Back when my husband and I were contemplating uprooting our family from city to country, I was cognisant of the danger of losing the idyllic side of our farm, which was essentially our cottage at that time. Would moving in full-time transform our magical get-away? Would the realities of the daily grind steal the magic away? Would the feeling I get when I pull into the laneway, there at last, disappear? Would walking the grounds still bring me close to tears of gratitude on my morning strolls? Would I lose appreciation for the beauty that surrounds me there?
Four years have passed since the moving truck wound its way up my lane leaving me standing alone in wonder. My life here has been a roller coaster of emotion. Moments piled upon moments; a twisting path of discovery. At times I am gripped with an emotion I can’t identify. Looking around me, fully immersed in the “daily grind” of life in the country, it feels as though I’ve misplaced something. It’s a feeling I can’t quite define; like the nagging feeling of a forgotten chore, a memory not quite fully grasped. It’s elusive, and mildly stressful.
I’m not sure what this is, or what it means. It just “is.” Has the magic gone? I can’t say it has, but maybe it’s different now.
A glance out my window as I write this takes my eye to the pasture fence and the lolling stroll of our horse, Charlie. This grey day begs sadness from me, but I can’t fully muster it in the face of such beauty outside. Beyond the pasture, snow covers the west field and beyond that, the hedgerow of trees. Bare of leaves and standing tall and black against the back drop of white, they offer me a sense of protection. All of this observed with one look out of one window.
It isn’t easy, though. I struggle every day with the kids: the bustle of activity, the work, the fighting, the tears, the insane laughter and the immense love that fills these walls consumes me. It’s cluttered with toys and books, projects and dishes, cats and dog constantly underfoot. The noise, the unending chaos speckled with moments of calm and quiet contentment…life. It is my life.
“There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you were meant to be.”
– John Lennon
Perhaps that grip of emotion I feel is my mind whispering to me and reminding me to acknowledge this great life. “Listen,” it whispers. “Look,” it urges me. “Don’t let this magic pass you by. Don’t wake up years from now and realize that this was the time of your life and you didn’t know it. This is the magic you’ve been searching for….”
Watching someone you love slowly slipping away isn’t easy, particularly when you can’t quite put your finger on what you’re losing until it’s gone.
My mother first started showing signs of dementia when her brother died in 2007. He was the baby of the family, and it hit Mom particularly hard. At first, we blamed grief on her altered state. She was repeating stories, forgetting details…all things a grieving mind might present. However, it didn’t take long for us to see that this wasn’t just a phase of grief.
Shortly after my uncle’s death, she stopped driving. She never explained why but I think she was afraid. I remember her getting lost around that time. She had somehow become disoriented in an area she had driven in for years. That must have been frightening.
By the time she retired from work a few years later at age 70, the writing was on the wall. We couldn’t ignore the signs anymore.
And yet, we did.
Instead of insisting she get help, we accepted her excuses. We tip toed around the issue, afraid of insulting her. With her many moments of lucidity, we would doubt ourselves and think (hope) that maybe, we were wrong.
Time passed and now, after a horrible experience with shingles (I could write an entire article on that topic alone), her mental health declined along with her home situation to the point where we were forced to put her in nursing care (something else I could write an entire article on).
It is something we (meaning my sisters and I) never really considered having to do. We believed she would always stay in her home, surrounded by her beautiful things, until she passed away. She is so out of place in her new “home.” The horrid fluorescent lighting, the institutional décor, the smells and sounds permeating the entire environment seem undignified and unsettling. She is given a bib to wear at meal time. It’s such a cruel turn of events.
In her little corner of her shared room, a few of her things have found their place. A slipper chair, some of her art, a lamp on an antique side table and some framed photographs. These few belongings have survived. After a lifetime of accumulating things, this is what remains.
In my grief, I wanted to throw everything I owned away. “Pitch it all!” I insisted. “What’s the point?” My husband managed to shift my perspective, but it sure got me thinking about what truly matters. The truth is, those few things that surround her in there are more for our comfort than hers. She seems surprised that she painted the paintings, she can’t see the photographs, and doesn’t seem interested in her ‘things” at all. But, with everything we have lost, those few belongings are a lifeline to when we felt we were on dry land, not being tossed about on rough waters. They symbolize a little taste of home.
What I cherish about my time with my Mom now is her ability to live in the present; she’s like a child now in so many ways, feeding off the immediacy of her experiences. It has become a narcissistic “this tastes good, I don’t want that, I need you, let’s go here” type of existence. Her memory being what it is, she really has no choice. But it occurred to me just how liberating it is. It’s an enlightened state. Buddha would encourage us all to “be in the moment” whenever we can. Has Mom inadvertently found a way to achieve this?
She rarely thinks of the past, can’t remember what she just did five minutes ago, and doesn’t seem to think at all about what is to come. And surprisingly, there’s something very healing and refreshing about this.
We have been having good visits, my Mom and I. Quality time spent, enjoying our “moments” one after the next. I’m the one haunted with memories. Trying to manoeuvre my way through my own loss; navigating this new reality. I’ll strive for enlightenment, but for now, I’m so grateful for the memories and those moments we share together now.
It was not my intent; I hadn’t planned it. If I had known, I would never have done it.
A few months ago, I cut the baby right out of my child. With one fell swoop of the electric razor across his scalp, layer by layer, my baby landed in light downy tufts around wee pink feet. Blond curls and tats falling one atop the other in soft piles. Piles of my baby!
This may sound dramatic, but anyone who has ever done this will surely understand. It was all done in the name of efficiency. My four-year-old son’s hair seemed out of control. It was long and unruly and I struggled daily to keep his bangs out of his eyes. I tried and tried to comb the rooster tail out of the back of his head – something I was never able to do without a fight and a few tears. Surely by giving him a nice, neat trim, I was making a bad situation better.
On a whim one evening, I stood him up in the empty tub and with my husband’s electric razor, I buzzed the long locks off.
Initially, I was quite proud. Despite being shorter than intended, with different attachments to the razor I was able to style his new hair into a little buzz-cut. We all gathered in the bathroom and marveled at what we saw, as if looking at him for the first time. And in fact, we were.
With the loss of that hair there emerged a new child; an older child. A child that seemed wiser, more capable and more defiant. As if on cue, the clothes in his drawer no longer seemed to fit. His pant legs were not long enough, his winter boots were now too tight, sleeves too short….
His blondness was gone as well; his hair taking on a more brownish tone. I had identified him as blond for so long, and now it was gone.
In some cultures, the hair is considered to have a soul of its own, and when the hair is cut there is a ceremony performed. A burial. It’s a funeral and they are burying an important part of themselves. Mourning and cutting are closely related in many cultures. I was struck by this memory a few days ago when I became aware of the transformation in my son. By cutting away his long hair, I managed to (unceremoniously) bury a part of him. And I was mourning the loss of my baby!
Fortunately, I have a piece of his hair that I kept. A small lock of sunshine curled into a cloth. This burial will be a different one. It will be buried away in my cabinet and every now and again I will come upon it. That piece of his early blondness will flood me with memories of the baby in him.
I will show it to him when he is older and we will wonder at it together. “You used to be blond,” I will say.
Then, I will bury it away again until I need a little sunshine.
This was written this past April. Patsy died peacefully and was buried in a spot that I can see from the back window of my house. It was raining heavily when we put her in the ground. Her grave is topped with wild lilies and fieldstones. I learned yesterday that tombstones in cemeteries all face the east. While her pile of stones doesn’t find preference in any particular direction, the morning sun does shine on them, and Patsy loved her morning sunshine.
This morning I will be taking my 17-year-old cat to the vet to have her put down. She is not in pain, still has her eyesight and hearing, and is still eating. She can jump up to the windowsills and down again, but there is no doubt she is struggling.
Her moments of meowing loudly in distressed confusion combined with some incontinence issues has led me make the decision to put her down. Better now than later, I muse. Why wait until she is sick or in pain? What am I waiting for anyway?
Today, it has become startlingly clear to me why I’ve been waiting.
It was a lifetime ago that my younger self and my charming boyfriend (now my husband) found her one night, a wee kitten, crying underneath his 1966 Chevelle. It was late, after midnight actually, and while he coaxed her out from under his parked car, I had already named her Patsy – after Patsy Cline and her famous song “Walking after Midnight.”
My boyfriend and I had just started living together and in the foolish way that younger couples in love are, we agreed to take Patsy in and love her together. In a way, she was our first child and in that instant, our family was born.
From the moment she came into our lives that summer night so long ago, she’s been with us through thick and thin. From our small town apartment, to our big apartment in the city. From our childless days of freedom and languid weekend mornings sleeping in, to the birth of our first “human” child and the chaos that ensued. From the city apartment to our first home, then the arrival of another baby, then another move, and another baby, and another move….
Through all these major changes and milestones in my life, there she was: Ever-waiting to love me whenever I had a moment to spare.
Years have passed. That silly young girl in love, that first time mother, that young woman juggling her career and her home life; she’s gone, too. And I can’t help but feel I will be burying that piece of me beside her today.
As I face the harsh reality of my own ageing, of the vulgarity of time that seems to be stacking up behind me; of elderly parents and loved ones I will lose someday balanced on the brink of my horizon, and all the loss that time brings, I am afraid of losing her, my old cat. I am afraid.
But today, all I can do is honour her. She is a symbol of a time in my life that may be gone, but that is monumental nonetheless. I won’t leave her side when the end comes, and I’ll thank her for being my constant companion all these years. I will bring her home with me and bury her here on our country property, somewhere special. I will plant flowers and pile stones. I’ll find peace, knowing she was loved and never suffered. And as the years go by I will remember her, and in doing so, pay homage to my ghosts.
I have added two more chickens to my flock. I have a soft spot for the traditional “brown hen” and am channeling my inner Beatrix Potter.
The brown hens are historically good layers, and they’re so pretty to look at. On a more practical note, I have family coming for the summer, and could certainly benefit from some more egg production.
A neighbour has kindly offered me two of her hens. And this is where the fun begins!
Like a thief in the night, I will be infiltrating their current home and snatching the chickens while they sleep (if you’d told me a year ago that this is the stuff I’d be doing living on the farm, I’d have laughed). I know my neighbour has at least one rooster in her hen house, and with my new fear of roosters thanks to the epic cock fights between Henrietta (girl name, I know) and I in the barn, (picture the rooster lunging at me with his big neck feathers and talons sticking out and me kicking and screaming over and over again until my foot finally makes contact with his head and he backs off…), things might get a bit hairy.
While I fancy myself to be brave in most situations, a strange hen house in the dead of night, with roosters and only a flashlight between me and god knows what, I have some trepidation as to how things will go down. Maybe I’ll bring my daughter along for bait….
The thinking behind this midnight abduction is that, if the chickens are moved while they are sleeping, when morning comes and they find themselves in new surroundings, they just think that they’ve been there all the while. Are they really that dumb? Quite possibly, me thinks.
With nervous giddiness, I await nightfall.
To be continued….
So that was not scary at all. What I wasn’t expecting though, was how sad I felt. At nine o’clock last night we all traipsed into the dark towards the hen house, flashlights in hand, the element of surprise on our minds. The little roost was quiet until we opened the door and shone our lights inside. Inside, the rooster and his girls were all perched for the night and obviously rather displeased at us bursting in and disturbing them.
My neighbour picked up the first hen within reach and plopped her into the waiting carrier. Then, the next one followed. The birds were obviously unnerved, and I felt terrible! And while, logically, I can’t compare our actions to those of some dark, clandestine subterranean strike force, there was something disturbingly deceptive in our actions. I know: they’re just chickens. But still….
We drove home and wrangled them out of their cages and up onto the perch next to their new family. We closed the coop door, sad but determined to do our best to help them along in their new home.
This morning, although they’re roaming the property in two distinct groups. “The ladies” – my existing brood – are coexisting in relative harmony. Henrietta, the rooster, is a bit out of sorts, running from one flock to the next like, well, like a chicken with its head cut off! He is trying to sort it all out, and has his hands full with two new additions that seem to have fallen from the sky.
Meanwhile, life goes on at the farm. I have one eye on my dishes and the other on the ladies. The kids are fighting over their choices of names. The dense fog that we awoke to this morning is starting to lift, and coffee is brewing.
It’s been a year of learning for me, and often the hard way. But I feel like I’m starting to really “get it” in terms of switching gears from city life to country living.
Things I hadn’t expected: little surprises here and there, and some things that haven’t changed since the day we first bought this property for recreational use, five years ago. There is such a dichotomy to the life I live now. City galleries, museums and restaurants one day, shoveling out the goat pen the next. It’s become my new reality and it’s interesting how the two extremes have meshed into the new me.
I was in Toronto a few weeks back and pulled a fresh farm egg out of my coat pocket that I had forgotten to take into the house. I couldn’t help but laugh! It was the perfect image of my two worlds colliding.
Some things I’ve learned are no-brainers, such as never underestimating the importance of four-wheel drive, and the immeasurable value of a pair of quality rubber boots. Other bits of wisdom have been harder to come by. I have been sitting here this morning, reflecting on my past year. I am experiencing little revelations and forming new opinions. I am also rethinking some sentiments that I made early on.
Things like the town folk who seemed so rude in the beginning, walking past without speaking, standing next to me in our children’s classroom and not speaking, brushing past me in the post office without speaking and so on…. Turns out they’re mostly not rude, just shy.
And the maze of back roads known as concessions and side roads that I found so daunting? They’re actually not confusing at all. Side roads join the concessions together. Easy.
I’m even beginning to recognize the different crops I pass on the road. I now know farmers are quite divided in terms of what colour their tractors are, too. You’re either a red man , a blue man or a green man. Period.
Apparently, you must have a mailbox at the top of your lane or else you don’t get any Canada post packages delivered to your home (FedEx and UPS deliveries don’t require a mailbox – but you need to know how your parcels are being shipped and provide the correct coordinates). Apparently, it pisses the rural mail delivery person off if they have to actually get OUT of their car to deliver anything, particularly the notice that says they can’t deliver to your home. Did you know they have special right-hand drive cars here so the mail can be just passed out the window and into the box? Cute.
I also got over (kinda) the heavy sense of guilt at having to actually DRIVE my garbage up to the top of my lane. Otherwise, it would take me a half hour walking the bags back and forth from house to roadside and at the end of my long day, that’s just not happening.
Another adjustment to country ways: the limited hours of operation for many small towns and villages in the area. No Sunday sales. No shopping on Mondays. Library is closed Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Oh, and so is everything else. I’m not sure how these businesses make money! And once “supper time” arrives – around six o’clock – everything shuts down. Streets are virtually deserted. There’s obviously no nightlife here, particularly during the work week.
There’s no such thing as 100 per cent whole wheat bread at the grocery store; folks around here will go as high as 60 per cent, no more. Strangely, though, they do sell dried seaweed….
Despite a renowned collection of award-winning craft breweries right in the community, I puzzle over the fact many locals drink the cheap, watered-down brands of beer. Bush, Coors Lite and Bud Lite seem to be the choice here. I caught myself looking at the people walking out of the beer store with cases of this stuff and judging them for their utter lack of taste. Does this make me a beer snob? I was also judging them because, along these beautiful concessions and side roads that I mentioned, is a graveyard of spent beer cans that have obviously been whipped out of car windows. And they are always, ALWAYS, those particular brands of lackluster beer.
Speaking of roadside, a fun game that my kids and I play here is “Count the Tim Horton’s Cups.” The record so far is 15, during a 20-minute trip to a neighbouring town. Who the hell litters like that?!
I’m also acutely aware of hunting seasons now. It’s a weird feeling, hearing the report of gun shots outside your home. I lived in the inner city of Toronto for 20 years and never heard anything like it, despite the gun crime there. During this time, the kids aren’t allowed to go into the bush, and we always wear bright orange gear when out for walks on the property, just to be safe.
I am integrating myself into the community slowly but surely. But I still have so much to learn. Despite these “learning curves,” I am never second-guessing my decision to move here. How could I? This place may have it’s, um, curious idiosyncrasies, but those foibles are easily eclipsed by the abundance of wonderfulness that comes with living here.
Things like having neighbours that will drop anything to come and help you. Whether you need help removing the head of a groundhog that your dog left on your porch, to hooking your car up to a tractor to get you unstuck, or hand-delivering baked goods to you “just because” (I could go on and on). Farmers take care of each other.
And what about the magic of waking up and looking out your window and seeing nothing but hills and trees? It takes your breath away, every time. Who wouldn’t want that? I’ve learned that the silence here is not quiet at all, but noisy with the chirping of a thousand birds. It’s a symphony.
My organic produce isn’t packaged in a grocery store during the summer and fall; My produce is freshly-picked by my neighbour next door, pulled from the earth the morning I get it. And my eggs? A short walk to the hen house and “the ladies” have a nest full just waiting for me.
Being connected to the land and watching how the seasons change has been quite an adventure. Country weather is dished out in extremes. Blizzards that block your lane and close the roads one minute, and gentle snow falls that sparkle in the sunshine like a million gems the next. Hot summer days buzz and stick to your skin followed by rain storms that make you head for the basement! Ankle-deep in mud in spring, searching for early blooms becomes the feeling of grass between your toes and bouquet after bouquet of freshly-cut flowers in the summer.
It is magic that surrounds you here, and I wouldn’t give this up for anything.
Recently, my family and I were invited to a neighbour’s farm to help celebrate the tradition of Candlemas (pronounced like Christmas, only with “Candle” instead of “Christ”).
I readily accepted the invitation because I knew there were going to be a number of neighbours there whom I have not yet met, but also because I was intrigued with the idea of Candlemas. I had never heard of this tradition until my neighbour explained it to me. It is simple enough, although upon researching it, it has a deep and diverse (and somewhat pagan) history.
Little did I know, but by participating in this magical evening, Candlemas has suddenly become one of my favourite traditions.
Simply put, it is the tradition of marking the arrival of spring. On the second of February (this date varies slightly depending on your source, but generally right in the middle of the winter equinox and the spring solstice), a hole is dug into the snow, down to the earth, and a candle is lit and placed into the hole. The belief is the fire will encourage the earth to warm, hence, hastening the arrival of spring.
It is understood to be a pagan ritual of Gaelic roots (originally called Imbolk), but was Christianized as a celebration of Saint Brigid. The Christian celebration is different with the blessing of candles in the church or some variation of the sort. It was also seen by some as a time of Divination, which in turn may have given birth to our current tradition of Ground Hog Day, where some poor celebritized subterranean rodent predicts (or divines) the arrival of spring.
On the night we celebrated, it was very cold, and very dark. With our tummies full of food and drink, children large and small in tow, we trudged as a group through the deep snow into a field not far from the house. As the newly appointed orchard, our hosts had chosen this area to be the place to dig.
The kids were having so much fun, crawling somewhat blindly through the night. Laughter from adults and children alike broke the silence as we followed the warm glow of the lantern ahead. After a few words regarding the ceremony, we all began to dig into the snow. One by one the candles were lit and the effect was enchanting. Little lantern like holes glowing warmly with candlelight, casting flickering light upon us all. It was beautiful!
At the end of the night, I was chilled to the bone and no closer to knowing the arrival of spring but I felt pleased to have been a part of something that felt so special. I’m certain that my three-year-old, bewitched by the effect of fire and ice in the dead of night, will have this experience imprinted in his memory forever. As for myself, I am determined to include this – or some variation of it – into my own collection of family traditions.
Regardless of its spiritual roots and intentions, there’s nothing quite like the beauty of candles flickering in the snow on a cold winter night to boost one’s spirits and help ignite the excitement of the coming spring.