A Dementor’s Kiss

The Prisoner of Azkaban is the third book in the Harry Potter series. When this book was released, many fans of the series reacted with mixed emotions. The reason for this was that the first two books had been rollicking adventures that served the purpose of introducing us all to the wizarding world in which Harry found himself. The third book, however, moved more slowly. It was darker, more sinister. The danger in this book was more inferred and less overt. Nothing symbolized the change in tone more than the introduction of a new character element called a Dementor. Dementors were dark, wispy creatures that would envelop their victims; giving them a “kiss” of sorts, rendering them joyless, with a profound sense of nothingness. Once a victim received a Dementor’s Kiss, they were never the same again. When Dementors first appeared in the storyline of The Prisoner of Azkaban, a chill swept through the Harry Potter franchise. Some fans disliked this, more serious tone. Some fans applauded the introduction of such a mature element to the storyline. When author J.K. Rowling was asked about the significance and symbolism of the Dementors, she replied that the after-effect of a “Dementor’s Kiss” was akin to a feeling in the real world of clinical depression.

Emptiness. Darkness. Loss. Despair.

In these Covid-times that we find ourselves in, it is easy to find someone who is struggling with their mental health. That someone can easily be yourself, too. Covid-19 is, at its essence, a deadly disease that can kill you or damage your body in such a way that it impacts your ability to ever live a normal life again. But, it is more than that. It is a bully. The lasting legacy of a bully is the fear that they instill in their victims and, as well, the changes they cause to their victim’s behaviour. Bullied victims stop doing the things they love because they fear the bully will be there, waiting for them, ready to pounce and inflict pain. Bullied victims self-censor themselves, which is the biggest coup a bully can score. Bullied victims lose the power to author their own story. The fear they feel permeates every fibre of who they are and, as a result, they change who they are. The person they were ceases to be. They become shell-like, empty.

Covid-19 has delivered its Dementor-like kiss all across our planet. Approximately, a million people have been killed by this disease and hundreds of thousands more have had their health impacted. But, more than anything, Covid-19 has changed the way we live our lives. It has bullied entire civilizations of people into living lives marked by restraint. Being less than who we can be is now who we all are. It is difficult to strive for greatness when we move in ways that make us small. I have read many stories shared by those who managed to survive being in the concentration camps of the Holocaust in WWII and, to a person, they all said that what helped them to survive was a feeling of Hope. Well, dreams and hopefulness are in very short supply these days. But, ask for a show of hands of those who are sad or who are at a loss with what to do to give meaning to their days and, I am confident, a forest of arms will shoot into the air.

It may seem like a lifetime ago but, do you remember what was, arguably, the biggest news story on the planet prior to the arrival of Covid-19? It was the Climate marches. 2019 was the year that experts raised the alarm that our planet was reaching an environmental tipping point and that immediate changes to the way we were living was required. So, people all over the world marched in the tens of thousands. As ordinary citizens, we began changing how we lived by eliminating plastic from our lives. Governments began contemplating new “green energy” initiatives. Automakers began making the transition away from gas-powered cars and toward e-vehicles. Young Greta Thunberg became the face of the climate movement and was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. In 2019, whole populations began to change they way they lived; their actions fuelled by a sense of Hopefulness that they had the power to help create a better world.

In 2020, whole populations have changed they way they lived; their actions were fuelled by fear. The biggest symptom of that fear is fear of each other. We have gone from marching in the streets to huddling in family bubbles. We cross the street to avoid getting too close to each other. We no longer shake hands nor hug in a warm greeting. Children no longer are allowed to sing at school. Whenever we see a photo of someone brave enough to hold a public wedding, we don’t look for the Love and Happiness on their faces, we immediately, look for the masks on their faces…and the social distancing of their friends and family members. Slowly but, surely, we are giving in to the bully that is Covid-19 and we are self-censoring ourselves. We are excising the Joy from our lives by our daily acts of withdrawal from human contact. Having fun has become taboo. We seldom dream about a better future anymore. We are all just trying to survive.

So, what can we do to save ourselves? Well, perhaps the most important thing we can remember is the notion of Kindness. Even with the spectre of Covid-19 lurking around every corner, some aspects of life still go on. Yesterday was my wife’s birthday. My wife is the epitome of who a kind person is. She is always helpful and has a ready smile on her face. She is a positive presence to those around her. She remembers all of the birthdays and anniversaries that pop up throughout the year and always manages to find time for a card or a phone call or, better yet, a visit. She considers the act of friendship to be one of Life’s higher callings. Not surprisingly, she is held in high regard by others. So, it was not that much of a surprise when one of Keri’s dear friends reached out to contact me with a desire to do something….anything….for my dear wife, who had done so much for others, on the occasion of her birthday. That phone call culminated in the organization of a Covid-style drive-by birthday parade in her honour. People decorated their cars, honked their horns and came together to sing “Happy Birthday” to the woman I love. She was completely surprised, which is hard to pull off. Her parents got to watch their daughter being feted and honoured in a very joyous and heartfelt manner. Keri was thrilled with the personal touch. For a short while after the singing had stopped, Keri got the chance to stand in a circle and talk with everyone. It was human contact. It was a happy, fun time for all concerned. It almost felt like the normal, hopeful, good old days of 2019.

And, therein lay the path forward.

It will not be a vaccine that restores the spring in our step and the song to our hearts. It will be simple acts of human kindness. There is beauty in our hearts that, when shared and given freely to others, adds colour and warmth to our world. I am so thankful to those friends and family members who did so much on my wife’s behalf yesterday. Such a simple gesture helps to reaffirm the notion that goodness will triumph over fear in the end. Our lives are meant to lived in the full and warm embrace of all that our dreams may conspire. While the need to stay safe still exists as we move about in our daily routines, it is so very important that, in doing so, we keep each other close and not drive each other away. Isolation plays into the hands of the bully. Well, to heck with that bully! I don’t want a Dementor’s Kiss any longer. I am tired of the chill of avoidance. I want a real kiss from warm lips. As my wife smiled while we sang to her in front of our house, she smiled with her whole heart. I want to see more of those kind of smiles, too. Life is meant to be lived. Let’s all conspire to do so with boldness and vigor. Stay safe, all but, as I recently heard in a song, don’t be afraid to “sit under the light that suits you.” Be brave. Be kind. Be you. And soon these terrible times will end.

From all of us, to all of you, thanks for being such a treasured part of our lives. We love you all.

Lost Treasure Found

About eight years ago or so, while on a summer trip to Nova Scotia to visit with my mother, we received a phone call. It was from my Father-in-Law. He was calling from my house. That he wished to speak with me and, not his own daughter, was indicative that something out of the ordinary was going on. When I got on the line, he cleared his throat first before speaking. When he did speak, it was not with the usual jocular familiarity of the man we call, “Poppa” at our house. This voice was the one he used in the Board rooms of the companies for which he worked. He was serious and authoritative. In solemn tones, he told me that during that afternoon, our home had been broken into and that we had been robbed.

It is funny what thoughts spring to mind at a time like this. My very first thought was for the safety of our cat, Ringo. He had been left at home for the week we were to be away. My wife’s Aunt and her parents were taking turns visiting our home during our absence. They promised to spend some time each day with Ringo so that he wouldn’t be too lonely. Their promise to do so was the only reason my wife, Keri, ever agreed to go on any trip. You see, Ringo was her cat. He was her furry little boy. He had been rescued from an animal shelter and loved Keri from the very first moment they had met. So, when my Father-in-Law told me there had been a break-in and, that he wanted to talk to me first instead of Keri, my very first thought was that the burglars had done something to Ringo and that I was going to have to break the news to my wife. I’m not sure how I would have had that conversation, to be honest.

So, it was almost a relief to hear that we had merely lost some material possessions. I’m not sure what Ringo must have been thinking as strangers rifled through closets and dresser drawers, looking for treasure that never really existed. But, whatever the case, they ignored my wife’s furry little boy and, instead, concentrated on taking whatever jewellery they could find, along with our desktop computer and a laptop that we had, too. For insurance purposes, the monetary value of the stolen items was under eight thousand dollars. Not the King’s ransom these burglars were hoping for, I am sure.

The burglary happened at the exact mid-point of our trip. I asked my Father-in-Law if there had been any structural damage to the house and he said that, aside from a window screen that had been pulled off that, no, the house was ok. There was mess, for sure but, no broken window glass or smashed in doors. We were lucky, in that sense. The phone call ended with an agreement that we would not tell my wife or daughters about this until we arrived back in Toronto at the airport. There was nothing we could do about anything from where we were. As well, we thought that my own mother might get upset if she knew this had happened because we were away visiting her. So, it was decided that everyone would get to enjoy the rest of the vacation as planned. No need to ruin things with this news. My terrific in-laws promised to tidy the house after the police had concluded their investigation so as not to upset my two children upon our return. Hopefully, despite the loss of jewels and technology, we would return to our home and everything would seem almost normal.

I broke the news to Keri and the girls after we had arrived at the airport in Toronto and were putting our suitcases back into our car. Needless to say, they were shocked. Keri immediately asked about Ringo. The girls asked about their rooms. I told them all that I knew and said that Poppa had promised that things were ok. The hour and a half drive was quieter than normal. Finally, we arrived home. I asked everyone to wait outside while I went in first. I wanted to make absolutely sure that an emotionally-scarring experience wasn’t awaiting us beyond our front door. So, inside I went. And…….everything seemed……well……pretty much just as we had left it. The house was clean. Our furniture was all there. There were a few small things out of place because Gramma and Poppa didn’t know exactly where they had been previously but, other than that, it didn’t look too bad. So, I went back out and invited everyone inside.

A thorough look was had by all. The girl’s bedrooms were left untouched, from what we could see. I am sure that the burglars looked in from their doorways, saw stuffed animals and toys and figured that there was nothing of value there so they quickly moved on. When I explained this to the girls, they were almost offended that a burglar would think that they had nothing of value to steal.

For Keri and I, we began a more thorough search to determine what actually had been stolen. It wasn’t as easy a task as you might think. Keri found her jewellery box empty. But, when asked to list what had been in it, she had a hard time remembering everything. For those of you reading this post, could you list everything in your jewellery box right now if you had to? We saw that our sock and underwear drawer had been rearranged which, immediately, made Keri slightly nauseous. There was lots of laundry that took place that day we arrived back home, let me tell you! But, overall, as far as we could tell, nothing was missing except the jewels and the two pieces of technology.

But, as you all know, it is often not the monetary worth of something that gives an item value. We all have in our possession, items that hold, what we call, sentimental value. They are items that help us recall a favourite memory or else, were given to us by someone special. They may just be, in reality, a photo or a trinket of some sort but, to our hearts and minds, they are as important as if they were bars of solid gold. For us, the biggest loss came when we realized what was missing when it came to our computers. Keep in mind that, even though this incident occurred less than a decade ago, it was still a time before “Cloud” technology existed. There was no magical place where everything on our computer was safely stored for a fee. In those days, we saved what was important directly on our computer. So, as we thought about what was there, we realized that we had actually lost something incredibly valuable to us. The thieves had in their possession, unbeknownst to them I am sure, all of our photos and videos of the kids up until that point in their lives. Leah was five or six at the time and, Sophie was two or three years old. As parents and/or grandparents, you can imagine how many photos and video clips there were. First steps. First Christmases. First swimming lessons. First everything. All of it gone or, at least, all of it in the hands of thieves. If the thieves had been smart, they could have bargained with us for the safe return of those photos and videos. In doing so, they may have actually realized the King’s ransom that they had sought because we would have paid any price to get those memories back. But, alas, all was lost.

Our computer had been an iMac from Apple. They have a feature that enables you to track the location of your computer if it ever becomes lost or stolen. I activated that feature and found out that it was somewhere in North Cobourg. The police didn’t seem to think that was helpful information so, nothing more came of that. Apple, also, has a feature that enables you to remotely lock your computer. I did that so, at least, the thieves couldn’t look at our images and mock them or manipulate them in any way. Then, after six or so weeks of our computer being lost, Keri and I decided to take the third and final step available to us from Apple and that was, to remotely wipe the hard drive of our computer clean. In doing so, it would erase every file and leave an empty shell in its wake. Did we really want to give up any hope of recovering our iMac and all that it contained? I looked at Keri and she at me. We both knew what had to be done. So, I activated the remote wiping feature. And, that was that. Even if we ever got our computer back, those childhood photos and memories were gone. That was the worst moment for us.

But, Life is nothing if not resilient. We got an insurance cheque and got new computers. Keri bought a few pieces of jewellery to replace what she lost. The girls continued to grow up. We lived our lives, made more great memories and took more photos and videos. This time, having learned our lesson, we made back-up copies on external hard drives and took out a storage plan “on the Cloud”. We back up our hard drive every day. The last time I checked, we had over 10,000 photos and video clips saved. I’m not sure if that is a lot compared to everyone else but, we have a good visual record of our lives from the point of the robbery forward. That means a lot to us.

SONY DSC

Then a miracle happened. My Father-in-Law is now retired but, in his day, he was a financial manager and sat on the Boards of several charities and corporations. He continues to dabble in this sort of work to this day. Consequently, he maintains an office in his home. Last week, while preparing to export a presentation he had prepared, he rifled through one of the drawers in his desk for an external USB drive. Apparently, he had dozens of these memory sticks kicking around. He grabbed one at random and plugged it into his computer. Before doing so, he checked the contents of the USB drive and was startled to discover that it was filled with a dozen of our favourite videos we had taken of the girls as pre-schoolers. None of us can remember exactly how or why he would have come into possession of these videos on this particular USB drive. But, like ghosts from the past, there these video clips were.

I tried to load one into this post but, I keep getting error messages that “this type of file is not permitted” so, maybe, the technology used to record them is too old to function properly anymore. So sorry. But, the videos work fine for us on our computer and they have been stored safely “on the Cloud” and backed up daily so, they will never be lost again. In the midst of all that is dark and worrisome about our world at the moment, into our lives has come this beautiful ray of sunshine in the form of lost treasure, found.

So, what are the lessons you can take from our experience? For starters, back up your computer files in some way beyond your actual computer hard drive. That way, if you ever lose your physical computer, the contents are safe and ready to be downloaded in their entirety once you have a new machine in place. Secondly, make a list of the model numbers and serial numbers of the technology you own and keep it is a secure location. For example, we didn’t know the serial numbers of our desktop or laptop computers that were stolen so, even if the police had found them, they would have no immediate way to determine if they were ours. Finally, if you are planning to leave your home for an extended period of time, make sure you have some lights on timers so that they will turn on and turn off without you having to be there so as to give the appearance that you actually are still at home. Apparently, our thieves had been watching our neighbourhood and had noticed that our house was dark at night for a couple of days. That invited closer scrutiny as the week went on until, they determined we actually weren’t home and they decided it was safe enough to break in.

If you have ever been robbed, in person or while away, you know the sense of violation that goes along with such an act. It is creepy knowing someone was in our house, touching our things and doing, who knows what, with what they had stolen. If this has ever happened to you, I am so sorry. No one deserves to have this happen. In the end, despite the mistakes that we made in not having proper file back-up systems, not having our serial numbers written down and not having our lights on timers when we were gone, the fact remains that burglars are jerks who make bad choices. We are thankful that Ringo was not hurt during this incident. We are doubly grateful to have 12 of our priceless videos back, as well. I guess it all comes down to what you define as being “valuable”. For us, our memories are our treasure and, thanks to Poppa, we have some of those memories back.

Thanks, as always, for reading my posts. I hope that you enjoyed this one. Feel free to comment below with your thoughts and feelings about this story or about similar experiences you may have had. Thanks again. Bye for now.

A Christmas in Transition

The jig is up. The cat is out of the bag. This year, for the first time in the past forty years of my life, Christmas in my house is not revolving around Jolly Old St. Nick. Our youngest daughter, Sophie, whisked away a lifetime of Santa Magic with the snap of her fingers as she declared a few weeks ago that she knew that Mommy and Daddy are the ones who buy all of the presents. She announced this at supper. She said it as easily and nonchalantly as if she was talking about a game she had played at recess at school. And, with those words, everything changed in an instant.

As a child, I was raised by parents who went out of their way to protect my innocence. So, my own personal belief in the story of Santa Claus lasted until I was 10 or 12 years old. Even after that, my sister, Mary Ellen, who was six years younger than me, still believed with every fibre of her being so, Christmas and Santa’s visit remained at the epi-centre of our family Christmas for another five or six years after I first learned the truth.

By the time Mary Ellen learned the truth, I was ready to head off to university. Santa should not have been a factor anymore but, he was because Christmas now revolved around me coming home for the holidays. With me home, my mother viewed her family as being intact again and so, she went to great lengths to keep our old traditions alive. So, we went to church on Christmas Eve. We visited friends and neighbours on the way home and dropped off gifts. We had a big turkey dinner with all of the trimmings the next day with all of our relatives who could come. Through it all, stockings which were empty when we went to bed, magically were stuffed when we woke up. There were more presents under the tree than there had been the night before, too. Must be the magic of Santa!

Upon my graduation from university, I began my teaching career. I spent thirty years straight, surrounded by children whose innocence I strove to protect. They believed in Santa with all of their might and I was tasked with nurturing that belief. So, we read a ton of Christmas books (their favourites can be viewed here). We wrote letters to Santa. We drew pictures of Santa. We sang songs about Santa, too. I Ho-Ho-Ho-ed my way through a lifetime of Christmas seasons at school and all the while, the magic of it was very real. There is a beauty in the innocent belief of a child. I got to see that and get paid to have it wash over me everyday. I am lucky to have been a teacher.

Then, of course, in addition to those students I taught, for the last thirteen years, I have lived in a house with my own children and have helped them put Santa Claus at the centre of all our traditions as a family. The girls both wrote letters to Santa. We sprinkled reindeer food on our lawn. We left milk and cookies and carrots for Santa. We left a shiny, silver key outside our front door (because we have no fireplace) so that Santa could safely get in when he arrived. And, he always arrived.

But now, with Sophie’s matter-of-fact pronouncement, Santa is gone. We are a family in transition this holiday season. As you can appreciate, when Santa was real, his arrival was a very big deal. His presence loomed larger than life. But now, his absence has left a void that we are seeking to fill. We aren’t religious people so the story of the birth of the Baby Jesus is as much a fable to us as flying reindeer and elves at the North Pole. So, we can’t look to the Church to fill the void left by Santa’s banishment in History. The buying of gifts for each other isn’t really doing it, either. We all love each other and do kind and considerate things for each other all year long. We don’t need a special holiday to force us into doting on each other. So, it almost seems odd and unnecessary to have presents piling up under a tree in our living room.

This brings us to the crux of the matter. What does Christmas mean to us anymore? I never realized how much of a lynch pin the myth of Santa was to the feeling of Christmas for us. But, sometimes loss gives birth to new and better experiences. In that light, we have made a dedicated effort to create new feelings by channeling our energy in acts of kindness for others. After all, the whole mantra of the Santa-infused Christmas traditions of the past was that it was better to give than to receive. So, with that in mind, let me share with you some of the things we have been up to as a family as we attempt to re-invent the spirit of Christmas in our home.

First of all, even though things feel a bit different at home this Christmas, at least, I am home. There are many people who are not with their loved ones this Christmas. One such group are soldiers who are serving in the Canadian Armed Forces and who are engaged in peacekeeping missions throughout the world. A month or so ago, my daughter Leah and I decided to each write a card to our Canadian soldiers so that they would know that they were in our thoughts during the Holidays and to thank them for their service. If you look at the photo on the right, you will see my card at the bottom of this stack of three cards. My card made it to a Canadian soldier serving in Latvia. As it turned out, this soldier is from the same town as we live in. So, once he told his parents that he had received a Christmas card from someone named “T. MacInnes” in Cobourg, they rushed over to our house and knocked on our door! They wanted to share their son’s news and to thank us for thinking of him at such a lonely time for so many people. A small chat ensued. Smiles and hugs were exchanged. We have since visited their home and dropped off a Christmas card for them, too. A small act of kindness has resulted in a new connection with a family in our town and, at the same time, we helped perk up someone’s day far across the world. *My daughter, Leah, has not yet heard back from anyone regarding her card but, if we do, I will let you know via an update at the end of this post.

You may recall that last year, Sophie and I made Christmas cards for everybody on our street. There are 34 other homes in our neighbourhood besides ours. We heard back from approximately one-third of our neighbours. *I wrote about that experience in a post that you can read here. So this year, we hoped to build upon our success and get to know even more of our neighbours. We decorated another set of envelops. We wrote messages of good cheer inside the cards that we stuffed into our artful envelops. Finally, Sophie spent a couple of hours making her famous star-shaped Christmas tree ornaments out of coloured glitter glue sticks and a hot glue gun. They all sparkle when exposed to the light of a Christmas tree. She made 34 in all. We placed one in each of the 34 cards and then, we set out to deliver them one day after school.

The response to our efforts has been overwhelmingly positive. In all of the cards, I made note of the fact that each star-shaped ornament had been hand-made by Sophie so, in the replies we have received to date, every single card from every single neighbour has included a special Thank You for Sophie. A few folks have included photos of her ornament on their trees. We have even visited in a couple of homes and have been shown where her ornament is hanging. The best part of all of this is that, from one home, we received, not only a card in reply to ours but, a notice saying that there is to be a Christmas-themed Open House this coming Saturday and that the whole neighbourhood is invited. Not only that but, if the weather co-operates, this family wants us all to go for a candle-light walk together. Now, that’s Christmas spirit! This is what I was hoping would happen when Sophie and I first starting drawing on envelopes last year. Our neighbourhood is becoming more of a community. Our lives, more closely intertwined. Actual conversations are accompanying what, in the past, were merely smiles and waves from afar. Our neighbourhood family is growing and becoming real. This makes me happy.

The final aspect of our Christmas in transition involves my mother. She is 88 and a half years old this Christmas. For the past four or five years, she has lived in an assisted-living complex in Sydney, Nova Scotia. She is well cared for there. During her time there, my mother has waged a valiant battle against aging. She became a prolific colourer of adult colouring books. She was an avid jigsaw puzzle maker. Finally, she enjoyed word search puzzles and tried to complete, at least, one each day. All of these things were intended to help keep her mind sharp and focussed. As well, my mum has always been a friendly person and her heart has always been large. As a result, she has devoted much time and energy to charitable causes, out in the real world, as well as, within the building she now resides. It was around this time, last Christmas, that my mother’s outgoing nature got the better of her. She became involved in too many activities and attended too many events and, eventually, her body rebelled and she ended up in the local hospital with chest pains.

That episode took a lot out of her. Her appetite has decreased. She does not attend to her puzzles or colouring the way she used to. She now naps every afternoon, too. So, this Christmas, my sister and I decided that we did not feel comfortable letting Ma attempt to shop for presents for us, go to the post office to mail them, go to the bank to pay for it all and so on. The days of our mother going out on her own are coming to a close. It is just not safe for her to do so anymore. So, I went down to visit her a week ago. The intention was that I would help set her decorations up and that I would drive her to the Mall and help her get our presents. I would do the wrapping of gifts and the mailing of them at the post office. I could do all of the running around that she was no longer able to safely do on her own. My sister is scheduled to come down after Christmas and help her put everything away and do whatever else she may need doing at the time. Hopefully, between the two of us, we can help guide our mother successfully through this holiday season.

Well, that mother of ours is a stubborn lady. Just like when I was coming home from university, Ma wanted everything perfect for her boy for Christmas. She managed to lift and display most of her decorations before I had ever set foot back home. However, because the weather was bad while I was down, she was not able to go shopping with me. I did the shopping on my own and brought back the presents to show her. But, she felt like those weren’t her presents because I had bought them. She asked me several times during the visit if she had already mailed our gifts up to Ontario from Nova Scotia. I replied each time by reminding her that the gifts I had shown her were her gifts to us this year and that I was taking them back in my suitcase. She was never entirely convinced that this was so.

To combat this, I asked Ma if she wanted to wrap these gifts herself. She was delighted to do so. She addressed the name tags, too but, forgot to put down her own name. That is where things stand with Nanna….my mother…this Christmas. Her mind is no longer alert. She is slowly being enveloped by a cognitive fog. It was sad to watch happen. But, having said that, while she may not be able to tell you what she gave the girls for Christmas this year, she did know that I was coming home for the Holidays and, just like in days gone by, she decorated her home for me for Christmas. In doing so, Ma gave me a pathway forward toward understanding the transition process we are all undergoing. It may be the best gift I will receive this year.

So, this Christmas, we are all transitioning. Gone is Santa. Going slowly is my mother. New arrivals include two-thirds of my neighbours who I can now call by name. But, on Christmas morning, as we open those gifts that sit under our tree, many of which the contents are already known, we will stop before we open those from my Mum. Those gifts remind me what Christmas is really all about. Those gifts were wrapped with love and with longing and may end up being the last gifts of their kind from my mother. But, while gifts may come and go over the years, the heartfelt sentiment behind them remains forever vibrant. Our lives are a tapestry; each connection we have with another human heart is a thread that connects us and helps our lives to have meaning. Perhaps that is the key, right there…..understanding that Christmas is a way of being, not just a single day on the calendar. It is more than the myths presented in the stories of babies in mangers and in reindeer that can fly. The real meaning of Christmas is found in the stories we create with those we allow into our hearts. It is believing that we matter to others and allowing others to matter to us. Love makes us all rich. So, while the pageantry of our Christmas traditions may be in transition, the Love and caring and kindness toward others remains the same. Thanks, Ma.

Merry Christmas to you, all. Thank you for being a part of my world of words. I value your presence here and wish you all the best in the year to come. May your hearts be filled with Love….always.

Ba-Bear

Most children have a favourite toy; a “comfort toy”, if you will. For my youngest daughter, Sophie, her comfort toy was a small beige bear that she called Ba-Bear. In this photo, you can see her holding Ba-Bear in her left hand. Ba-Bear has been part of our family for many years now; entering our world inside of a coffee mug as part of a fundraiser for Breast Cancer research. The mug made its way into our kitchen. Ba-Bear was claimed by Sophie and became her constant companion. It went wherever she went; squished at the bottom of backpacks, covered in sticky finger prints from snacks Mommy wished she had not had, on airplane flights to see her Nanna in Nova Scotia, cuddled next to her neck as she slept at night, sharing her dreams and, sometimes, the sweat from her fevers and fears. As treasured companions go, Sophie and Ba-Bear were quite a pair for quite awhile.

But, Sophie grew up. She is no longer the child who played dress up and……well…..I guess she still has an eye for fashion. But, she has grown up, just the same. Today is her 10th birthday. I couldn’t be prouder of the fine, young lady she is becoming. She is an environmentalist, a good cook, a creative crafter, a funky dancer, a hard worker and someone who her mother and I can depend upon to be responsible and honest. She is funny and she is smart and she is simply wonderful. But, as you can see from her latest photo, the process of growing up has caused her to part ways with Ba-Bear.

Sophie and her sister are both good to regularly go through their bedrooms and purge away those items that are no longer needed, have become broken or obsolete or else, things they feel they have outgrown. A few months ago, Sophie quietly went into her room one morning and emerged a few hours later with a pile of items ready for us to donate to worthy cause. Among the items was Ba-Bear. Normally, I take a causal look at whatever is in the pile and then, move on with my day without too much trouble. But, I have to admit that, when I saw Ba-Bear in the giveaway pile, my heart cracked a little.

Ba-Bear was as close to being real as a toy could be. Ba-Bear was loved and hugged and sucked on and sat upon. Ba-Bear was with us when many of our cherished family memories took place. Ba-Bear helped me read stories and act out plays for Sophie. For me, nothing comes close to symbolizing Sophie’s childhood as does Ba-Bear. So, when no one was looking, I snatched Ba-Bear from the giveaway pile and took it downstairs to my bedroom. It is now all nestled in my bedside table, beside a box called “My Dad Rocks”, which is all decorated with rocks, that I got for Father’s Day a few years ago from Sophie. That box holds drawings and cards that both girls have given to me over the years. Now, it holds Ba-Bear, too, and helps it sit up straight.

The thing about this is that you know and I know that things like bears and photographs and locks of hair are not the real person. They are objects with warm memories associated with them. But, they are not the real person. Sometimes, we cling to our memorabilia when we have lost our time with our loved one because of death or a separation of distance because they have moved away from where you are. But, that is not the case with Ba-Bear and with Sophie. Sophie is very much still a part of my life. It may be her birthday today but, I am the one who still is blessed with the gift of Time.

While Ba-Bear sits downstairs in a cosy nook, I get to go to Sophie’s school later today. They are having a Book Fair and I have been asked come in and help set it up. Sophie is hoping to be excused from class to come and help. If she does then, we will set up the Book Fair together. She is a good organizer and a hard worker so I know she will be a valued helper during our time together. When we are finished, we will have created a new memory to share with ourselves and others as the years continue to unfold. That is time well spent.

So, Happy 10th birthday to the girl who completed our family on this day in 2009. I have loved every minute of your first decade on this planet and I can’t wait to see what wonderful things you will accomplish in the next ten years. I love you, Sophie and am proud to be your father. Who knows what adventures await but, whatever they may be and wherever they may happen, I am glad that we get to share them together. And, luckily for us, if either us should ever need Ba-Bear in the future, we will know where to find him….downstairs, next to the My-Dad-Rocks box, where I lay down to dream.

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.

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.

Maker Sophie

If you follow my blog at all then, you know that there is nothing more important in my life than my family. However, when I was a young bachelor boy, way back in the day, I always thought that my life was good. I had friends, a good job, my own house and car and my health was good. Then, I met my wife.

Meeting Keri made me realize how Love can elevate your life, taking it to a higher plain of fulfillment and satisfaction. When Keri and I were a married couple, galavanting around our corner of the world, I thought my life was pretty special. We had our other newly-married, “couple” friends, we had a new home, we both had jobs we were proud of, we ate out in restaurants whenever we felt like it and our health was good.  Then, we had our first child.

Becoming a parent blew my mind!   Holding Leah on the day she was born and seeing her eye lashes and finger nails and little tiny toes made her seem perfect in my mind. She was our first-loved and the centre of our world. (Since becoming a blogger, I have written several posts about Leah:  the link to the one about all of the books we have read together over the years can be found here. The link to the recent post about her research into the life of her Great-Great Grandfather and his life during WWI and The Halifax Explosion, can be found here.)  We loved our life with Leah. We had playdates with our other friends who were starting families of their own, we took copious amounts of photos of her, Keri got to spend the whole first year of Leah’s life with her because of our generous maternity leave benefits from work and all three of us enjoyed good health, too. Then came Sophie.

Simply put, Sophie completed us. Three years younger than her sister, Sophie has brought a whole new level of joy and happiness to our family. At turns, shy and withdrawn in certain situations while, at other times, she commands the stage and bathes in the spotlight’s warm glow. Sophie has a comedian’s sense of timing and a linguist’s sense of language which often makes her social commentary razor sharp and very funny. She loves to read but, not to be read to. She is as smart as her bookish sister but, instead of building a library of knowledge in her mind, Sophie tends to be more “street smart” and practical about how her intelligence manifests itself. As a result, Sophie embraces the philosophies and practices of the Maker Movement and is quickly becoming quite skilled at creating almost anything.

The Maker Movement is one that embraces creativity above all else. In schools, it is found in the dedication of common spaces for making things out of all sorts of materials and items. Students in a Maker Space may use LEGO Blocks or programme robots or sew or build with wood and much, much more. There is a freedom of choice that defines how one interacts within a Maker Space.  From this freedom, comes the satisfaction of creating something out of nothing and, from that experience, comes the confidence to begin to grant yourself the permission to dream of what else may be possible and then, going ahead and simply, making your dreams come true.

Sophie has become a Maker in our home. While Leah is a consumer (she reads the words of others and interacts with technology apps), Sophie is my creator of content. She loves to bake and paint and draw and make Mathematical calculations, she crafts and cooks simple meals and dresses up like a fashionista!  An example of Sophie in the Maker zone mentality can be seen from how she spent her weekend.

For starters, Sophie belongs to an environmental organization called Earth Rangers. In this club, Sophie takes on certain “missions” that help our planet and the plants, animals and humans who inhabit it. So, this note appeared under our thermostat. The note instructed us to lower the thermostat a few degrees and to keep it at the lower temperature for a week. We did that. Thankfully, there are no shortage of hoodies in my closet.

Next up, Sophie has been wanting to learn how to sew. Keri and I are not sewers in the least. But, luckily for Sophie, her favourite person in the world…Gramma…knows how to sew. So, right after lunch on Saturday, the girls all headed over to Gramma’s house and Gramma taught Sophie how to sew with a needle and thread. Sophie and Gramma (mostly Sophie, I have been told) made this carry-all bag. Well done, my little tailor!

Later that evening, Sophie disappeared into the kitchen. She was very quiet for awhile and then, she emerged proudly holding this Christmas ornament for our tree. All on her own, she had gotten our craft supply box out. She then, traced a star on paper, covered the paper with wax paper and then, traced the shape of the star using a hot glue gun. After the glue had hardened for a few minutes, she simply peeled it off, hot glue-gunned a piece of yarn to act as the hook and, voila!  Sophie created a classic Christmas tree ornament. Flushed with success, she spent Saturday evening making stars for everyone in her family, including her Gramma and Poppa, her cousins and her aunt and uncle, too.

On Sunday morning, Sophie and I make Christmas cards for all of our neighbours. That is thirty-two cards. We did this because Sophie and I believe in the magic of Christmas and, much to my chagrin, we want to know our neighbours better than we do. (As you may recall, I recently wrote a post about my shocking discovery that my next-door neighbour had been a semi-famous Canadian celebrity and I had never known the whole time we lived side-by-side. The link to that post is here if you wish to read about that.) So, anyway, we made all of these cards and I delivered them to each home, just before typing this post on Monday morning. Hopefully, our neighbourhood will become a little closer and we will get to know each other a little better as a result.

Sophie’s card for her school friend, Oliver, who lives down the street.

But, what Sophie was most excited about this weekend was baking Christmas cookies. So, on Sunday afternoon, Sophie and I made a double batch of sugar cookies and a double batch of chocolate chip cookies. If anyone wants to come over for tea, we are ready!!!  Sophie was very pleased with herself because, for the first time ever, she cracked the eggs herself and didn’t get a single shell fragment in the batter!  She did most of the stirring herself and used cookie cutters to make the shapes you see in the photo. She iced the cookies once they cooled. They are delicious and I am going to get fat, for sure, eating all of the good food we now have sitting in our kitchen.

As the photo at the very top of this post shows, doing for others is something Keri and I have tried to instil in both our daughters. Sophie has a kind and caring heart and a creative mind, which is a powerful combination. To want to make a difference and to have the Maker mentality to confidently dare to make it happen is how our world changes for the better. 

Sophie Audra MacInnes is a special girl and we couldn’t be prouder of her if we tried.  

Lottery Lucky

At exactly 8:04am this morning, my daughter, Leah, set off for school. She paused at the end of the driveway and stood silently, reflecting upon the fact that her life was made possible by an incident that happened 101 years earlier at that exact same moment. This is the story of that moment.

We would all like to think that we are in control of our own lives; that the path we follow is ours to decide and, to a certain extent, that is true. But, in reality, our lives are inextricably intertwined with those who came before us and the decisions that they made along the way. For a simple example, we were born in the town or city of our birth not because that’s what we opted for but, rather, because our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents made the decision to locate in that community in years past. From purposeful decisions like that, to acts of fate beyond anyone’s control, the portrait of a life well-lived is always coloured by many factors and the line between success and failure, life and death, is often razor-thin, as you shall see in Leah’s case.

When Leah was growing up, we read books together every night. One book series that made a profound impact on her life was The Magic Treehouse series by Mary Pope Osborne. In each MTH book, the two main characters were transported to some historical event and/or met a famous historical figure. Leah found the stories from history fascinating and often spent time researching additional information on her own. She has maintained an interest in History ever since. Being good parents, we have encouraged her love of History by visiting museums with her, taking her to places connected to historical events (such as The Plains of Abraham in Old Quebec City, the Fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton and so on) and by giving her access to books and resources that feed her desire to know more about the events that shaped our world.

Not surprisingly, Leah’s interest in History began to focus more on the story of her own family. So, a couple of years ago, it seemed logical to us to take out a membership in Ancestry.ca, a genealogical website that helps people conduct research on their family history. The membership was taken out as a gift for Leah’s Poppa but, because we paid for the membership, we got to set up the passwords and so on. Once that was done, we gave Leah permission to explore the website so that she could be the “expert” and figure out how it all worked and then she would be able to show her Poppa what to do. Well now, letting Leah loose on Ancestry.ca was akin to giving her the keys to the Kingdom’s treasury. She absolutely loved it!  

In her research to date, she seems drawn more toward those relatives who have been involved in the military. The first relative she delved deeply into was a Great-Uncle named Albert Eagle. Mr. Eagle was involved in the D-Day Invasion of Normandy during WWII. He died three days later in a tank battle. His body is buried in a cemetery in France that she would like to visit one day when she is a bit older.  We were all amazed at the vast amount of documentation that was maintained on each soldier during wartime. Leah was able to find enlistment records, discipline records, as well as, troop movement details up to, and including, the record of Mr. Eagle’s death and the battle that occurred that particular day in France.

But, as interesting as that was to Leah and the rest of us, it was her investigation of her Great-Great Grandfather, Frank Davis, that really brought home the precarious nature of our lives and how easily one event, action or decision could alter the future. In fact, there are so many instances where life and death danced throughout this man’s life, creating a series of connections that it is almost freakish, as you shall soon see.

This is a photo of Frank Davis that Leah has in her bedroom. The lady in the photo is to prove a very important part of this story….of Leah’s life story….but, I will save that for now.

Here is Mr. Davis’ story. Frank Davis was a husband and father when WWI broke out in 1914. At the time, Canada was still a very young nation and did not have a standing army of its own. Instead, various militias existed across the country. Mr. Davis belonged to one such militia called The Halifax Rifles.  When War was declared, the Halifax Rifles became part of the 40th Battalion of the Canadian Corps which, as the War unfolded, became known as the Canadian Expeditionary Forces or the C.E.F.  

On October 18, 1915 (my wife, Keri’s birthday is Oct. 18), Frank Davis and his fellow soldiers boarded the Cunard transport ship, RMS Saxonia in Halifax harbour. They landed a little over a week later in Portsmouth, England. Once there, the 40 Battalion was assigned to the 9th Brigade and 3rd Canadian Division and stationed at Military Camp Bramshott for training. 

While WWI was called a “world war”, in fact, many of the major battles throughout the war took place in a relatively small stretch of French and Belgium countryside. In battles such as The Somme, Ypres, Vimy Ridge or, later on, at Passchendaele, both armies often dug in, quite literally, in lines of trenches and faced off against one another in seesaw battles of attrition in which tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides died to advance the battle front mere metres at a time.  


For example, The Battle of Vimy Ridge, in France, lasted for four days but cost the lives of approximately 3600 Canadian soldiers, with another 7500 being wounded. The conditions were atrocious; cold, wet, muddy, no cover to act as protection, deep shell holes that often filled with water and cause many an unfortunate soldier to die from drowning. The land between each side’s lines of trenches was often dubbed as being “No Man’s Land” because to leave the protection of your own trench and attempt to advance across the open ground often meant certain death.  This is where Lance Corporal Frank Davis made one of the first decisions that changed his life and allowed Leah to, eventually be born. As his military records indicated, Mr. Davis requested to relinquish his rank and return to being a Private in the army. While Leah cannot be certain as to the specific motivation behind such a seemingly odd request, the truth is most likely, Davis recognized the futility of many of these battles and knew that as Corporal, the odds were good that he would be tasked with leading a charge across No Man’s Land because he had “rank”. The death toll on officers in the C.E.F. was very high so, it was not uncommon for Corporals to be placed in charge during the heat of battle. Being a Private did not mean that Davis was safe but, at least, he would not necessarily be first out of his trench. 

The 40th Battalion acted as a feeder squad throughout the early stages of the war. This means that members of the 40th Battalion would be called into battle to reinforce other Units who had too many casualties and who required reinforcements. Eventually, the 40th Battalion was merged into the 26th Battalion. The 26th Battalion fought in the quagmire known as the Third Battle of Ypres in Belgium or, as it is better known, The Battle of Passchendaele.  It was in this battle, on November 2, 1917, that Private Frank Davis was exposed to Mustard Gas from the Germans. He was “struck off strength” or removed from his Unit and taken to the 12th Canadian Field Ambulance or field hospital, as it were.  Believe it or not but, Private Davis was lucky.  Over the course of this battle, almost half a million soldiers from both sides perished. If there was ever such a place as Hell on Earth, Passchendaele was it. 

Back in Canada, the War effort was in full swing and one of the busiest places of all was Halifax, Nova Scotia. Halifax Harbour served at the gateway to the Atlantic and, by extension, to the battle fields of Europe.  The harbour was often filled with transport and supply ships preparing to head overseas. And so it was, on December 6th, a mere month after Frank Davis was gassed at Passchendaele, that two ships collided in Halifax Harbour; the relief ship Imo and the French munitions ship, Mont Blanc. The Mont Blanc was loaded with explosives. The resulting fire caused the munitions to ignite and then, explode with such tremendous force that over 2000 citizens of Halifax were killed and much of the downtown area, destroyed. Among those who perished were Frank Davis’ wife, Helena and his son, Charles.

While Frank Davis lost part of his family, their deaths allowed him to survive the War. He was “discharged to Canada (Special case)”, in early 1918 and he returned home to Halifax.  

As the city rebuilt, so did Frank Davis. He remarried and with his new wife, had a son that he named William. William Davis, in turn, grew up and married and among his children was a boy named Bruce. Bruce, as it turns out, has gone on to be called Poppa at our house……the same Poppa for whom the Ancestry.ca membership was purchased and the same Poppa that Leah was entrusted to train.

So, if Frank Davis had not skirted death during WWI by design and by circumstance AND, if his wife Helena had not been killed in the Halifax Explosion, allowing him to remarry and bear a son who bore a son who bore a daughter who became a mother to a little girl named Leah, the whole fabric of all of our lives would be forever different.

But, there is one final, freakish coincidence that bears mentioning. At the time of the Halifax Explosion, Helena Davis and her four children lived in an apartment at 1253 Barrington Street in Halifax.  This was not noteworthy at the time that they lived there but, it became noteworthy as a result of Leah’s research and an incredible coincidence that she uncovered.

When my wife was much younger, she travelled to Halifax and stayed at a youth hostel. She was visiting a good friend at the time. Her friend took a photo of Keri sitting on the steps of the youth hostel. This photo was kept in a frame and displayed as a keepsake from, what was, a pleasant life memory for Keri.  In conducting her research, Leah connected the dots and discovered that the hostel in Keri’s teenage photo was, in fact, the same building that the Davis Family were living in at the time of the Halifax Explosion. If not for Helena Davis’ death that December day, Keri would never have been born and would never have been able to sit on those steps.  Being the good parents that we are, we took Leah to Halifax two years ago and stood upon those very steps ourselves.

 

And so, at 8:04 am this morning, Leah stopped at the end of our driveway and thought about how lucky she is to be alive and how thankful she is to all of the people who have helped her to know the life that she has and enjoys as a result of their decisions and because of fate. What were you doing at 8:04 am this morning?

Throwback Thursday Edition

From the vault, to you, wherever you happen to be. I wrote this post while I was still a teacher at Grant Sine P.S. in Cobourg. Four and a half years ago seems like a lifetime to me. So much has changed. Grant Sine P.S. is now closed. I am now retired. But, at the time, it was my favourite place in the world. The kids and their families were very special. My colleagues have become forever friends.

There was no school experience quite like the one I had at Grant Sine P.S.; especially, on a Friday.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Thank Goodness It’s Friday….or, Not!!!!

I am not sure if it actually is Friday as you are reading this but, that doesn’t really matter. This post is not about this Friday or, any other Friday, for that matter.  It is more about the symbolic nature of our safe harbours and the fragile nature of the people who seek shelter there.  It is about fearing the blue skies and sunshine of free time. It is about being at school on a Friday afternoon, with the dismissal bell ringing, your teacher ushering you out the door and you, not wanting to leave.  It is about the idea of home.

I am fairly confident that you, like me, view the end of the work day on Fridays as a cause for celebration.  Bring on the weekend!  For most of us, we work because we have to but, it is on our free time that we can relax, re-energize and slip into the comfortable clothes of the life we really love. 

When you think about schools in this regard, the image that springs to mind is of the dismissal bell ringing for summer vacation, the doors of the school bursting open and the kids pouring out, hooting and hollering, throwing their books and papers into the air, heading out to the carefree world of summer vacation!  That image had been my reality as a teacher for the first 17 years of my career.  Everywhere I taught, the kids were as excited for their weekends as their teachers were.  Everyone was happy on Fridays!  Spring Break always rocked!  And, don’t get me started about the giddiness of summer vacation!

But, then I transferred into the school I am presently teaching at and everything changed.  I teach in the middle of a social housing complex, which means that virtually every student at my school comes from a household that relies on some form of financial assistance from the Government in order for them to meet their basic needs of food and shelter.  When I first began working here, I had a vague notion of what poverty meant for me, as their teacher. I thought that everything would be fine as long as they worked hard for me.  I could supplement when necessary with supplies but, an honest work ethic would be enough to help the kids enjoy a successful time in our classroom.  If they were academically low, that was fine.  I work with all manner of students and would happily do so with them.  Basically, I walked into our classroom on the first day of school, totally and completely unprepared for what I was to encounter. Suffice to say, poverty is a bitch!   My time at this school has provided ME with the real education.  I am a changed and better human being for having had this experience. 

It is difficult to accurately describe what living in poverty is like.  For someone like me, who has a full fridge, a warm house with lots of toys and a bank account with my own dollars in it, I have no right to state that I know what it is like to be poor.  But, as witness to the myriad displays of emotion,  drama and humanity that unfold before my eyes, each and every day, in our classroom, schoolyard and hallways, I, most certainly, have knowledge to share.  The best way I know of to even remotely convey the depth of the complex, multi-faceted, nuanced layering of issues at play when it comes to poverty, is to tell you the following true story.  The story is called The Christmas Block and, honestly, I couldn’t make this stuff up!  Writing this for you blows my mind, even now.

One of the ways that we, as staff, dealt with the pervausive nature of poverty at our school, was to focus on developing a greater sense of community among the students and, by extension, their families, too.  We tried to show them that you don’t have to be rich to be nice, to do the right things in life, to be helpful, to contribute to the betterment of the classroom/school/community in a positive way. We tried to empower them and to help to boost their self-esteem by making them realize their own self-worth as human beings on our planet.    That is no small task, in an environment where everyone is beaten down and in various stages of defeat.

Among the many initiatives we enacted, was one where we actively sought out opportunites for the students to participate in events outside of the school.  The thinking was, to attempt to change the public’s perecption of our school from being ” a welfare school, filled with bad kids” to being a nice school, with a warm sense of community and an ever growing list of positive accomplishments.  In this light, we jumped at the chance to participate in an event sponsored by our local Public Library.  It was a storywriting competition.  The lure for us was that they had categories of prizes for the top stories but, also, prizes for the best rate of participation, as a percentage of the school’s total population.  Being a rather small school, size wise, we thought that if we could just get each student to simply write a story that met the contest criteria then, we would automatically qualify to the participation prize. This would mean that we would get to go to the awards celebration and get our school’s name in the newspaper.  So, off our little authors went.

In my class, we had to write a story about any topic we wanted, as long as it was 100 words long.  Sweet!  No problem!  We could do it, even if it took us a couple of weeks!   As the children wrote, their stories were woefully-unimaginative.  This was not surprising due to the lack of literacy in their homes.  It is hard to become a creative and expressive writer when no one has ever read a bedtime story to you in your life.  But, even with the low quality of most of the stories, one stood out as even weaker than the rest.  It was from a boy named Tom* ( I am using my name, for the sake of privacy).  Tom was a unique student for several reasons: one, he had shown an above-average level of ability with Mathematics. This gave him the reputation among his peers, as being one of the smartest kids in the whole school.  Tom was, also, unique, in that he had a tremendous amount of pride and, routinely, refused any of the free food, clothing or school supplies that his classmates so eagerly and consistently grabbed up. So, when it came time to read Tom’s story, I had hoped that it would be one of the few to demonstrate a decent amount of skill.

Tom called his story, “The Christmas Block”. To summarize it, the story read….it was Christmas morning. His only gift was a wooden block.  He liked it.  He put it down to go outside to play. When he returned, the block was gone. Someone had stolen it, he was told. The end.

My initial reaction was one of disappointment.  Who writes a story about a block for Christmas?!  What changed my thinking was when I showed this story to a colleague who had been at this school much longer than I had.  She was far more familair with the inner-workings of the neighbourhood that I was.  As she read it, she said, “I think Tom is trying, in his own cryptic way, to tell you that something bad happened to him at Christmas. If I was to guess, I’d say he is trying to tell you that his parents took his gifts and sold them for food or drugs or cigarettes or whatever.”
To say that I was stunned is an understatement.  

I conferenced with all of the students about their stories. When it came time for Tom’s conference, I was pumped.  I asked him to tell me about his story. He just repeated that it was about a block that he had lost. He was very tight-lipped about it all.   I asked him if he had lost the block in real life.  He said it was just a story.  I asked him if he or anyone he knew, had lost birthday or Christmas toys. He replied, without looking up, that lots of things happen in his neighbourhood. I asked him again, if the story of the Christmas block was a real story. Tom got up, smiled a sheepish smile and, as he began walking away said, thanks for the contest. 

Tom was the sort of student who was never going to admit what had actually happened to him nor, that it had happened before and would, in all liklihood, happen again in the future.  But the more I poked around, trying to uncover the truth, the more convinced I became that, in fact, Tom had had his Christmas gifts taken from him by his parents and so had many other students.  In fact, the systemic looting of children’s possessions to help fuel the addicitions of their caregivers was, as it turned out, quite a normal part of life in my school neighbourhood.  No one was outraged by it.  It was just how the world worked, in the eyes of my students.

As I came to understand this more, I began to recognize the connections between what was happening at home and some of the behaviours I was seeing at school.  For instance, almost all of the kids were, what I would call, hoarders.  Their desks were crammed full of anything and everything that we had done in class.  At first, my Type-A personality was such that Desk Clean-out day was a regular feature of life in our classroom. But, I soon came to realize that everything that was going home was ending up being put straight into the garbage. There were no refrigerator art galleries in these homes.  I began to learn that if the student valued their work then, it needed to be honoured on the walls of the school because, that was their only chance to be recognized as being special.

The story would end here, if not for a bit of luck with the contest.   Our school was awarded the prize for best rate of participation!  That was awesome but, what surprised us all was that, Tom’s story was selected for special recognition.  We had been contacted and asked to nominate someone who was not known as a writer but yet, had produced noteworthy work.  I thought of Tom right away.  I sent an short, explanatory note along with his story. The judges read his story and deemed it worthy. So, Tom and his whole family were invited, along with me, to go to the Gala Awards ceremony at a fancy-schmancy banquet hall downtown.  This was not the sort of place that families from my school normally frequented.  

The awards ceremony was scheduled to begin at 11:00 in the morning. Tom and his family were downtown by 8:00am.  I know that because I was running an early morning errand and saw them walking around the banquet hall, trying to find their way inside.   When I arrived, I found them seated in the front row of chairs.  The whole family was there; Tom, his older brother, his mother and father, too.  All of the men had gotten haircuts. They were wearing new dress shirts which came from the Dollar Store, according to Mom, who was very proud of her men.  

The emcee of the ceremony was a local author of some reknown.  He had quite a dramatic flair and proceeded to work his way through the various prize categories by reading snippets of each student’s winning entry.   As he did this, I thought about what might happen when he read Tom’s story about his parents stealing his Christmas gift……with them sitting in the front row!!!    But, as it turned out, I didn’t have much to worry about.  Our emcee turned Tom’s plain-sounding little story, into a melodrama worthy of the Hallmark Hall of Fame TV specials.  As an orator, he had Tom’s words fill up the entire hall.  The story sounded glorious!   Tom’s family were thrilled.  As Tom was called up to receive his award, he kept his head bowed the entire time, even as the applause of the crowd filled the room.

His mother hugged me and thanked me for helping her son to have such a wonderful moment. Tom’s dad shook my hand.  Then, they turned quickly away and melted into the sunshine outside and went back home.

Like I said, I just can’t make this stuff up!

Since working at this school, I have seen how poverty really affects my students.  How it creates environments where the students view parents as people who will protect you with one hand while stealing from you with the other.  Being raised in such an environment means that my students don’t react to material possessions the same way as other children might.  Incentive programmes don’t hold any sway here.  I can’t tell a child that if they complete X-number of tasks they will earn a reward because, they know their possessions will just end up being stolen or broken at home.  The normal mentality of striving to achieve a goal doesn’t work here.  There is a disconnect between the wishes of my students and the reality of their lives.  Nobody writes letters to Santa at my school.   It is a vicious, negative existance, from my point of view but, from the point of view of my students, it is just life.  It is so messed up. But, poverty is messed up, too!

So now, when the dismissal bell rings on a Friday afternoon and the kids don’t really want to leave…I have developed a greater ability to understand why.  I counter this, the only way I really know how, I hug every one of them who seem to need it.  Then, they are wished a good weekend and I stand in the doorway and watch them walk toward home.