Words Into Action

As a core principle of my life, I believe that it is important to live with the mindset of making things better for others. When you step forward into the world with kind intentions and a compassionate heart, good is likely to follow in your wake. With that having been said, I wish to take a few moments to introduce you to a friend of mine. Her name is Rose Wilton. Rose runs an organization in Port Hope, Ontario, called The Rose Project. I want to showcase Rose and her good works because she is a perfect example of the good that comes from having a charitable heart, a determined mind and a willingness to step up and turn those thoughts and words into action that makes a difference. Although young, Rose is becoming a community leader. This is her story.

Rose and her sister, Jules, have lived fortunate lives. They were raised by parents who both possess kind and generous hearts. Larry and Deb Wilton have lived their lives filled with love for each other, for their family, for their friends, for Nature, for the Arts and for humanity, too. They are well-known for sharing meals with anyone who is lonely or down on their luck. They are the type of folks who walk along the Lake front trails of Port Hope, stopping to pick up litter as they walk so that the beauty of the trails can be maintained. They have lived lives of charity and have inspired others to look at life with more compassionate eyes. One of those most profoundly moved by their example was their daughter, Rose.

Approximately six or seven years ago, Rose found herself with a collection of small soaps and other tiny toiletries that she was given or had acquired from hotels on family vacations. Rose didn’t really need these toiletries for herself but, she felt guilty about simply throwing them away when there were others who could possibly use them. So, she came up with an idea. Rose decided to sort her toiletries in a way that allowed her to make up kits that contained deodorant, tooth paste and a tooth brush, some shampoo and so on. Rose decided to take a kit into Toronto the next time she went, to see if a homeless person, living on the mean streets of Canada’s biggest city, might have some use for the contents inside. There were no shortage of potential candidates. Rose opted to approach someone living outside of the Eaton Centre Shopping Mall. She cautiously approached and then, quietly offered the person her toiletry kit, asking if it could be of any use. Her gesture was greeted with much appreciation. Rose’s heart was filled with joy at having been able to make a difference for this one person. That moment helped crystallize an idea that, previously, had seemed like a flight of fancy but now, outside a bustling mall in Toronto, was brought into sharper focus. Rose felt empowered. She decided to dedicate a large part of her life to helping to bring some small measure of dignity to those on the edges of our society. Thus, The Rose Project was born.

When Rose returned to her home, she went on social media to ask her friends and neighbours for donations of new, unused/unopened toiletries. She was met with an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response from the local community. To fast forward a bit, since her first request for donations, until today, Rose has been able to fill kits that number into the thousands. She has broadened her donation reach, based upon experience, and now collects new socks, mittens, hats, Tim Horton coffee gift cards, too. Rose continues to provide kits for the homeless in big cities such as Toronto but, as word of The Rose Project has spread, she has been contacted by Women’s Shelters, local schools and other community-based organizations that work with folks in need in her area. Rose has become a community leader in Port Hope and has been recognized with multiple Port Hope Community Civic Service awards for her volunteer efforts.

While Rose’s decision to help others continues to make life better and is worth celebrating for that fact alone, there is more about Rose that I value. Just like Rose’s parents, Larry and Deb, I, too, believe that one of my most important roles in life is that of setting a good example for my children. Sometimes, that takes the form of being a good role-model, myself and leading my girls to do good deeds by the example I try to set for them. But, in addition to that, there are times when I seek others to help reinforce the messages I wish to impart. As a teacher or as a father, any time I can place my girls/my students in the presence of a strong, successful female role-model, I jump at the chance. For that reason, I am very grateful to Rose for helping to play a significant part of my eldest daughter, Leah’s birthday a few years ago. Here is that story.

Leah loves the TV show, The Amazing Race Canada. So, for her with birthday, we used the format of the show to take Leah and her friends…all girls….on a nine-stop race around Cobourg and Port Hope. Most of the stops had some connection to Leah’s life but two, were different. I wanted Leah and her friends to have an opportunity to “give back”, as it were, during the course of this party. So, one of the stops was at our local animal shelter (where the kids walked dogs, cleaned cat kennels and where we made a donation of food, blankets and money when we were done). The other stop was at Rose Wilton’s house to help prepare some kits.

After the kits were all filled, Larry and Deb invited the girls to gather round their table for some delicious brownies and chocolate milk. Leah was even given a special present at this time; a beautiful rose pin that she still treasures to this day. The kindness and generosity of the Wilton Family helped make Leah’s birthday resonate in a way that most birthdays don’t. My gratitude to them and, in particular, to Rose is immeasurable.

In this photo, Rose’s sister, Jules, helps to deliver kits to Port Hope High School. The Rose Project is very much a family affair, with all members of the Wilton Family helping with the processing of donations (which often fill every nook and cranny of their cozy home), the preparing of the kits and the delivering of them to local spots, as well as, going on road trips to bigger cities. It is hard work to do what the Wiltons do but, as Rose would readily attest to, it is work that is important to do and work that she and her family wouldn’t hesitate to do if it meant bringing dignity to those for whom life has turned a blind eye.

For me, the impact of The Rose Project extends beyond the immediate helping of those in need. What Rose and her family have done for my girls and their friends is to make it seem normal for women to be successful agents for change. They give my girls the impression that being a female who has achieved great things is just a regular thing for a woman to do. Because of Rose and Jules and Deb, my daughters don’t really worry themselves about such arbitrary concepts as glass ceilings. My girls look at the Wiltons and believe that being of service to others is ok for them too. So, they do lots of good things, as well. From where I sit, I don’t get the sense that the girls think they are anything special because of what they do, for them, they just think it is what all girls can do.

Whether it is her Battery Bucket or cleaning the beach with her friend, Sophie is becoming quite an empowered young lady, just like Rose.

As well, Leah is developing quite a name for herself as a young historian. In this photo, Leah is giving a history talk on the sinking of the Titanic to senior citizens at The Rosewood Retirement Residence in Cobourg. The folks there have taken a real shine to Leah and think she is quite something for being so smart, mature and well-spoken. Leah, from her point of view, thinks being an intelligent and successful female is not that big of a deal. Thanks to Rose, Leah thinks that there is nothing unusual about being a girl in the spotlight.

Ideas and intentions are wonderful things. But, ideas and intentions put into action become powerful things. Rose Wilton is changing the lives of those in need around her and inspiring other girls to believe that they have the power to bring their own ideas to fruition. What a tremendous legacy to have. What a truly accomplished woman you have become, Rose. Thanks for all that you do for everyone. The link to The Rose Project’s Facebook Page can be found here. ***Just fyi, Rose cannot accept cash donations because The Rose Project is not yet a registered charity. But, if you wish to make a donation of new, unused toiletries, socks, etc., you can contact Rose directly through her Facebook page or else, you can contact me and I will make sure Rose gets whatever you might care to donate.

Love is a Hockey Card

National Hockey League Hall of Famer, Leonard “Red” Kelly passed away yesterday at aged 91. Kelly was a member of eight Stanley Cup Championship teams over the course of his illustrious career; four with the Detroit Red Wings and four with my beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. Upon the completion of his playing career, Kelly served several terms as a member of Canada’s Parliament. He, then, returned to the NHL, holding several coaching positions before finally retiring for good while in his late 60s. I never met Mr. Kelly in person but, he came to be the central figure in one of my most cherished moments in life. This is the story of that moment and why Red Kelly’s passing holds such a special place in my heart.

If you look past the surface of most cliches, you will often find a grain of truth. For me, a Canadian boy growing up in the 1960s and 70s on Cape Breton Island, that cliched truth was that I loved hockey.

I loved playing road hockey with the guys who lived on my small street. Sticks with spear-like curved blades, taped just like our NHL heroes did. Playing on that street, I scored more goals than Gretzky ever did. So did everyone else, too. We shot! We scored! Tennis balls for pucks. We would play for hours on end, stopping only when our Moms would call us in for dinner.

I loved watching hockey on TV. Back in those days, we only had three tv channels; CBC English, CBC French and CTV. Hockey was only broadcast on CBC on Saturday nights. At 8:00pm, in living rooms all over town, the anthem of my youth….the opening theme to Hockey Night in Canada….would play. We would all be transported; one week, to the Forum in Montreal, where we would listen to the dulcet tones on Cape Breton’s own, play-by-play man, Danny Gallivan, as he described the exploits of the Flying Frenchman who wore the bleu, blanc et rouge of the Montreal Canadians. The next week, we would find ourselves listening to Bill Hewitt, “live from the Gondola at Maple Leaf Gardens”. I loved the Leafs. Being just a small boy, I am not sure if my attraction to the Leafs was more of a cultural one because, after all, I was English and the Leafs represented English-speaking Canada. But, never-the-less, the Leafs were my team and those Saturday nights, watching with my dad when they were shown on TV, were among my favourite childhood memories.

But, there were lots of days in the week that hockey wasn’t being shown on TV and that the boys weren’t gathering to play road hockey. On those days, I got my hockey “fix” from my hockey card collection. I was a big hockey card collector as a boy. Opee-Chee hockey cards, to be precise. They were sold, eight cards to a pack plus, one stick of hard, hard pink bubble gum, for ten cents a pack. I used to get $1.00 per week as an allowance, which was a King’s ransom in those days, and blow the whole dollar at Mary MacQuarrie’s corner store, buying ten packs of cards at a time. Without any exaggeration, the moments when I would start opening those packs were as exciting a few minutes as I had as a boy. Every pack contained the stories of my heroes. I opened each pack, hoping against hope, that I would find Toronto Maple Leaf players inside. Sometimes I was lucky and added to my collection. Sometimes, I just found cards I already had…or traders, as we all called them because, those would be the ones I would take to school the next day and trade with my friends or else, sacrifice while flicking them against the school wall….closest card to wall collected everyone’s cards. One time, for a couple of bucks, I sent away for a hockey card locker, as advertised on the Opee-Chee wrapper and kept all of my cards in that. The locker was cardboard and had storage slots for each team. I wore that cardboard locker out, to the point where the doors would fall off simply from being opened and shut so often.

As I left childhood and entered adulthood, my love of hockey stayed true. But now, there were mid-week hockey games to watch on TV. I joined organized hockey pools and placed small wagers on the outcome of games and of the scoring prowess of my favourite players. In my early twenties, I moved to Toronto and even got to see a few games at Maple Leaf Gardens. If hockey was my religion then, Maple Leaf Gardens was my church. Being there felt like history coming alive. My only regret about watching my Leafs play in person was that I was unable to share that experience with my father, who had passed away when I was eleven years old. He would have liked to have been there, I’m sure. In his memory, on the occasion of my first visit, I walked up and placed one hand upon the old building and thought about all of those evenings at home, sitting with dad in his Lazy-Boy chair, cigarette smoke curling skyward. The Leafs actually won that night. I credit my dad with having offered some Heavenly intervention on behalf of my team. The thought of it still makes me smile.

But, in my thirties, something happened that changed everything. In my thirties, I met my wife, Keri. She is my soul-mate and I knew that right from our very first dates. Everything was different with her. I recognized that right away and felt enriched beyond measure by her love for me. Love is a funny thing, though. It is the tsunami of emotions. It rolled through my life and obliterated all that had previously seemed so important….including hockey. I no longer hung on the plus/minus stats of certain players or what my position was in the pool. What I cared about was being with Keri and, believe it or not, I happily traded hockey for her and felt the better for it when it happened.

That brings to mind the opening stanzas to the song, Fireworks by Canadian band, The Tragically Hip.

“If there’s a goal that everyone remembers,
It was back in ol’ 72
We all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger
And all I remember is sitting beside you. You said you didn’t give a f*ck about hockey
And I never saw someone say that before
You held my hand and we walked home the long way
You were loosening my grip on Bobby Orr.”

Keri didn’t give a hoot about hockey. Still doesn’t. But, she gave a hoot about me and, still does. Love works both ways; sometimes it is all about you adapting to the person you are with and, at other times, it is all about how your partner adapts to you. For Keri, falling in love with me meant falling in love with someone who loved hockey, even if my love for hockey was not as obsessive and all-encompassing as it had once been. She was hitching her wagon to a man who wore Toronto Maple Leaf socks and sweatpants and who, to this very day, wears a Toronto Maple Leaf ball cap. She knew I bled blue but, she loved me anyway. And love makes you do things you could never have imagined yourself doing.

For our first Christmas, we decided to set a small limit of $10-20 on our gift(s) for each other. I have no idea what I ended up getting her for Christmas but, from her, I got a gift that proved her love for me better than any words could do. For Christmas that year, Keri got me a hockey card.

In the Fall of that year, Keri had noticed an ad in our local newspaper that indicated that “Toronto Maple Leaf Hall of Fame legend, Leonard “Red” Kelly” was coming to a mall not far from our house and would be autographing hockey cards for a buck a piece. Keri did not have a clue who Red Kelly was nor did she care that he was a key member of the last Leafs team to win the Stanley Cup in 1967. No, all that Keri knew was that I loved the Leafs and this man was a Leaf. She rolled the dice and gambled that I would appreciate who this man was and that her gesture would bring about the desired result which was, that she would have been able to make me happy.

I did know who Red Kelly was. But, more than having an autographed card, her gift had meaning because of what she did to get it for me. My Love, who didn’t give a hoot about hockey, stood in a line for 45 minutes in a skanky little mall, surrounded by dozens of hockey nerds (like I used to be), all because she loved me and sought to make me happy. Her efforts resonated in my heart then and now, with Mr. Kelly’s passing, those pangs of love surface once again. I received this hockey card eighteen years ago. I have not felt the need to buy another since. My autographed Red Kelly card is the last hockey card I have needed.

Mr. Kelly’s passing is timely because it happened during the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs. The dream of every hockey player is to win the Stanley Cup. Red Kelly did that eight times, which is an amazing number. Most players are lucky to win it once. Red Kelly is, indeed, a legend in the game of ice hockey and has more than earned his eternal rest. For a man who never crossed my path, Red Kelly sure left his mark on my life. For sometimes love takes the form of diamonds, roses or hearts and flowers. But, for me and my wife, love took the form of a hockey card. Thank you, Red Kelly. Rest in peace.

Little Cakes

I love being around creative people. I love their energy. I love their originality and ingenuity. Most of all, I love their Art. Creativity manifests itself in numerous ways; everything from painting, pottery, gardening, woodworking, writing, performing on stage and so much more. Regardless of the form that it takes, when creative people do their thing, the end result is Art. I love Art and the artists who create something out of nothing. This post is about creativity and those who possess it. It is about how Art makes our lives brighter and better. Finally, this post is about how, when done properly, the act of creativity attracts others, like a flame attracts a moth.

My daughter, Sophie, is an artist. She possesses a creative mindset that is interwoven in all that she does and all that she is. I wrote about her previously, in a post entitled, Maker Sophie. What I particularly like about Sophie’s brand of creativity is that it is relatively pure. By that, I mean she creates things for the joy of creating them and, not for the purpose of drawing attention to herself. Sophie, the Artist, does not wave her own flag when she makes what she does. Instead, Sophie, simply, creates and then, she lets her Art speak for itself. Quite often, Keri and I don’t even know she has made something until we stumble across her work by accident. Here are a few examples.

In Sophie’s bedroom, she has a pair of cube shelves. There are eight cube spaces in each shelf. In each empty space, Sophie has a canvas cube holder. She uses these canvas cubes to hold bits of this and that so that her bedroom has some semblance of order to it. However, the problem that she (and, by extension, Keri and I) was having was knowing which canvas cube held what, when it came time to clean up her room. So, in order to help solve her own problem, Sophie decided to label her cubes. And Sophie, being Sophie, didn’t just write on the handles or on a piece of masking tape (which, I admit, would probably have been what I would have done). No, one afternoon, Sophie quietly got out her hot glue gun, some glitter glue sticks that we had gotten at the craft store and then, she proceeded to make “tags” in writing, out of glitter glue. Then, once the glue was dry, she peeled it off the parchment paper it was on, grabbed some yarn and tied it to the handles of her canvas cubes. The glitter glue tag in the photo says, “Odds and Ends”, all in one connected piece. She also made tags that said, “Toys”, “Papers”, “Beanie Boos” and so on. Each tag glitters in a different colour and helps us all know what each cube is being used for. Art, as an organizing tool.

As Sophie matures, she is displaying a tendency toward liking Mathematics. In particular, she has a good spatial sense and often sees the world in a geometric manner. Here is a good example. This photo shows the front of our dishwasher in the kitchen. Like many families, our kitchen has long been used as a gallery of sorts to display drawings, photos and souvenirs of importance to us. When we recently re-did our kitchen (which I wrote about here), we had to strip our fridge and dishwasher surfaces down and put all of our magnets and photos away. Now that the kitchen reno is over, I asked Sophie and her sister, Leah, to go through what we had taken down to see if they still wanted everything. If not, then, we could purge the unwanted magnets and start fresh on our displays. Without saying a word, Sophie went about her task and created what you see in the photo. The dishwasher has always been her display space while Leah uses the fridge. But, what struck me about what Sophie did with the dishwasher was that her display is perfectly symmetrical. If you ignore the row of her school photos on the bottom, the entire rest of the dishwasher display is symmetrical. And she didn’t say a word after she was done. She was content to have created something interesting and, in this case, Mathematical. Art, as Math.

But, one of the ways that Sophie most enjoys being creative is when it comes to cooking and baking. For a while now, Sophie has shown a desire to create colourful, tasty treats such as her unicorn milkshakes and her three-layer, rainbow cake. She is able to do most of the work herself (*with an exception granted for using the stove to melt butter). She measures, mixes, cuts, adds ingredients and much, much more. Because she is so interested in creativity in the kitchen, her repertoire of creations is growing; everything from homemade pizza, to cookies, to her own breakfasts on the weekend, to fruit smoothies and to what you see above. Sophie does a good job getting the ingredients ready first then, mixing and creating her food. She is, also, good at cleaning up afterwards because, when she first started expressing a desire to cook, we insisted that she had to do so in a responsible manner which meant, among other things, leaving the kitchen as clean as it was when she first entered the room. Sophie is gaining independence over when she eats, how much she eats and, specifically, what she eats. Art, as food, means a lot to Sophie. Like all things with Sophie, when it comes to baking and cooking, it is almost the case that she enjoys the process of creating her treats almost more than she does consuming them. But, let’s be honest, she likes that, too.

The thing about being quietly creative is that, at times, you can attract the attention of admirers and like-minded creative types, without having to make a production out of yourself. Today’s post is about how Sophie came to recently make a French dessert called Madeleines. Madeleines are little cookie/cakes and, believe me, they are delicious. The story of the Madeleines is a story that is almost thirty years in the making. It is a story that began in a classroom in Courtice, Ontario and, more specifically, with a report card written about another little girl who was quite something special, too.

In my third or fourth year of teaching, I had a really nice group of Grade 2 students. Among that group was a little girl named Stacey Duggan. Stacey was a smart little girl and was a valued leader in the classroom. She was a good friend to her peers and a hard-working student for me. So, when it came time to write her first term report card, I gave my honest assessment of Stacey which was, simply put, that she was a wonderful human being and that I was happy to have her in my class that year. When her parents, Will and Gloria, came in for Stacey’s report card interview, they wondered if I had mixed up their kid with someone else’s child. I told them I had not and we proceeded to have a chuckle over the whole thing. As the school year closed, the Duggans invited me over for a barbecue. Accepting that invitation changed my life for the better because we have been fast friends ever since, for over thirty years now. In fact, I was asked to be the emcee at Stacey’s wedding. Will and Gloria, in turn, have been an integral part of my life, with Will acting as one of my two Best Men at my own wedding, among many other things that have gone on over the years.

One of the things that attracted me to Will and Gloria from the very beginning was that they are both creative. For instance, Will is a master carpenter, whose work can be seen on Twitter by searching for Gryffon Wood Designs or @gryffonwood. As for Gloria, for as long as I have known her, she has loved to cook. I have had many a good meal at the Duggan Family table because of Gloria’s prowess in the kitchen and Will’s skill on the barbecue. Not long after I started blogging for the first time, I began to encourage Gloria to start a blog of her own that could be used to showcase her great cooking. Reluctantly at first, Gloria decided to give blogging a try and, as a result, she started a blog called Homemade & Yummy that would talk about food that was all “homemade” and would taste “yummy”. Gloria applied herself with great determination and, in a relatively short period of time, her blog has taken off in the cooking world and she is making a name for herself on the Canadian cooking and blogging scene. Not surprisingly, when you become known in an industry, you end up making connections with others. One of the connections that Gloria ended up making was with an author called Mardi Michels. Mardi had just published a cookbook of French recipes for kids to create. About the time that Gloria was crossing paths with Mardi, we were publishing photos of Sophie making milkshakes or cookies or whatever on Facebook. This gave Gloria an idea.

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For Christmas this past year, Gloria gave Sophie the cookbook that Mardi Michels had published, along with a special pan for making Madeleines (which were featured in the cookbook that Sophie is holding). At the time that Sophie received her gift from the Duggans, we made them a promise that, once our kitchen renovation was completed, the very first thing we would make would be the Madeleines and that, when we made them, we would invite Will and Gloria over and, in addition, we would take photos to send to Mardi Michels (who had autographed the cookbook for Sophie, by the way). So, that is what we did. Here is the proof, in photos.

Madeleines are little cakes that have a seashell design on one of their sides. In this photo, Sophie is preparing the Madeleine pan. In order to do so, I melted butter for her and then, she applied the butter with a butter brush; making sure to get inside all of the seashell grooves. Then, Sophie sprinkled a bit of flour into each mold. The pan was then, put into the freezer for thirty minutes to chill. ***Just to answer those of you with eagle eyes, this is Sophie at the start of our second batch. We have a batch already done in a container just north of her hand.

While the Madeleine pan was chilling, Sophie made the batter. Eggs, sugar and vanilla extract comprised the “wet” ingredients, which were blended with an electric beater. Flour, baking powder and a pinch of sea salt made up the “dry” ingredients, which were folded into the wet, using a spatula. Sophie mixed everything for several minutes until it was silky smooth.

Once the Madeleine pan had finished cooling, Sophie was able to spoon in the batter. Then, we put the batter-filled pan into the refrigerator for an additional twenty minutes. At that point, everything went into the oven (set to 400 degrees) for 10-12 minutes and the end result was a dozen Madeleine cakes that simply slid out of the pan and on to a wire baking rack to cool. At that point, we put them in a container and told the Duggans that we were ready for them to come over. The Duggans arrived the next day.

Being a chef, it seemed like the obvious next move to invite Gloria to, not only check out our new kitchen but, to actually work in our new kitchen. So, Gloria and Sophie completed the recipe by working together to make a lemon glaze and then, sprinkle some icing sugar over top of the glazed Madeleines.

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Over thirty years ago, I recognized the potential that existed in Gloria’s daughter, Stacey. This past weekend, Gloria returned the favour by recognizing the creative potential that exists within my daughter, Sophie. This photo was sent to Mardi Michels who, in turn, replied that she was delighted to see how well the Madeleines had turned out and how thrilled she is whenever she hears from folks about how children are using her book and her recipes to create good food. ***As an aside, I have come to know that published authors are no different than a blogger author, like me, when it comes to receiving feedback. I love reading your comments and so do “real” authors. We never hesitated contacting Mardi Michels and involving her, even from a distance, in what we were doing with her book. I know that she appreciated our thoughtfulness. So, if you read something you like somewhere, take a moment and leave a review on Amazon or on Chapters-Indigo or on the author’s website. I can guarantee you that they will appreciate your kinds words.

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Creative expression takes many forms. This past weekend, it took the form of tasty little cakes called Madeleines. Thanks to Gloria and Will Duggan for helping Sophie grow as an artist and as a young woman and for sharing a creative partnership with me that has spanned three decades now. Caring about each other’s children is about as important and privileged a responsibility as there is. Of course, I encourage you to please feel free to check out Mardi Michels‘ website and Gloria‘s, too and leave a comment if you like what you see and read there. I know both ladies…..both artists…..will love to hear what you have to say.

And finally, to Sophie, thanks for being the amazing young lady you are. I am continually awe-struck by the things that your mind conjures up. Being a creative thinker is such an important skill in life; not only for solving problems and findings solutions but, simply, for making the world more beautiful and more interesting, too. You have the gift of seeing the world with an artist’s eye. It is my pleasure to understand that and to recognize the wonder of what you create as you go about living your life. I am proud to be your father. You are my favourite artist.

Believe

I have been a writer since I was a kid. I have always loved telling stories and, more importantly, I have always loved using my words to make other people happy. Believe me when I tell you how humbled I am any time someone contacts me to say that they were moved by something I wrote or that they learned something or else, that they had a laugh or two that brightened their day. Those comments fill me up and inspire me to continue writing words for others to read. It is a large part of the reason why I created this blog.

The thing about having a blog, at least for me, is that I rarely actually meet the people I interact with. Those who comment and share my work do so, most often, on the Internet, from the comfort of their home. I never see them and they never see me but, just the same, a familiarity comes to be and a relationship starts to take shape. While we never meet, my social media “friends” help shape my life. I am enriched by their cyber presence. I am comforted in their binary embrace. Over time, they have become “real” to me. I consider myself the better for having had that happen.

So, I write. I create. I share. And, hopefully, I help make things a tiny bit better….for my friends and, because of my friends.

The story that I wish to share with you today involves a recap of a story I posted just prior to Christmas and a more, in-depth look into the circumstances of something unexpected that spiralled out of that post. That post was entitled, “I Hope Your Can Hear the Bell” and can be found here.

In “I Hope You Can Hear the Bell”, I talked about a dozen or so Christmas books that I had used in my classroom during the course of my thirty-year teaching career. These were books that had become beloved by my students over the years. Books that I wanted to share with my readers so that they, in turn, might share them with their children and grand-children. I have always considered good books to be like treasure and, as such, I have always wanted to share them with as many people as possible so that the magic and beauty they contain can extend ever onward.

As I listed the books, I saved the Chris Van Allsburg book, The Polar Express, for last because it was the most requested and loved Christmas book in my collection. Children in every class I ever taught were drawn to the message of believing in something greater than themselves. They loved that the first gift of Christmas…..Santa’s sleigh bell….only sounded for those who believed and, since they were all young kids and truly believed in the magic of Christmas, to them, the book felt like a special secret that only children knew. It sought to validate their belief system. It reinforced their willingness to trust.

I selected The Polar Express as the most popular of all of my Christmas books because experience had proven that to be true. I found reading the book aloud to be very special. If truth be told, I always considered it an honour to invite a new group of students each year into Van Allsburg’s wonderful world; to share that secret that only a child can know. Whenever I read aloud and got the end of the story, I would grow silent. Then I would reach into my pocket and pull out a cloth bag. Inside that bag would be a tiny sleigh bell. The kids always inched forward as I pulled the little bell out. I always gently shook the bell. The kids always heard it ring. The magic was always, always real. They believed and so did I.

So, when the writing for that blog post was completed, all that was left for me to do was to find a suitable photo to act as my “cover photo”. I try to use my own photos as much as possible, for copyright reasons. But, I no longer had the little bell so, I could not take a picture of it. My next course of action was to go to the public domain photos that are available. But, try as I might, I could not get the photo that seemed worthy of my post and how I felt about The Polar Express. So, as a last resort, I simply Googled “Santa’s Sleigh Bell” and the photo above came on to my screen. THAT was the photo I had been waiting for. So, even though it was not my photo, I copied it, attached it to my post and hit the “PUBLISH” button and sent my story on its way to my loving readers.

Not long after that, the guilt set in.

Some people would have ignored that guilty feeling; rationalizing that the odds were slim that the owner of that photo would ever come in contact with my post. But, what if they did!? What if they were checking out other sleigh bell photos and saw their picture on the link to my post. I knew in my mind that they would have every right to be upset and that I really wouldn’t have any excuse for having done what I did. So, with my conscience suitably guilty, I decided to try and make things right.

That afternoon, I found out that the photo belonged to a company called Magical Bells. On their website, they had a “Contact Us” page. I filled out their form, explaining that I had written a post that included a section on The Polar Express and that I had wanted a beautiful sleigh bell for my cover photo and had used theirs. I offered to pay them a fee in order to keep the photo but, I said that I understood if they were upset and told them I would remove the photo if they directed me to do so. I hit the “SUBMIT” button and then, I waited for a reply.

I must admit that I was expecting the worst. The Internet is a wild and woolly place, at times. There are lots of angry people out there, eager to argue for sport. There are dangerous people, too. Folks who want to gain access to your world in order to steal your information, your money and even your identity. There are lots of competitive folks out there in cyberspace, as well. These folks wouldn’t think twice about denying a favour to someone who might, as a result, take marketshare away from them once the favour had been granted.

So, I sat there by my computer and wondered about the reaction of the person on the other side of the screen, as they were being notified that “You Have Mail”. I waited and I waited. Finally, a day or so later, I had my answer. I had mail ……from the owner of Magical Bells.

As I clicked on the email link, I did so in the same way that The Grinch did on Christmas morning, high atop Mt. Crumpit. He listened for the sound of crying and of sadness but, instead, what he heard was merry….very! He found that sound puzzling. For me, I opened that email and was prepared for a finger-wagging blast but instead, I found gratitude and thankfulness and compliments. Like the Grinch, I was momentarily taken aback, too.

The author of that email, and owner of Magical Bells, was a man named Mike Frueh. He reassured me that he wasn’t upset about the fact that I had used his photo without permission and that, in reality, he felt flattered that I thought it was beautiful enough to use in the first place. He said that he had read my post and thought it was wonderful. He talked about how important The Polar Express was to him and his family and how thankful he was that I was promoting the same view. To top it all off, he offered to send me one of his special Polar Express sleigh bells, free of charge, as thanks for writing the post, using the photo and for including a link to his website within that post.

Wait!? What!? No! I didn’t deserve that. I had broken a rule and wasn’t deserving of a reward. I wrote back to Mike and told him how gracious his offer was but that I did not do what I did in writing the post and using the photo in the hopes of obtaining material reward. I did it because I believe in the magic of a book and I told Mike that he owed me nothing. I was just grateful that he wasn’t upset. But, Mike would not take “No” for an answer and insisted on sending me a bell, free of charge, from the U.S. to Canada.

A few weeks later, as promised by Mike, there sat a pretty little box in my home. A little piece of him and his family to be enjoyed by me and my family, despite the many miles between us. The box was sturdy and clean as a whistle, the green ribbons lined up perfectly from the lid to the bottom of the box. So, before even opening the box to see what was inside, the attention to detail evident in this box spoke volumes for the care that goes into every Magical Bells product. As first impressions go, Mike had made a good one on us.

I had assumed, prior to opening the box, that I would find a lovely bell inside. I did find a lovely bell inside but, I found several other thoughtful things, too. For instance, the first thing I pulled out was a two-sided card; on one side was a picture of the sleigh bell and the words, “The Ultimate Symbol to Believe”. On the other side of the card was a message from Santa Claus, himself! It talked about the importance of believing, too, not just of Santa but, of yourself, as well. What a wonderfully empowering message to receive….and, I still hadn’t opened the bell yet! After reading the card, I next pulled out a golden train ticket needed to board the actual Polar Express train! How cool is that!? Then, I went for the red, cloth bag that lay nestled inside the box. As I began to lift it up, I noticed a smaller red, cloth bag underneath so, I opted to open that first. Inside was a pin or brooch that had one word engraved upon it…that one word was, “Believe”. Finally, it was time for the bell! I opened the larger red, cloth bag and held that glorious silver bell for the first time. It is not an exaggeration to say that it was perfect. Not a mark of any kind on it anywhere. Shiny, clean, well-constructed and, the sound…..oh, the sound that rang out when I shook the bell for the first time. It was phenomenal!

As I spread these gifts out before me, I felt very honoured to have been considered worthy of such kindness and such effort. This is especially so because Mike and I have never met, nor have we spoken on the phone. We only know each other via email, the post I wrote on my blog and through his Magical Bells website. And yet, this man and his family extended a hand of friendship to me and my family across borders and Internet wires. As I held that bell, I felt the positive energy emanating from it.

As I said earlier in this post, the Internet is filled with unsavoury characters and can be a very dangerous place to lay your soul bare for others to see. But, Mike and his family do just that with every bell they make. Each bell is handcrafted and its creation is an act of faith and of trust and of love. The story of how these bells came to be in one worth telling and, in the telling, a story will emerge that attests to the quality of the character of all involved at Magical Bells. It is a story born out of a moment, quite common in scope, that proved to be a turning point in Mike’s family’s life. It all began with the search for the perfect Christmas gift for his son.

Back in 2006, Mike and his wife, Christina, had a son named Evan. Evan loved the story of The Polar Express and had asked for a sleigh bell of his own, just like the one in the book. Christina looked everywhere for such a bell but ended up empty-handed. So, not wanting to disappoint her son, Christina created the very first magical bell herself and gave it to Evan for Christmas. It was a gift created from her heart. Evan could hear its sound when he shook the bell. The magic of a mother’s love was real.

That first bell spawned others and Christina went on to create a company called Magical Bells. Unfortunately, several years later, she passed away. It was a devastating blow to Mike and his son. But, when the foundation of a good life is built upon love, as Mike and Christina’s had, goodness follows pain and beautiful possibilities remain. As things turned out, Evan had two friends who were brothers. Their names were Owen and Gavin. These boys were dealing with their own challenges, as their father, Chad, had cancer and, eventually, succumbed to that disease, leaving the boys alone with their mother, Jenna. The two families understood the grief that each felt and found comfort together in ways that can only be when empathy truly exists. Eventually, over time, empathy turned to love and the two families became one. Mike and Jenna now live with the three boys, together, as a family. But, new beginnings cannot erase old memories completely. Mike and Jenna sought to channel that ache that wouldn’t go away despite their newfound love. They did so by turning to the magic of a mother’s love, as symbolized by a sleigh bell from a children’s book. Mike and Jenna agreed to continue operating Magical Bells in the memory of Christina. Each bell they make themselves is infused with the love they hold for those who still exist in their hearts. That’s why the bell I held in my hand shone so.

I write words and the Frueh’s make bells….both of us trying to make the world a little better, a little more loving and positive. And, while it is easy to find negative people in cyberspace, it is possible, as well, to find wonderful people, too. Thank you, Mike and family, for gifting me with the beauty of your family’s love, in the form of that bell. I am beyond humbled to possess it. I will end with a promise from me to you; for as long as I have that bell, I will ALWAYS be able to hear its sound because I will ALWAYS Believe.

I Think We Are Done!!!

It took from the final Monday in January to the first Friday in April but, I think that our kitchen renovation is finally finished. Ten weeks, 68 days, 13 trades people later, I think I can say we are done. It doesn’t seem real, to be honest. Even as I sit here in a peaceful, quiet, settled house, I am still, somewhat, ill at ease, feeling as though I am waiting for some worker to arrive to do some aspect of what they do best. But, no one is coming here today to work. Those days are over. The time to enjoy the fruits of a lot of labour is upon us. Our kitchen is ready to be revealed. It has been quite a journey. Come on along and let me give you an insider look at the transformation.

I have always believed that a kitchen is the heartbeat of any home. For the first sixteen years that we lived in this house, our heartbeat looked like what you see in this photo. Not in the photo, on the other side of the room, was a fridge (directly across from the stove) with two overhead cupboards and then, an empty space that we used as an office (with a desk, floating shelf and file cabinet). The cabinets that you see are oak. The counter top is laminate. The floor vinyl. There are no window treatments, aside from the valence ruffle thing at the top. The walls are beige. There is a built-in hutch-style cupboard at the end of the room. The kitchen looked out on to our backyard. This photo was taken from the doorway that leads to our dining room. At the other end of this room, to the left is a stairway to the basement and backyard and, to the right, is a doorway that leads out to our front hall and front entrance.

From a functionality point of view, this kitchen had served us well. A lot of memories happened in this space; cookies baked, hot tea steeped, meals prepared, babies crawled and explored, art work adorned many surfaces, many hugs, touches and squeezes were given and received here, too. This kitchen did not owe us anything. It was a good kitchen and we were thankful for its service. But, as we worked to modernize and update the rest of our house, (everything from the roof, to the insulation in the attic, all the way to sealing and waterproofing our foundation), the kitchen stayed as it was, bearing silent witness to the upgrades. Finally, after paying off our mortgage and saving for the better part of a year (i.e., investing what would have been used for a mortgage payment but, instead, putting that money in a renovation fund), we felt financially and emotionally ready to tackle the kitchen. So, during the Christmas break, we initiated our contacts, made our arrangements, signed our deals and waited for the end of January to arrive.

The first part of our kitchen renovation happened before any worker ever set foot in our home. It started with the emptying of the kitchen. I am not sure why we were so surprised but, the amount of stuff that poured out of that kitchen stunned us. Every fork and knife, pot and pan, spice bottle, soup tin, cereal box, mug, baking pan and so on had to be removed and stored. We ended up taking two shelving units from the basement and placed them in our living room. We filled both shelves completely! The really funny thing was that we told ourselves that this would be a good opportunity to purge some things that were old or weren’t being used that often but, truth be told, we purged very little, relative to the massive amount of things we piled onto those shelves. Kitchens require crap and, lots of it, to run effectively. A lesson we learned before the renovation ever began.

This was our kitchen on the morning of Day #1. Right from the very beginning of this process, our kitchen designer, Mandy Rutherford, told us that, if we wanted, she could probably sell our old cupboards, counter-top and sink for us. That money would be used like a discount toward the cost of our cabinets. We went with that option. So, instead of the cathartic experience of demoing the cabinets with sledge hammers, our old oak cupboards were carefully removed and taken into storage; eventually being sold to a home renovator who was remodelling a home only two streets over from ours. We didn’t get a king’s ransom for the cupboards but, we were happy to see them re-purposed and we made a bit of cash that got put toward the cost of the new cabinets so, the reno got off to a good and cost-effective start.

Our appliances were still working fine so we have kept them for now. As we move along and they start to falter, we will replace them with stainless steel but, for now, our white appliances have survived the renovation and are still here, as you shall see in the photos that follow.

One thing that Mandy said right away when she visited us was that she thought our renovation was a good chance to unify the look of the flooring in our house. At this moment in time (in the photo), we had ceramic tile at our front door entrance way, that gave way to carpet in the hallway and then, to vinyl flooring in the kitchen and hardwood in the living/dining room areas. Mandy suggested we leave the hardwood as is but, remove the rest and put in one floor material throughout all of the rest of our upstairs. We thought this made sense so, we contacted Dickson’s Flooring in Cobourg and had them put in a new flooring for us, which you will see in a moment. Before they could install the new floor, they had to prep the old floor. So, in this photo, they have done, what they referred to, as feathering. Essentially, they primed the vinyl floor by coating it with a compound that filled in all of the indentations from the pattern on the vinyl floor. The black muck that you see is that compound. It took several days for that to dry, after a couple of coats were applied. But, it did, eventually dry and then, the new floor went in.

Dicksons recommended a flooring material called Luxury Vinyl. In this photo, you can see the flooring as it appears in our front hallway and leads into our kitchen. The floor colour is a grey marble style, with wispy strands of light brown in it. The floor feels terrific and has made a big difference in how our home “flows” now, at least in the upstairs, anyway.

Once the floor went in, our custom cabinet folks from Frank Bouwmans in Cobourg started installing the cabinets. Not surprisingly, they did the lower cabinets first. As you can see in this photo, even though we did not have countertops yet, the cabinets had a solid surface so we could use the space in a limited way to prepare our meals. This photo was taken on Valentine’s Day, as Sophie made Valentine milkshakes. If you look in the background, you can see the walls are still beige, as is the built-in cabinet. But, once the lower cabinets went in, we could start to see the shape of what our new kitchen was to become.

Once the lowers were all installed, the upper cabinets were placed and put in. This photo is important because it showcases much of what is better about the design of our new kitchen. First of all, the area from the stove back to the end of the far counter, was where our office used to be. These cabinets are all new storage space for our kitchen. Because we have far more storage space than we ever did before, it has allowed us to store things upstairs that, until then, had previously been stored downstairs. So, the impact on storage, alone, has rippled through our whole house. You will, also, notice the built-in microwave. Our old microwave had been sitting on the counter. But, both Mandy and Frank Bouwmans made the point during our initial consultations that they wanted a design that would free up counter space for us. Placing the microwave where it is now, takes a big appliance out of the way. A third thing that this design does is it makes our kitchen much more efficient to use. We use this side of our kitchen now exclusively for food preparation. Our plates, mugs, cutlery, baking bowls, cereals, soup cans, etc., are all in these cabinets now so, cooking is much simpler than it had been. I hardly need to move at all to reach everything I need for most meals. The other side of the kitchen, is used for cleaning and storage.

Once the cabinets went in, our counter tops arrived. We went with a company out of Scarborough called Vogt Industries. The man installing our cabinets called them “The Russian Mafia” and he wasn’t far off the truth. The counter top installers were big, burly guys who spoke Russian the whole time they were in the house and they insisted upon being paid in cash. Anyway, I was happy when they were gone but, in their wake they left behind three dark grey quartz counter tops and a stainless steel, under-mounted, double sink. We really like the counter tops and sink. At the time, we hmmed and haaaaed about settling for another laminate counter-top because it was cheaper but, I am glad we didn’t. Even though it was the second-most expensive part of the whole reno (the cabinets cost the most), the quality of these counter-tops made it well worth the money. There is just something really special about stone.

One thing I really haven’t mentioned yet but, it was a big part of this renovation, was the fact that, up until the time that the Russians installed our counter-tops and sink…..we didn’t have a real sink! This is a month or so into the renovation! A temporary sink was installed but it wasn’t much bigger than what you would find in a camper. So, while we could wash dishes in the kitchen, it was not an ideal situation at all. So, getting the new sink installed and then, hooked up by a plumber a few days later, really made our kitchen functional again.

Once the counter-tops and sink were finished, I painted the walls, ceiling, all of the trim and the built-in cabinet. The walls are now grey, to complement the floor and counter-top. Everything else is the same white as is on the cabinets; which is a pearly white. The room seems so fresh and clean now.

For the finishing touch, we went back to Dicksons Flooring and Tile and had them install a white, subway tile backsplash. As you can see, the backsplash extends the full length of the cabinets and counter-top on the stove-side of the kitchen. We put the same backsplash on the other side of the kitchen, too.

This is the window-side of our new kitchen. Here you can see the new double-sink and faucet. The backsplash goes along the wall, from one end to the other and, as well, up and around the window, too. For a window treatment, we went with a cellular blind set from Home Depot.

The main part of our renovation is complete now. What is left for us to do is to add the homey yet, tasteful touches. We will probably add a small plant or two, as well as, some art for the walls. As you can see from this photo, I have installed two of the SnapPower guide lights that I mentioned a week or so ago on Facebook. These lights are glowing from the bottom of plates that go around the electrical outlets on the wall. They add a nice ambience to the room and were super easy to install.

Our old kitchen
Our new kitchen

Our kitchen renovation is now complete. We love being in our new space. We look forward to a lifetime of new memories happening in this room.

Now, it is time to build up our bank account back up and move on to the next project because, as you know if you own your own home, there is always something calling out for attention. At least, for us, it won’t be the kitchen crying out any longer. I think I can truly say, we are done.

Throw Your Arms Around Me

I just finished reading The Never-Ending Present: the Story of Gold Downie and The Tragically Hip by Michael Barclay. What an excellent book. Not only a chronological look at the career of, arguably, Canada’s top rock band ever, this book also, dedicated several chapters to individual topics such as the kinship and camaraderie that existed between The Hip and many other bands in Canada and the U.S., the way certain Hip songs were crafted and came to be as we know them and, if you know the story of Gold Downie, you will not be surprised that there was a chapter dedicated to death. Not the death of Gold Downie per se but more, an examination of how various creative people handled the news of their own impending death. Reading about the final months of Johnny Cash, Prince, David Bowie, Warren Zevon and many more, offered a fascinating look into how mortality can fuel creativity but, also, how it can strengthen the bonds of Love with those closest to you.

We all have a song. A song that we sing as much with our hearts as we do with our mouths and our lungs. A song that, from its opening notes, instantly transports the whole of our being back in time to a transformational memory such as a first kiss, the achieving of a desired life goal or a shared moment with a loved one. Many people will say that The Tragically Hip songs take them back to that, most Canadian, of memories, which is sitting around camp fires, drinking beer and singing Hip songs by a Lake. Whatever the case, we all have a song.

For Keri and I, our song is not a Tragically Hip song. It is a Spirit of the West song called Home for a Rest. When we were planning our wedding, we were asked to make a myriad of decisions: about the date and location of the ceremony, what food would be served for supper, who would play or DJ our reception and so on. Our decisions were no different that those made by thousands of other newlywed couples. Being relatively well-organized individuals, we were fairly good at staying on top of the process of planning our wedding. There was only one thing that caused us any trepidation and that was what song would we choose for our “first dance” and how would we even do that first dance. You see, neither Keri nor I are, what I would dub, good dancers. Even while we were dating, we never really went out dancing because we are more awkward on the dance floor than graceful or cool. So, the thought of a hundred plus people watching us twirling in a circle for five minutes seemed almost unbearable to us. The whole topic became a source of stress and anxiety, as we auditioned several ballads in our living room, wearing a hole in the floor, clumsy as we were, endlessly circling on the same spot, round and round and round again.

Part of the problem for us was that we never wanted our wedding to be all about us. Instead, right from the very beginning of our planning, we wanted our wedding to be a shared experience between us and the ones we loved. So, for example, our idea for supper was never to have a fancy ball room, with slip covered chairs and ice sculptures and a ten-tier high wedding cake. That may be some couple’s dream but, it wasn’t ours. For us, we wanted to share a tasty meal with our family and friends and, oh yes, while we are at, let’s get married, too. The whole thing was always meant to be homey and low-key. Eventually, we solved our “first dance” anxiety by reminding ourselves that we could make this moment a shared moment, too, by inviting our guests to join us in the dance. Once we thought of that idea, we realized that by having everybody moving and grooving along with us, it would mean that they wouldn’t be staring at our sad selves as we spun slowly like a top. We, instantly, relaxed and tasked ourselves with finding a fun, upbeat song. That’s how we came to have Home for a Rest as our first dance song.

When we first told our DJs that Home for a Rest was our choice, they tried to talk us out of it. But, we reassured them that this is what we wanted and that we trusted our friends enough to know that most would join in and that our reception would get off to a flying start. If you don’t know the song, I will play it for you. As you listen to it and watch the video, pay attention to the lead singer, John Mann. At the time that this song was being released, John Mann was regarded as a wonderfully charismatic front man, second only to Gord Downie when it came to having a powerful stage presence. After watching the video, I think that you will agree with that assessment. What a singer! What a band! What a song!

https://youtu.be/0ZbqV_qfWfg

Songs like this are a funny thing, sometime. Their role in the soundtrack of our lives often causes the song to become, somewhat, frozen in time, along with the band. The musicians remain ever young, ever vibrant, ever strong and forceful personalities, always ready at our beck and call, to play to our hearts when our hearts need our song. But musicians, like us, are mortal, too. They are real people. They experience the good and the bad in life, as we all do. It’s just that sometimes we, the audience, forget that our heroes are real. We expect them to be immortal. Thus, when news broke that someone like Gord Downie had cancer, it shook us to our core as a country. This couldn’t be real. Gord and The Hip were supposed to be around forever. And now, just like that, they weren’t. It is over. Gord is gone to walk among the stars, as it were.

As noted above, Gord Downie was not the only famous musician to be stricken by disease and taken from us too soon. Prince, Bowie, Cash……and, John Mann, too. The singer of “our” song, stricken, as well. For most of his career, John Mann and his band, Spirit of the West, existed in the shadow of The Tragically Hip. The parallels between Mann and Downie, The Hip and Spirit of the West, are numerous. Both Mann and Downie commanded every stage they played upon. Both Mann and Downie wrote songs about Canada and toured extensively from Sea to Sea to Sea, playing venues intimate as well as, cavernous. Both bands kept their lineups intact through their careers and fostered a family-like atmosphere during recording sessions, as well as, during tours. Finally, both Mann and Downie railed against the diseases that wracked their bodies by having one, final tour each. During both tours, both men failed, at times, but, both were surrounded by love in the form of band mates who were like family and who helped support their friend when support was needed most.

John Mann survived colorectal cancer in his forties, only to find his brain attacked by early onset Alzheimers as he turned fifty. Alzheimers is a degenerative disease that attacks the brain and is most famous for robbing its victims of their memories, even the memories of being loved by those closest to them. It is a tragic disease and there is no known cure. But, the human brain is a mysterious thing. As much as neurologists are coming to understand the effects of Alzheimers, it is still not fully understood why music seems to be one of the last aspects of recognition to go. In John Mann’s case, the vibrant, powerful, manic stage presence that you saw in the Home for a Rest video disappeared. He became dis-oriented, confused and helpless on stage. He required assistance to know what song was coming next, when he should start singing and what the lyrics were. But, he never lost his voice. John Mann could still sing, right up until his last performance. The clarity and range of his voice stayed with him, even when all else failed him at the end.

As Spirit of the West set out on their final tour, Mann’s bandmates transformed from being his musical equals to being his caretakers on stage and off-stage, too. Their hearts ached because their friend was suffering so greatly but, also, because he was fighting back with so much energy and vigour. He now read the lyrics to his songs from an iPad tablet secured to his microphone stand. He stayed rooted to his spot of the stage, lest he become lost and dis-oriented on the very stages that he pranced around like a whirling dervish. All that used to be was no more. All that remained was that voice and the love of his musical family.

For their closing number during each of their final shows, Spirit of the West, chose to cover an Australian song by a group called Hunters and Collectors, called Throw Your Arms Around Me. This is a lovely song that has been covered by numerous musicians and bands over the years, Now, it became John Mann’s song to sing. The video you will see is of Mann’s final performance on his final tour. The deterioration in his being is incredible but, instead of this being a sad moment captured, it is, actually, wonderfully-beautiful. Take note of how he relies on his bandmates; especially Geoffrey Kelly on flute, to know when to sing and when to stop. As well, note how Kelly watches over Mann as they assemble to take their bows and then, as they leave the stage. They are more than bandmates, they are family and the affection between them all is very real. I am sure that final performance of Throw Your Arms Around Me will become “that song” for many who were there to watch it or to be part of it on stage.

https://youtu.be/ZvlMMEKV3Qk

I can remember watching The Tragically Hip’s final show in Victoria Park, here in my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario. There were several hundred of us gathered in front of the bandshell. We watched the three hour concert on an inflatable screen used to air summertime movies for children and their families. There was beer and warm summer breezes. And, during those times that Gord Downie faltered on stage, we threw our arms around him and sang aloud to fill the void, just as his bandmates did on stage in Kingston. Because, after all, that’s what you do when you are family and the music becomes your song.

The Best Big Sister

I have a dear friend who is about to give birth in the next week or so. It feels funny to say that so matter-of-factly because, as many of your know, childbirth is one of the great miracles of Life. But, my friend is calm and well-organized. Those around her are excited but, controlled. There is an air of familiarity to the process because this is child #2 for my friend and her husband. The experience of bringing a living, breathing human being into the world is not so mysterious as it was when they had their first child. They feel ready. Soon their baby will be ready to make his or her appearance and then, life for my friend and her family will change. I am confident it will change for the better.

This post, today, is about helping to increase the odds of that change going well. Specifically, this post is not about the new baby….bless its little heart……but, instead, it is about the person who is, potentially, most affected by this new miracle of life and that is, the child who already exists….the first born. In my friend’s case, her first born is a girl, just like it was for my wife and me when we had our second child. So, this post is about how to prepare your first born from being an only child to being a big sister. Let’s check it out.

Not long after we arrived home with Leah, our first born, Gramma and Poppa showed up. They couldn’t have been prouder of their first grand-child.

Before we can look forward, it is instructive to go back a bit and see things from the perspective of the one you loved first. There is an air of mystery to childbirth when you are doing it for the first time. Everything seems intense, you often second-guess what you are doing as parents, you are tired and emotional but, most of all, you are head-over-heels in love with your child. In short order, your world begins to revolve around them. They are doted on by you and everyone else around you. Your focus is entirely upon your new child and they, in turn, drink in your attention and bask in the warm glow of the love they feel beaming their way. It is a mutually-intoxicating relationship.

Leah is “astronauting”

When you are the only child in the house, everything becomes yours and yours alone. All of the snacks are yours. The toys can be played with whenever your child feels like it and in any way your child desires. There are no distractions and no competition. The whole world is theirs. It is an easy situation to get used to. It is, also, a tough situation for the child to lose.

When my wife became pregnant for the second time, we realized how much we would be asking Leah to accept. We anticipated that it would be difficult for her to suddenly have to vie for our affection and attention. We knew that the sharing of possessions would be an issue. We understood that the loss of personal space and privacy would be tough. Most of all, we correctly guessed that Leah would have a hard time simply giving up some semblance of control over how she spent her day. It wouldn’t be all about her anymore. Sometimes things would happen or, not happen, because of someone else being there. We knew we had to prepare Leah for the impending arrival of her younger sibling. So, here are a few of the things we did before Sophie was born and some things we did after she was born that helped Leah transition from being the only child to being the big sister.

Dolls became an important part of imaginary play.

When babies are born, they are often doll-sized humans. So, we made a point of surrounding Leah with dolls than would be about the size of a newborn and we encouraged her to be the Mommy and to “care” for her babies. We did this in conjunction with reading lots of library books about how babies grow in a mother’s tummy, how families change when a second child comes along and so on. We watched lots of tv shows on Treehouse TV (a children’s channel, here in Canada) that dealt with babies and having younger siblings. We talked a lot about what was happening to Mommy’s body as the baby grew inside her. In short, we talked with Leah about the new baby and helped give her as much information as we could to prepare her for Sophie’s arrival. We, also, gave her opportunities to practice being a big sister by using her dolls in imaginative play scenarios that we helped with but that she controlled.

Leah reads to her “baby”, as the swing gently rocks and music softly plays.

But, you can only prepare your firstborn so much for the arrival of their sibling. Eventually, the second child is born and life becomes different. In this photo, Gramma is now beaming all of her love onto Sophie, in the speckled hat. For me, this image captures the moment when Leah began to realize that it wasn’t all about her anymore, as she turns away slightly from Gramma’s display of affection for Sophie. But, to help prepare Leah for this exact moment, we did two things; first, she was given the shirt that she is wearing which says something like “I’m a big sister now” and, secondly, we had a trophy prepared for her that said, “Best Big Sister” and then her name. We had that trophy ready for her in the hospital room so that there would be something special for her that was just for her and her, alone. Leah proudly carried that trophy all throughout the hospital wing adjacent to our room.

Bedtime story time is Leah’s uninterrupted time with Daddy.

Eventually, Sophie came home. Leah’s world now became a shared space. To go from having the run of the joint and the attention of everyone in it, to vying for space and cuddles is a harder transition for small children than most adults realize. Keri and I always try our best to act as a good team in all matters of our home and family. So, one of the deliberate decisions we made when Sophie came home was that Leah still needed and deserved her own special one-on-one times with us. For me, that became our nightly reading time together. When bed time approached, Leah had my full attention for as long as it took us to read our stories. That was our time. Sophie did things with Keri at that time. Leah never had to share me with her sister for that block of time. It became a constant in her life. This is not to say that I never read with Sophie or Keri never spent time with Leah. Of course, we spread ourselves out. But, we knew that Leah was experiencing a great change in her life and we wanted to cushion that blow as best we could so, her bedtime became our reading time, no exceptions, for most of her life. Now that Leah is almost a teenager, our shared reading time has become less consistent but we continue to share our interests in books, history, the mystery of Oak Island and the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team. Leah is as important to me as she was the day she was born. Sophie’s arrival did nothing to diminish my affection. I am lucky because, now, I have two incredible daughters to love and experience life with.

The girls are lucky, too, because they now have each other to share life with. I am not going to pretend that there aren’t moments between them when harsh words are exchanged, doors slammed and hurt caused because that does happen. But, overall, Leah and Sophie are good sisters to each other. They are each their own person, with differing interests, hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses. But, when out in the world, they tend to find comfort in each other’s company; often holding hands as they face new adventures and challenges together.

Strawberry picking. We have lots of photos like this one, with the girls holding hands and heading off together

Keri and I give Leah a lot of credit because she has grown nicely into the role of Big Sister. Being the centre of attention can be addictive. But, Leah has done well in understanding that she is still loved, fully and completely and that Sophie can be, too, without that taking anything away from her. It is a sign of maturity and personal growth and we couldn’t be prouder of our “first loved”.

So, I end this post with a hopeful wish that all goes well for my pal, Cuyler, in the coming days with the birth of her second child. I wish her and her husband luck as they learn about what it takes to care for two children instead of just caring for one. But, most of all, I want to congratulate their “first-loved”, Riley, on becoming a Big Sister for the first time. You are about to begin a very new and special chapter in the story of your life. Hopefully, your new baby brother or sister will become as much a friend as they are a younger sibling. If so then, maybe when you are about to turn thirteen yourself, you will have a moment like my girls had last week when Leah automatically stepped in to help Sophie adjust her angle so that she could get the absolute perfect Toronto skyline selfie. Sisters, eh?!

Sometimes actions speak louder than words. Leah turns 13 in April. Her trophy continues to sit proudly on her bedroom shelf. She remains the “Best Big Sister” in our house.