Saturday, November 20, 2010


I asked Lawrence what I should say about him in the Christmas letter. I truly was looking for advice. Yesterday I’d sat down to write, and finding that I couldn’t, I’d looked back at the 2010 edition of THE HOPE LADY Blog. Reading between the lines of what was recorded there I could pretty much piece the year together. A lot had been written about the wedding that consumed so much of our attention. There were some health references, some holiday references, some seeds of stories I’d told on stages, some small musings about hope. “That ought to be enough to get me started,” I said to myself. But it wasn’t. I wrote half a page and deleted it.
Wondering what to write in the Christmas letter is an annual event for me. It happens every year at the same time—a few days after mid-November. I always begin in the same place—begin by trying to envision the reading audience. The way I figure it, the recipients of our Christmas letter fall into two categories: people who keep up with our news and don’t learn anything new from it, and people who are so distant from our daily lives that they have no idea what goes on with us in any given year. There are people on that list who last saw us before the birth of our kids, readers who might not even recognize us if we met on the street. To write something that meets the needs of this combination is an impossible thing. Every year I give serious consideration to cancelling the letter, and then I remember how much I like getting Christmas letters. I recall that I even like getting them from people whose news I already know, and from others whose news I care little about. I went through this process yesterday, and decided to write a letter after all. It’s a decision I reach every year.
“What shall I write about you in our Christmas letter?” I said to Lawrence. Even as I said it, I was expecting to be rebuffed, and rightly so. I really ought to be able to write a Christmas letter without writing about my children. After all, they are grown, and if they want things said about them, they can very well speak for themselves. Surely, at this point, David and I have a life to write about. But then I remembered the letters I wrote when we first got married. In those days I would put down some things about us, and then some things about our parents. I don’t usually write about the parents now. Sometimes I try, but it makes the letters too long, once the info about the kids has been included. I guess I’ve never been able to write a Christmas letter without making reference to the important people in my life. Why start now?
I had especially been wondering what to write about Lawrence. He’s had a nasty little year—what with being under-employed, and getting cancer and having his car destroyed by a drunk driver. It’s always hard to figure out how to handle nastiness in a Christmas letter. I have read some very sad Christmas letters from some very sad people. I don’t begrudge them their sadness, and I definitely think that if they want to write about that, the least I can do is read their writing and feel the sadness they feel. That said, it’s not my way to write sadly about sad things. I know that many people find a lot of comfort in writing their sadness and anger, but writing mine never seems to help me much. I like my Christmas letter to be a letter I’d want to read.
Yesterday, when I had faced the fact that I wasn’t writing the Christmas letter, I went on line to look up an article about one of my heroes, Stuart McLean. McLean writes for the spoken word in a style that would characterize my Christmas letter if I were a better writer. He writes family stories with happy endings. When he reads his work aloud, his listeners laugh, and sometimes they cry. McLean is accused of being sentimental and cheesy. I love him because of it.
This particular profile by Jeet Heer is called Mr. Nice Guy. Heer writes:
“When McLean was a boy in Montreal, he had the unusual habit of pretending to be a preacher, delivering ad hoc sermons to his parents’ friends. In a way, he remains a frockless clergyman, a parson in the guise of a popular entertainer. He is a deeply religious writer, but not in any narrow, sectarian sense.
Rather, he articulates an unshorn natural piety that even unbelievers can accept. At the heart of all religion lies a feeling of gratitude for the simple and mysterious fact that we exist, that for reasons unknown to us we’ve been brought into this world and allowed to enjoy fellowship and earthly pleasures.
It is perhaps no accident that his show airs on weekends, traditional days of rest and meditation. A century ago, many Canadians listened to homilies in church on Sundays, a practice some still follow. But now we can stay at home and hear secular sermons on CBC.”
Heer doesn’t tell us whether McLean is happy with the idea that his stories are being compared to sermons. I know I definitely don’t want my Christmas letter to be a sermon. I have to accept that it may, or may not be entertaining to everyone who reads it. But I do want it to record and organize our experience in a manner that leaves me with some hope that I can take into the new year. Maybe that’s why I’ve asked Lawrence what I ought to write. Maybe I’m giving him the chance to give me the hope, why I’m willing to risk taking the chance that he won’t.
He says, “Tell them that people who beat cancer get a gold car.”
“Okay,” I say.
Sitting at the computer I jot: Lawrence got a new car this year. His old Malibu has been replaced by a gold Sebring with only 50,000 KM. His Malibu was written off aftr it was hit by a drunk driver who careened down our street just after midnight on a warm June Saturday. Fortunately Lawrence wasn’t in the car when it was struck. He was at home, recovering after cancer surgery. He heard the crash and called to his brother. Three neighbours heard it also. All of them ran outside. The driver tried to escape, but the four healthy men cornered him and held him until the police arrived.
And here, I think, are the seeds of something you might find in a sermon. There’s suffering and there’s injustice. To balance all of this, there’s family loyalty and neighbours helping one another. There’s a sense of getting through bad times and moving on. There’s hope to take into a new year. Maybe there’s even something I’d like to read in a Christmas letter.

Friday, November 19, 2010


If I had given any serious thought to it, I might have realized that my own life would grow when my children acquired spouses. But I don’t think I ever thought of that. I thought only of adding them to our family—of integrating them in. Such a narrow view considering how many options for growth there really are.
Last week Derek took us to the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto. The Fair is and has been a feature of his life—the place where he showed 4H calves in his youth, the way 4H calves are shown by youth at so many other fairs. That outing was a high point in the second mother-in-law visit.
It certainly wasn’t the first ag fair we’ve ever attended. We have been seen on a more or less regular basis at the Lougheed and District agricultural Fair, an annual highlight in a village with a population that hovers around 200, not including the district. But this urban ag extravaganza definitely was the biggest fair we’ve seen, not necessarily too surprising, given that the Greater Toronto Area reports a population of 5,555,912, including very few farmers. The farmers, like us, came in from out of town, and the townspeople came in from in. Oh yes, unlike the Lougheed Fair, this fair is an inside fair. Even though our day dawned crisp and bright, you’d probably never get that many people out to look upon livestock in a Toronto November.
There’s a lot to do at a fair that big, a lot we did not do. How much can you do in a single day? We drifted through the halls and barns as the hours drifted by. We lunched on lamburgers and Ukrainian pyroghy platters. We cheered for our side at the dog show, stepped off the path to give right-of-way to Holsteins with extended udders followed by bucket-bearing sanitary attendants,, watched a beauty contest where fancily dressed ladies led fancily dressed sheep, and learned about the horse breeding that produces creamy cremellos and smooth-riding paso finos. We saw 15-pound carrots, 20-pound parsnips, 60-pound beets and a pumpkin that claimed to weigh in at 1,177. We stood within arm’s reach at the edge of a practice ring where six-horse teams of giant draught horses clattered their shoes and pawed the air as they pulled their wagons. A maple syrup producer told us that you get a litre of syrup from the average maple tree. To get this syrup, you boil off 39 litres of water that is captured, clear and clean, then used to sterilize the equipment. You have to get the sap before the tree comes into bud. You have to have the right weather for that. Farming maple trees is like farming prairie grains in that way. You don’t control the weather. As evening advanced and we prepared to leave, a surprising thing happened. People in tuxedos and ball gowns came strolling in the blue-jeaned crowd. They had dressed up for the evening horse show. As far as I know, no tuxedos have ever been seen at the Lougheed Fair. Derek’s father took us out to dinner. It was late. We were hungry. And then it was after 10:30, time to leave the city.
The car was warm, quiet and dark. The younger generation did the driving.
Ruth said it was a funny thing to sit alert in the front seat after a long day out while your parents dozed off in the back. A new and interesting entry on the family page of life.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Sometimes an hour can feel like a day. I remember this from a time way-back-when when I clumsily stumbled through a transition from extremely busy to unemployed, while David plunged into work. He was busy, I was not. I had nothing to do. My worst moment was that time when he would say, ”What did you do today?”
Sometimes a year can seem like a day. Where does time go when your babies are small? Do I even finish one birthday cake before beginning the next? Somebody recently told me that life is like a roll of toilet paper. It goes faster at the end.
Time is a relative thing. Tomorrow is November 11, and I, as always, will remember my childhood, a time when I knew nothing about war, a time when all our school activities ground to a halt so that we could observe 2 minutes of silence at 11:00. ”It is only 2 minutes,”the teacher told a class of 6-year-olds. ”I am sure you can be quiet for that long.”
We couldn’t, not really quiet at the age of 6. But in later years my mind’s ear would hear her voice and compel me to silence. I’d be quiet for 2 minutes in a store, quiet for 2 minutes in my kitchen. I still didn’t relate to war on a personal level, don’t yet for that matter. But 2 minutes of silence seems a small sacrifice for me.
So here’s a problem. Tomorrow morning at 7:00 I am boarding a plane for Toronto. The flight will last three and a half hours, landing at 10:30 Edmonton time, 12:30 toronto time.
“When will it be 11:00?” I ask David. It’s 6:30 AM and he is brushing his teeth. Bad timing for such an important conversation. But I simply have to have an answer.
“some time,”he blurbles when I’ve asked it twice. “At some point we’ll be flying over 11:00.”
Sounds right for a minute. But is it? I mean, we spend 5 and a half hours in 3 and a half. If we spread it all out, does 2 minutes become 1 and a quarter just so we can get it all in? Oh I suppose there are practical solutions. We could set our watches for 9:00 when the plane takes off at 7:00 and declare 11:00 when our watches say 11:00. Where will we be? Somewhere over Thunder bay, Maybe and will it be 11:00 there? What if we’re still on central time at the point and it’s only 10:00?
So many problems, so little time to solve them. And still, 2 minutes is a small sacrifice to make.

Monday, November 08, 2010


And pirate the dog, recalling one walk on Thursday (you always get one walk a day), having enjoyed an amazing total of two walks on Friday (because the weather was so nice and you seemed to have forgotten that you’d already had one walk), followed by an unprecedented three walks on Saturday (nobody knows for sure how you got three walks on Saturday), is still puzzling over the unmet expectations of Sunday. When asked about the situation he would only say, ”I cannot understand why they rejected the four-walk proposal. It was almost as if they didn’t think dogs count.”

Saturday, November 06, 2010


There are a few good excuses to explain why THE HOPE LADY has been neglecting her blogging lately. I’ll not bore you with the worst of them. You wouldn’t believe me anyway. The best one of them all is that she has been busy counting sleeps, a skill she learned early in life.
Counting sleeps is something her mother taught her to do when she was a little girl. Her mother was sharp that way. If you’re really looking forward to something, and you ask your mother once too often how long it will be before it comes, she’ll teach you to count sleeps and make you count them on the calendar every time you ask. By the time the thing you are waiting for finally arrives, you’ve learned to count backwards and recite the days of the week.
When THE HOPE LADY was a little girl, she used to count the sleeps until she could have vinegar-soaked French fries at the Hardisty Stampede, the sleeps until Christmas, the sleeps until Aunty came for a visit, the sleeps until school let out for the summer holidays. Every day the number of sleeps got smaller. Oh the excitement!!!
These days THE HOPE LADY is counting the sleeps until she will get to see her little girl. Never mind that her kids hover around the age of 30. Never mind that she is old enough to be their mother. Never mind that two of them are near enough to brighten her life on a daily basis. Never mind that the other one can be reached any day by telephone or email or webcam. She’s counting sleeps anyway, because she can, because she wants to. There are 5 more now. One of them will be a little bit longer than the others—falling back, you know.
“Grow up,” chides her inner critic. “Concentrate on the important things of the present, practising music for tomorrow’s church, getting the laundry done, preparing for the by-laws meeting, gathering your wits for the two new groups starting at the Hope Foundation.”
And THE HOPE LADY tries to grow up. She almost makes it too, but then her little girl phones.
“I was thinking about what we’ll do during your visit. We might buy tickets to hear Mark Kingwell speak on the role of the public intellectual in Canada,” she says, and the way her mother’s heart responds, you’d think she’d offered hot fries from the booth, or fluffy castles of cotton candy on a stick. “It all depends on which day we go to the Royal Winter Fair,” she adds.
“What will we do at the Royal Winter Fair?” THE HOPE LADY asks.
“Look at cows,” she says.
Of course, thinks THE HOPE LADY. That’s what you do when you marry a cow psychologist. It’s a good thing THE HOPE LADY is a farmer’s daughter who can appreciate such things, and she wonders if mothers ever really grow up, or if they simply get better at counting, and learn to make better excuses for not getting around to blogging.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010


So I explained the entire situation to Pirate the dog and he said: ”It’s nice that St. Stephen’s College is giving you an honorary doctorate, and now that I’ve heard you practicing your convocation address I can appreciate the need to practice it a few more times, and I understand fully the importance of responding promptly to your email, and it definitely seems logical to me that you should return calls when messages are left for you. I agree that you should eat a bit to settle your stomach, and it does appear that a nap would be in order, seeing as how you hardly slept last night. But now that I’ve listened to you so patiently, could you please explain why I’m having to wait for my walk?”