Sunday, April 2, 2017

Wading Through the Memories

Dad's portrait hangs above the chair where I write.
I have been sitting with my dad a lot lately. It's not always an easy thing to do. One minute I find myself smiling and chuckling, then the emotion of loss and remembrance wells up. It starts as a knot down in the gut and travels up, squeezes my chest, tightens my throat and seeps through my eyes. I breathe deeply, it passes and a smile returns.

Memories sometimes behave that way.

I am writing Dad's story for the current book that I'm publishing ... 'Our Fathers'. It will be an anthology of 20 stories, like the first two volumes of 'My Mother's Keeper'. I am pulling in right at my own deadline because the wading through of it all isn't the simplest thing to do.

It's a challenge to try to pare down someone's life into a chapter; especially someone who had a profound and lasting impact on your own life, and someone you still miss so very much.

I usually do a pretty good job of keeping the emotions squelched; after all, it has been over a quarter of a century since he left us. When you stir them up so thoroughly like I have been, it's a lot more challenging. The toughest thing has been to listen to a CD of his voice – an interview that was done in the late 1970s for the archives of Standardbred Canada. I had it for over twenty years before I could bring myself to listen it. For some reason, I think it would be easier if it had been a video. There is something deeply moving about hearing a voice you love and miss come out of the air. You make a thousand pictures from it.

I listened to it a few years ago and that was rough. This time, because I was gathering information, I was paying close attention to the details he was sharing. His voice brought me right back to our kitchen. I could see him sitting at the table, not overly impressed or enthusiastic with being interviewed. My mother is adding a few bits in the background and more than once, the interviewer is instructed to turn the tape off while something is shared that he doesn't want on record. The phone rings in the midst of it. It was me. I remember calling that day and Mom saying that a fella was there interviewing Dad. I didn't think too much of it at the time as he was often being interviewed for newspapers and magazines. I had no way of knowing that decades later, I would be listening to him talking. It is particularly surreal to hear that familiar, loud telephone ring that was part of my life for so long. All those sounds silenced.

Besides his voice, the most touching memento for me is a letter that my sister, Frances wrote five months to the day that she passed away from leukemia. She sent it to him at Buffalo Raceway. Holding that paper, knowing that both of them held it in their hands – picturing him reading it, feeling his heart breaking in knowing that he would soon lose her, touches me deeply. I laugh about what she says about Pauline but when she says about me “she is just plain lonesome for you” ... it sends a knife through my heart because I still am.

And so here I am... sitting with my Dad – his voice, letters, articles from the newspapers and magazines, photos ... bits and pieces of the past that keep his memory alive, especially to myself and my sister – the two deepest connections to him that are left on earth. It is just the two of us who can recognize that telephone ring, can laugh about Mom banging the dishes around and know that Dad, with his dry wit, was choosing his words very carefully. It is us that have to pass his spirit on to the next generations. That is what the writing of his story is all about.

The original 'tweets'.  Dad messaged Mom on February 7th that his mom was ill and he was taking the train home to see her, On the way back, he stopped in to spend some time with Mom and their two little ones before he returned to the base to be court marshalled for being AWOL.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Ugly Stick Workshop - Salt Harbour Joys

I happened to just find this today ... February 25th, 2017 ... it has only been sitting in my 'DRAFTS' file, completely finished since August 2013. It's somewhat handy I found it now as I am planning on having an 'Ugly Stick' Workshop here on the farm in May.

For the sheer fun of it, this summer I held an ‘UGLY STICK’ making workshop
 at our place on Salt Harbour Island in Newfoundland

The Ugly Stick, for those who might think we were making fishing poles,
 is a homemade musical instrument that might be found
 at a traditional Newfoundlandish concert or kitchen party.

Here is the recipe.

1 stick … broomish-mopish style and height.

1 boot  … you only need one so you can share the brother or make another.

70-80 beer caps ... about 5 per nail ...
 this is where having a Bartender Daughter comes in handy.

Other noise stuff ... felt tins, washers, bells - the more the merrier.

2.5-3 inch nails ... a dozen or so.

1 - 18" or so piece of wood for the 'bow'

Tape ... black - red - any colour of smooth electrical type tape

Topper ... anything goes ... here's where the fun and creativity comes in.

Anything goes. 

Now the 'proper ting' to ensure the best noise
 (surely there is a more appropriately musical way to say that)
 is to remove the plastic seal from all the beer caps.

At home, Brian did that for me with his acetylene torch.
 Having neither Brian nor the torch, I had to be independent and creative.
How I did it is NOT recommended.
 I used my usual 'Trial & Error' method - emphasis on the Error.

I carefully arranged caps, seal side up, in a pie tin which I stuck 
very, VERY close under the broiler. 
 Plastic burns - that was the effect that I wanted.
 I didn't plan for or want the flames and black smoke.
  So don't do that.

If you don't have a torch or Brian and can't figure out
 a more intelligent way of getting those pesky seals out,
 just leave them in.
 I expect it's safe to assume that your audience won't have
a finely tuned ugly stick ear quite yet.

The TOP:
 This is where your personal style shines.

Some people are content with an old apple juice tin with the mop coming through the top, 
a marker mouth and glued on googly eyes.
 While perfectly acceptable, that certainly wouldn't cut it with our creative group.

Kim had this toque in Newfoundland and had no
idea that it was invented by two young fellas
in my backyard here - St. Marys.

A number of gals turned the mop itself into unique and cool dudes and dudettes.
 Some created things from scratch and some re-birthed garage sale finds.
 I turned a singing Christmas angel into a mermaid who is saying 
"Oooooh My!  I seem to have a pole up my butt."

Instructions:  Punch holes in your caps.

Thread them & your felt tins or other noise things on a nail or screw.

Drill a hole & insert the loaded nail.

Rasp or saw some teeth in your 'bow' so it is bumpy.  Add 5 nail/cap sets to it.

Screw your boot on the pole - through the bottom & at the top sides.

Stick your Ever-So-Cool Whatever on the top.

Put on some catchy, fun Newfoundland music. 
 We were blessed to have LIVE musician friends.

We were also blessed to have a Professional Ugly Stick Musician
 in our midst who gave us lessons.

And yet another added bonus was the arrival of a Mummer ..
another entertaining Newfoundland custom.

We were apparently SO impressive that we were invited to perform 
at the 'Split Peas' concert that week.
Well, maybe not all that impressive ... but we WERE invited!
 I would hesitate to say that it was the 'music' that we created
 that caused the enthusiastic response and abundance of camera flashes.
 It may have been more the fact that there were so MANY of us 
willing to look a little bit foolish in front of a crowd.

We were having great fun and that, my friends, 
is the entire point 
of the exercise and the anticipated result.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Century

1/17/17 ... that was the day that the last of my grandmother's 8 children were born.
1/17/17 ... that last baby had another birthday ... one hundred years later.
Babe Ruth held by her mother in 1917. My grandfather is to the right of her, great-grandparents
behind him; all my aunts & uncles and my Dad, the boy at the far right - 11 years old.

At Sunday's 100th birthday celebration in Chatham
On Sunday, January 15th, 2017, Ruth Wellwood Nagle had a party that was attended by well over two hundred people. I was honoured to get to talk about Ruth and I shared the top ten things that I have learned from her ... the things that have influenced my life and that I will keep forever.

#1 When someone invites you to go somewhere. GO.

Or else they will stop asking you. Ruth is even down to specifics with that. She says they will ask you three times and then they just won't think of you anymore.

When I invited Ruth if to Newfoundland, each time it was an immediate 'YES!' ... never a hesitation, never a 'let me think about it' or 'I'll have to check the date.' That kind of attitude has led her on many adventures, and that advice, which I have taken to heart, has done the same for me.

#2 Don't get sad, get busy.

She told me that that was the best advice she was ever given. When she was a teenager, she was moping around the house with a broken heart because a fella had dumped her. Her mother told her 'Don't get sad. Get busy.' Ruth said that all through her life, it had served her well; that when things were troubling her she would just delve into some project or do something that kept her hands and head busy and it got it through it. 

Sewing always rejuvenated her
#3 Have a passion.

Ruth's life has been defined by two major passions – bridge and sewing. Playing bridge has kept her mind sharp, led all kinds of friends into her life and as she says 'brought her many, many pleasant hours'.

Sewing had been a big part of her life from back when she sewed her children's clothes. She said that even at 98 and 99, when she thought that she was too tired, she would go to her sewing machine and 'come alive'.

#4 Share that passion.

Ruth shared her passion of bridge with countless people over the years as she taught within different groups and also individually. She was teaching and playing right up to two months ago when her eyesight suddenly started failing. She said that she stepped away because she didn't want to 'slow people down'. For her, bridge is a very serious endeavour, not for chatting and entertainment. I had some large print playing cards sent from Amazon and she told me today that she's going to get back to playing bridge next week, after all the busy-ness of her birthday.

The fruits of her labours with sewing has touched people far and wide. Many of us are graced with her beautiful handiwork. Most meaningful is her involvement with creating quilts for the children of Africa for the Canadian Food For Children project.

Some of the 1000 quilts that made their way to the children of Africa
#5 Have a goal.

Determination, perseverance and focus after having set a goal have been a big part of Ruth's spirit. When she was in 80's, she decided that she would give all her children, nieces and nephews, handmade quilts. On her 87th birthday she had 35 ready to be distributed. On Sunday, after celebrating her 100th birthday, she had one for each of her 11 grandchildren. 

When asked at 90, how many quilts she had made for the children in Africa, she didn't know, so she started counting from then on. As it approached her 98th birthday, she had 700. She made her goal 1000 and sure enough, she hit that. She says that she is continuing but needs some help sewing because of her eyesight and put out a call for a volunteer on Sunday.

Ruth at her beloved lake spot at Erieau
When she broke her hip at 98, she used her deep desire to get to the trailer at the lake as motivation to do her physio daily. When she broke the other hip fourteen months later, again she had the lake as motivation. Indeed, just three weeks after the break, she was at our family reunion. She and I still got to have our traditional camp out at her trailer in August.

The party on Sunday was motivating as well. She told me that it was a lot of pressure staying alive until her 100th ... she said that she didn't want to disappoint anyone as people seemed to be really counting on it. That aim left her no time to lay in bed being concerned that she had a stroke on Christmas Day.

Mummering in Newfoundland at 92
Ruth's first cod she caught at 92
#6 Keep having adventures.

Ruth got her first bicycle after she retired. She then proceeded to go on bicycle trips to New York, Niagra-on-the-Lake, Montreal, Florida and Holland when she was in her seventies.  Besides numerous trips to Florida,she travelled to Newfoundland three times, Ireland, Costa Rica, Jerusalem, Yugoslavia and Europe. Settling into the airstream at Erieau was an adventure that she says added 10 years to her life.

Daughters, daughter-in-law, nieces and
friend ... all part of Ruth's circle.

#7 Keep making your circle bigger.

While many people, by the time they are one hundred, have outlived most of their friends, Ruth's circle continues to expand. She has friends of every age, from so many different connections – the lake, church, bridge. The room was filled with all of Ruth's friends who continue to enjoy her spirit and her company.

#8 Live in the present.

I know elderly people who say 'All of my friends are gone. I'm so bored and lonely.' Even though they are mentally sharp, they talk more about 'back then' ... when things were better, their lives were fuller. I have never had a single conversation with Ruth where she has said that. She will talk about the past if I bring it up and ask specific questions, but otherwise it is always about now or what's coming up. She is always more interested in what is going on in other people's lives than she is in talking about her own.
Ruth's published biography at 98 and second
published story of her own mother in the anthology
'My Mother's Keeper'

#9 There is no such thing as being “Too Old”.

Ruth's first motorcycle ride at 93

If one is healthy, it is never too late. Ruth 'mummered' and was screeched in as an Honourary Newfoundlander at 92; she bought into a place at the lake at 93; she rode her first motorcycle at 93; she bought a new car at 94; she published a book at 98; she rode an ATV for the first time at 99. She doesn't stop to think is she could or if she should ... if she thinks she wants to do it, she just does.
Many an hour spent walking the beach.

#10 Dont' be afraid of aging.

A cousin of Ruth and my dad told me when he was 84 and we were dealing with my father's dementia, that as you get old, you will either have 'from the neck up or the neck down – you can't have both'. Meaning, that either your brain goes and your body is okay, or your brain is sharp but your body isn't. Well, Ruth, at 100 is sharp pretty darn sharp on both counts. A few weeks ago she asked what she should do to optimize her health and was told walking was the best thing she could do. So out she went, twice a day for 20 minutes. She's far from done looking after herself.

All of those ingredients are intertwined to create a full and rich life ... each one overlapping into the other.
Ruth Nagle at 100

For Ruth there is another ingredient that is her foundation ... faith. Her faith has sustained her through the inevitable ups and downs of one hundred years. Her faith has given her comfort, hope, trust and acceptance. And gratitude. I know that she doesn't take any of it for granted – her family, her friends, her health or her longevity.

I asked her last week, what advice she would give to someone – what has served her through her century of living. She said “Just work through one day a time. And know sometimes it IS work. That's about it.'

A few years ago, during one of our 'talk-well-into-the-night' sleepovers, Ruth gave me the most meaningful compliment that I have ever received. She said to me: “You live your life well.” I said “Thank you. I like living. I am going to LIVE until I die.” She said, “Me too!” “Let's both do that then.” I said and ever since that has been her mantra. I hear her tell people that and it warms my heart and makes me smile.

She is definitely doing that full on, inspiring so many along the way.

Ruth at 96 years with Adam about 96 hours
Ruth the eldest family member at 100 with my daughter Alyssa, and her daughter Courtney, who is the youngest
at 8 months with the quilt that Ruth gave her when she was born.