out to the car to check the fluid levels in the engine, the other one called around to see if there was a mechanic on duty anywhere. There wasn’t so he supplied us with a map to the Chrysler/Dodge dealership for the morning.

(Note to travelers: I you need directions, ask a police officer; if you’ve got mechanical or other problems try the firefighters.)

So Monday morning we stopped at the dealership at 8 am on the way out of town. They were most helpful. They put old Bessie on the computer and determined that there was nothing serious going on (probably just the oxygen sensor) and sent us on with a smile and good wishes – and no charge. So we were off to Rossport on the shores of Lake Superior.

We stopped in Ignace for lunch at Subway. As we left we asked one of the locals what people did for work in Ignace and he told us that most of the people were on welfare as the mine had closed and the railway and Government transportation services had moved out of town. So sad.

As we pulled into Rossport, we stopped to talk to two fishermen who were on a fishing trip for rainbow trout. I’m sure they would have been disappointed to learn they reminded Dianne of her father, an avid fisherman. Actually, I’m disappointed since they were only about my age!

As we were setting up camp, Lisa the local Park Warden stopped to chat. (Actually, she was probably checking to see if had paid our camping fees but we had a great chat anyway. She had travelled in Australia in a van at one point and so swapped some stories. She had just cut up a downed birch tree that day and told us to use the wood for a fire. We did. I gave her the blog address. If you’re reading this, Lisa, hello from Dianne, Elizabeth and Bessie the Bus!

Actually I had camped at Rossport on another cross-Canada trip about 30 years ago. That trip was done in a Volkswagen Beetle with a tent and a charming male companion! While the rest of the world has changed, Rossport hasn’t – It’s still as quiet and beautiful as it was then. In fact, if anything Rossport has improved – this time there were wonderful, hot and luxurious showers.

As we got ready to leave Rossport, the two fishermen drove into our site to suggest a couple of places we could stay tonight. They told us they do this fishing trip every year. This morning though they were off to a late start. As Dianne says, “Some days you don’t catch fish, you just catch friendship.”

In the end, we decided to pass their recommendations by and get closer to the Soo. So that’s where we are tonight, settled in the Glenview Campground and experiencing our first battle with black flies. Battling black flies is new for Dianne but my memories of growing up in New Brunswick include black flies in June and I’m just surprised that this is our first encounter with them.

By tomorrow night we should be within shouting distance of Ottawa and cousin Ruth.

The friendship tour rolls on!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The “Friendship Tour”, as Dianne has dubbed it, is off and running! We left Edmonton Friday morning (May 30) just before 8 a.m. Last night we arrived in Falcon Beach, Manitoba just a few kilometers from the Ontario Border. Today we plan a relaxed driving day. We’re not leaving here until noon or so and we’ll just drive until we feel like stopping.

Our first night we spent at Foam Lake, Saskatchewan in a little campground where the only other people in the place were a couple of mature tenters. Other than stops to eat, we pretty much drove all day. We stopped in Lloydminster to visit the Walmart so I could pick up some shampoo – I had forgotten to pack it - and also had a healthy sub at Subway.

It was fun to see road signs to places that I’d only heard about as we crossed Saskatchewan on the Yellowhead Highway. Just an hour or so east of Yorkton, we passed a “little mosque on the prairie”. Who knew that one actually existed outside the CBC show of the same name?

The much maligned Saskatchewan scenery is actually quite pretty. It’s a lovely time of year to travel with the trees sporting that wonderful spring sap green.

Yesterday, we had to stop at another Walmart to pick up a hairbrush for me and some sweats and runners for Dianne. I think we’re fully stocked now.

Yesterday, we also stopped in Neepewa, the home of Margaret Laurence, not to see her birthplace but to find a Safeway so Dianne could satisfy her Starbucks craving. The Safeway store had been recently renovated – but no Starbucks. We took a short jaunt into Portage la Prairie to see if we could find a Starbucks there but struck out again. So we gave up although Dianne looked somewhat distressed. And we erupted into gales of laughter when we spotted a road sign a short time later with an arrow pointing to Starbuck, Man.

My trusty Garmin Nuvi navigated us through Yorkton, Portage la Prairie and around Winnipeg although we could have done just fine relying solely on road signs. We’ve given a name to that strident voice that’s always telling us where to go or constantly stating “recalculating” when we are disobedient. We’ve dubbed her “Bossy”. So now there are four of us on this Friendship Tour – Dianne, Elizabeth, Bessie and Bossy!

The van is performing admirably, the beds are comfortable, the food in the fridge is cold, the microwave warms our food perfectly and the loo is a godsend in the middle of the night.
Our campsite at Falcon Beach is in Whiteshell Provincial Park. It’s a lovely treed site with the lake and the town site a short walk away.

Last night we stopped at the local pub for a beer and discovered that it has WiFi access. So we’ll stop at the pub on our way out and I’ll upload this to the blog. Then it’s on down the road and that vast stretch of highway across northern Ontario.