All the snow had gone, even the mud had started to dry up. Then bang, last night, a snowstorm. A mixture of rain, freezing rain and snow making big heavy piles of snow on wires, trees and fences. Beautiful. Our backyard late last night. Today, a snow day. At the dog park, only one other person there with his dogs.
Then Pinafore Park, only a few people there. Another man taking pictures. Another woman walking her Boxer in his winter coat. A young couple bringing their kids to the playground. They didn’t stay long. The pheasants were toddling around their cozy enclosure, seemingly not aware or caring about the snow outside it.
Stores were pretty empty all day, so a couple store clerks told me. But Tim Hortons was blocked with people, inside and in the drive-through. It was definitely a doughnut and coffee or hot chocolate day. And definitely a day for playing in the snow.
A few years ago we went east along Lake Erie, as far as Port Dover. We started in St. Thomas. It took us four days.
Coming back, we took larger roads. It took about an hour but felt like a time travel machine. My parents used to drive from Belmont, near St. Thomas, to Port Dover of an evening for fish and chips on the beach.
We went first to Port Stanley, planning to spend a couple days there. But the cabins were full, so we thought well, let’s see what’s further east, say toward Port Burwell. Stopped at Port Bruce and walked the beach. Went to Port Burwell, walked the beach and into town. Had an ice cream cone, and drove on.
We had a map, but basically just looked for the southernmost roads heading east. Found villages we’d never heard of, places we’d heard of but never knew where they were. We found Walsingham, where I knew my father’s people had lived but never knew where it was – ‘over that way’ with a vague wave to the east.
Port Rowan, Lake Erie
Port Rowan, where my dad was born. Hilly, with big brick houses and little old frame houses. A row of boat houses way out into the harbour. Just looking like they’re there for photographers. A perfect little “olde” downtown with small, independent businesses thriving among the chainstores.
A downtown Home Hardware that also sold locally-made items. “Oh, a local man makes those,” the manager said when he saw me looking at a popsicle stick table lamp. It was sitting among the commercially-made lamps and light fixtures. We bought it.
Nearby, inland St. Williams, with a huge antique store and new Mennonite furniture showroom. Must get business from all over the region – not enough people in St. Williams to furnish that many houses.
Turkey Point, beach town
Turkey Point, a summer playground for party weekends. But in September they were gone, leaving only a few people to enjoy the broad silky sand beach. Since being there, I’ve learned that my father’s mother’s people were the first white settlers there. Apparently, there’s a plaque marking the site where in 1794 Frederick Mabee was buried beside his house, in a hollowed out log. The first white burial of the first white man in Turkey Point. I didn’t know that at the time we were there – just as well, we’d have had to tack on at least another 2 days to cover that.
Port Ryerse, a tiny village with a big past. Now a small collection of quaint old houses and a wonderful used bookstore that rambles its way through one of these big old houses. A historical plaque at the end of the road, in the woods bordering the lake cliff, depicting the town’s history as a port for transporting timber and coal across the lake to Ohio.
Port Dover, Friday 13th town
Pulling into Port Dover late afternoon – bright lights, big city! Beachfront stores sleepy after the summer onslaught. Wanting to roll up the awnings and pack up the flipflops and Harley Davidson emblazoned stuffed animals. Wanting to hibernate until the hogs come back to town next Friday the 13th. We looked at the harbour, the commercial vessels tied up, some for the season, some forever. Stayed the night, and ate fish and chips.
Next day, on to Fort Erie? Quite a drive, at our present pace. Would take near a week. Nah, let’s go home and pick up the dog. Almost dark, so no sightseeing. To Simcoe. Stay the night? Doesn’t feel part of this trip – we know where it is on the map. Some new cross-country back roads. Can’t really see anything though, just placenames and road numbers on the signs. “Oh, that’s where you turn for Langton, that’s where Judy used to live,” “well, look at that – Mabee’s Corners up there, I wonder if that’s where Grandma came from.” Headlights tracking family history.
Lake Erie family places
Ten years later, knowing more family history, I want to do that trip again. Now I would know to stop in Houghton, Middleton, and many more villages that we passed through that trip. Placenames that pop up over and over in the family records of the Angers, Mabees and Burwells. I would look for graveyards, farms and crossroads. It will be fun, with a map and a mission. This trip was with a map and whimsy – not looking for anything and therefore just happy to see what was found.
The ‘banner map’ at bottom is from the website of Gold Coast Real Estate, thanks. For more information on this area, check out The Lake Erie Shore (click image for Amazon). It’s by Ron Brown who’s written loads of books about the history of Ontario.
My cousin sent me this link to a song “Beautiful Port Dover” by Tia McGraff with photos by Earl Hartlen. Both song and photos are beautiful. Yes, there’s Friday 13th H-D photos, also a lot of the land, lake and fishing boats (my favourite is one called “Frisky” – nice name for a boat, I think).
Several years ago, I bought a two-year old car from a newspaper ad. When I took it for a test drive, I couldn’t believe how clean and nice the inside was. It was like a brand-new car. The young woman selling it was also very neat and tidy. She seemed like the sort that kept a car immaculate.
I had a very large German Shepherd who shed like crazy and liked to get muddy. And, dog or no dog, I’ve never had a car that stayed clean for more than two days. During our test drive, I started apologizing to the seller. I told her about the dog, who was not with me, and that the car would not stay clean. She said “oh, I usually have a mess in the car too. Don’t worry about that.” I thought sure, your mess would consist of one empty coffee cup carefully placed in the cup holder and maybe an empty water bottle rolling around. My dear, you don’t know a messy car!
I bought the car and assured her that I would put proper covers on all the seats and floor so the dog didn’t mess them up. I wanted to tell her that, if I were her, I wouldn’t sell the car to me. She just took my cheque and wished me well.
I had the car for a long time. It was always a mess. I learned there was something called car detailing. My in-laws did it with a van they were trying to sell. The van came back looking brand-new. I was impressed but it didn’t look that much different to me. Their vehicles were always clean and like new inside anyway.
Then my husband and I borrowed my mother-in-law’s car for a trip to the States. Our dog went with us – another German Shepherd who shed a lot and got sick on the trip. Two weeks in the vehicle with dog hair, dog food, dog medicine, fast-food crumbs and wrappers, coffee spills, smoke. My husband said it will clean up, don’t worry. I thought we’ll have to buy an identical car and swap them and never ever let her see this one again.
Back home, we took it to a detailer. I thought for what cleaning that car would cost we probably would be better off buying another one. Next day, we picked it up. It was like a brand-new car. And it cost less than $200. Before we gave the car back to my mother-in-law, I would sneak up on it and jump in and sniff to see if I could smell any trace of anything. Only new, clean car smell. I looked in every nook and cranny – not a crumb to be found. I was gobsmacked.
And then I knew why my neat tidy young woman didn’t mind selling her neat tidy car to a slob. It may indeed have been a pigsty when she drove it. But she’d had it detailed. What a truly wonderful discovery that was for me.
Low-flying on glass, long swooping strides pushing you along. Wind at your back propelling you. Wind coming at you, slowing you, your legs pushing forward into its face. It’s you and the power and glory of winter. From the National Arts Centre to Carleton University. It’s skating on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa.
I never learned to skate when I was a kid. I spent my very first years and my early teen years in a small Ontario village where the arena was the centre of town. Girls figure-skated, boys played hockey. Everybody cheered the local heroes – the Junior D hockey players with NHL dreams. It happened for a few. They left on hockey scholarships, went to farm teams. Mostly, they came back. Probably they play in the old-timers games at the arena now.
We didn’t live in that village during those formative years that would have given me proficiency on the ice. When the village kids started skating lessons, we’d moved to a city. Organizing skating wasn’t so easy. I never took lessons. Public rinks were scary places full of people who knocked you over as you stood wobbling on narrow blades.
Living near the canal
Later I moved to Ottawa. A friend and I rented an apartment off Elgin Street near the canal. She was from my hometown. She had taken skating lessons. And she owned two pairs of skates.
So to the canal in winter. She held my arm until I was steady. She showed me how to push and glide. Then she glided alongside, holding my arm. Gently she let go. I panicked, but I didn’t fall over. One foot, swoosh, then the other pushing ahead, swoosh, then again. I was skating. It was like flying. In daylight and in dark – swoosh, glide, glide, swoosh.
It was the beginning of my love affair with snow, cold, ice, winter. I moved away after that year. Next winter, I lived near a large pond that froze solid. I bought skates. I can skate! No. Skates on, totter on the ice, fall over. Stand up, fall over. Take a step – no swoosh, no glide. Just bruises. Skates got hung up, eventually lost.
Fifteen years later, back in Ottawa. Living on the other side of downtown this time. But treks to the canal in winter. You could rent skates there now. Fearful, maybe it had all been a dream, maybe I’d make a fool out of myself. There with another friend who couldn’t skate. I wasn’t going to be able to help him. He gave me courage: we’d made fools of ourselves in enough places, we might as well do so on the canal.
Skates on, stepping fearfully out on the ice. Step, swoosh, glide. Glide, swoosh, glide. I did it. So did he. I helped him balance a few times when he tottered. We fell a couple times. But so what? We swooshed and glided the whole length of the canal. It was just as magical as it had been before. I felt like Toller Cranston.
The canal was a different place then. The ice was kept clear all the way to Carleton. Hot chocolate and beaver tail stands were all along the length of it. Other skaters also were. But you still didn’t feel crowded, you didn’t feel like a rat in a lab maze.
A skating Nanook of the North
When I’d first skated there, only a rink-sized patch of ice was kept clear near the Arts Centre. The rest was left to the wind Zamboni. Your ability to skate the length of it depended on the wind and your skill in navigating ice bumps and snow. There were no lights, no hot chocolate-filled oases along the way. You were on your own in the elements. It was nice, especially at night, the feeling of being alone in the frozen tundra.
But the lights, hot chocolate and fellow skaters of 15 years later was also nice. You didn’t feel like Nanook of the North, but you did feel part of a Christmas card world.
I’ve never tried skating again. I don’t know if I could or not. I own skates. They hang in the closet and, when I look at them, I hear the swoosh swoosh sound of the blades and feel the crisp winter air of Ottawa. It’s ok with me if the Rideau Canal is the only place I can skate. It makes it magical. In Ottawa, I can be Joanie Rochette.
The top and bottom two photos are from the blog Images of Centretown, the 2nd is from Wikipedia, the 3rd is on the Via Rail site and the 4th is from Let’s Go Ottawa (Dec. 6th 2010). Thanks for reminding me!
I usually agree with Scotland Yard Superintendent Richard Jury on everything, but not this one. You could call summer resort towns bleak in winter, but it’s a beautiful bleakness. I like summer resort towns much better in their off-season. They can also be lovely in their season. Sun, sand, fun – that’s why we go. But, for me, too many of us go.
I went to Brighton once, in April. It wasn’t as wind-swept and, yes, bleak as it would be in December. It was cold; there was no bathing in the sea. But there were the arcades, the beach walks – and, best of all, there were no crowds.
I live near a lakeside resort town. Port Stanley on Lake Erie is beautiful in summer. Wide expanse of sand beach, wide expanse of fresh water warm for swimming. Small downtown streets with interesting shops. A pier with fishing boats tied up or chugging into port. Teeny cottages cheek by jowl in a rabbit warren of lanes near the beach. Mansions on the beach and up the hill, built as summer homes for wealthy merchants of a century and more ago.
I rarely go to Port Stanley in summer. But I love going in winter. The beach is empty. The wind howls in off the lake. On a good cold day, when your ears are ringing and your eyes streaming from the wind, you can run into Mackies on the beach and warm up with a hot drink or a cheeseburger or hotdog with the famous Mackies sauce. Walk another block or so and go in the shops, most still open in winter. Go into a bar and it’s local people, fishermen and schoolteachers, talking about next year’s fishing quotas or whether there’s going to be a ferry or not. They’re drinking ordinary beer from bottles, not asking for fancy stuff on tap.
Get a take-out pizza or go to a fancy dining room. There are a lot of good restaurants in Port Stanley, more than in the average small town. That’s because it’s a resort town, I guess. The volume of business is there in the summer to support a year-round operation. That’s nice for the winter visitor – excellent food and no one waiting for your table, wishing you’d hurry up with your crème brûlée and get out of there.
I’ve been in a lot of summer resort towns. I’ve found I prefer them in their off season. It’s not that they’re better; they’re just different. They’re sleepier, cozier, nicer. They’re hibernating, getting their strength back to deal with the hordes of sun worshippers, wannabe models, families with overexcited children, slow-walking pensioners. The off-season is when a town is what, and who, it really is. And the added bonus, of those in cold climes, is the wind whipping at you, making you feel alive.
With Alzheimer’s, how is space and time perceived within your head? Take walking 20 yards down a hallway, from your room to the dining room. Halfway through, you can’t remember where you’re going. How can you not remember what takes maybe a minute to do, even at a walker-assisted pace?
I got a clue from something my husband said when we were trying to puzzle this out. “Well, when you’re a little kid, a hallway can seem enormously long. Then when you see it as an adult you realize it’s not at all.” I said “yeah, but kids are little so they walk slow. It takes them longer to get down the hallway so maybe it would seem really long.” And then the penny dropped for me.
Space and Time
If you’re old and incapacitated, it takes you longer to walk down the hallway, just like it does when you’re a child. Add in loss of short-term memory, and maybe you indeed are on a long and winding road. Someone with Alzheimer’s can forget what was said or done five or 10 seconds before. Walking those 20 yards to or from the dining room takes longer than that. So halfway down the hall, that person may have forgotten where they’re coming from or where they’re going. They’re likely to find their way to their immediate destination because if they keep going straight, they’re going to run into it. But an hour or two later, trying to find their way back? Or even that there is a “back” to which to go?
It’s frustrating, also flabbergasting: “your room is down the hall” – “what hall?” Maybe it’s a little easier to understand if you think of it as a very long walk, like a two hour trek from point A to point B through the woods. When you reach the end, you probably can’t remember every detail of what the starting point looked like. You’d have to go back there to refresh your memory. With Alzheimer’s, maybe walking that hallway is more like a trek through the woods. The staff are the signposts along the path, pointing out to walkers the right way to go. With space and time, maybe the path will be visible for at least a moment.
When making funeral arrangements, it’s common to think of a charity to which the deceased person would like memorial donations to go. It’s a nice way of remembering somebody and lasts longer than flowers. Unfortunately, what also lasts longer than flowers, even perhaps the benefit of your donation itself, are the solicitations in the mail that you will continue to receive from the deceased person’s charity of choice.
I’ve always thought that, at the very least, dying should mean that people can raise money for a charity or cause meaningful to them. They’re who died, not me. If I want to contribute to things I care about, I should do that off my own bat. However, I’m starting to see a benefit to the requests for “a donation to the charity of your choice”: I’m already on the mailing list.
Give at a funeral to a charity that you don’t usually support, and you’ll be getting letters, address labels and notepads for the rest of your life, asking that you “once again” show your generosity. I want to tell them – it wasn’t your cause I was being generous toward. I gave in memory of my friend or relative. Take me off your list!
Why should memorial donations even make it to the mailing list? These donations are receipted by the organization as being “in memory of” so they know why you gave. If they wanted to save postage and goodwill, it might be wise to not include you on their mailing list.
And how do charities that you’ve never donated to – for yourself, from door-to-door canvassers or at funerals – get you on their list? I can only assume that they bought a mailing list that had my name on it. And that had to be from an organization I donated to a funeral. The groups I donate to do not send mass mailings or share mailing lists.
This crowd – in the photograph – I don’t recall ever giving so much as a nickel. Now, they’ve sent me a nickel in hopes I’ll add to it and write them a cheque. Nope. But at least it partially compensated me for my time shredding the letter with my name printed throughout it. And also ripping the plastic window out of the envelope so that it can be recycled. That’s more than you get from a lot of them. And I’ve got these nice address labels that I didn’t ask for. I’ll just put them with the 20 other sheets I’ve received from organizations that I will never donate to again. Because I am trying, by playing dead, to get myself off their mailing lists.
The most wonderful place I ever spent New Year’s Eve was the waterfront in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The tradition started, according to CBC, in the 1960s with one family going to the harbour front. In the 1980s, when I first went, it was still just a small group of people, mainly those who lived downtown.
You’d leave the bars about 11 pm and walk to the harbour. And wait. At midnight, the ships that were docked blew their horns. Every one of them, as many as were in port, would toot one after the other, then in unison. A few minutes later, they’d stop. That was it.
Everyone would cheer, open champagne, sparkling wine or beer bottles, toast each other and themselves and yell “Happy New Year”. Then everybody would make their way back up the hill, either back to the bars or home.
I remember one New Year’s Eve so cold with gale force winds that only maybe twenty diehards were there. You nearly got blown into the harbour it was so windy. Still, if you could survive until the ships’ horns marked the passing of another year, the fireplace at the Ship Inn up the hill on Solomon’s Lane was waiting to warm you up.
New Year’s Eve ship horns to fireworks
Over the years, the waterfront became the spot to go. People began coming in from the suburbs. City officials decided it would be good to have fireworks at the harbour. That was nice but, in the opinion of many of us, it was also unnecessary. I assume, prior to that decision, there were fireworks somewhere in town.
Anyway, with the fireworks came even bigger crowds. People were bussed in to downtown because there just wasn’t enough parking. Then, in the early or mid-1900s, someone decided to make it a commercial event. Snowfencing was placed along the harbour apron, with one entry gate. You needed a ticket to get in. Vendors were there, so were police. Hauling a bottle of Baby Duck out from under your coat was no longer permissible. I suppose it never was, but there was no one around who was going to complain.
I read on CBC’s website that the fireworks won’t be held at the harbourfront this year due to liability and insurance issues. That’s ok, I think. Maybe the harbour can go back to welcoming those who want to stand on the apron and clap and cheer the new year in without fireworks. Maybe the ships will blow their horns again.
When I was in high school, I discovered the beauty of Dylan Thomas’ writing. I first read Under Milk Wood and then moved on to his poetry. In community college, I was lucky enough to get an English teacher who let me pick my own course content. I picked Dylan Thomas and read everything he wrote and everything about him.
So much later, when I was in Wales for a few days, I wanted to find the places of Dylan Thomas. Laugharne was within easy driving distance of where we were staying. So off we went in our rental Mini to spend the day in the footsteps of the great Welsh poet. I was so excited I had tears in my eyes as we drove into town. We walked the streets, found the houses he and Caitlin had lived in.
Found our way to Brown’s Hotel where he spent a lot of time. We went in, spent a lot of time. Pictures of him and Caitlin on the walls, lots of ambience. Locals looking askance at the tourists looking at everything as if they were in a place of worship. For me, I was.
Another wander through town, then a look at my watch and at my pamphlet. “We gotta go, the Boat House is going to close soon.” The Boat House, on the water at the bottom of a cliff, is where he and Caitlin last lived in Laugharne. Nearby, atop the cliff, is the “writing shed” where Thomas worked. Both are a museum about him. They are a fair walk along the cliff from downtown, where we were.
Walking to the writing place
We started walking through town, leisurely looking around as we went. I was keeping an eye on my watch and realized time was running out, and I sped up. I kept looking back, saying “hurry, hurry”. My partner strolled along, with a “don’t worry, lots of time”. I was getting panicky and the Boat House was farther away than I thought. I should have just run ahead. I did finally, but I got there ten minutes too late. The Boat House had closed for the day. I cried. I was angry at myself for having not just gone on ahead in the first place. At him for dawdling, for not realizing how important this was to me. The town’s atmosphere was indeed lovely, but it would still be there after the Boat House closed.
So I looked in the windows trying to see as much as I could. You can see almost everything inside the writing shed, with his table set up as if he’d just walked away for a minute. But it wasn’t the same. I wanted to be inside the rooms in which Dylan Thomas had spent his time. I wanted to touch the walls, breathe the air inside his place. I wanted to absorb the space of a poet I’d had a crush on for two decades.
My partner felt bad for causing me to miss this. I guess the sight of me with my hands cupped around my face pressed against the window glass while I sniveled must have been pretty pitiful.
The cat in the graveyard
We walked back to town, went to the church graveyard where Dylan is buried. A white cat walked up to us and lay across a nearby gravestone, stretched and rolled, batted at blades of grass. She wanted somebody to play with her and scratch her belly, so I did. There were no flowers on Dylan’s grave, but there were some plastic flowers on another gravestone. I felt bad about what I was about to do, but did it anyway. I took one flower from the bouquet and stuck it in the earth in front of the white cross marking his grave.
We patted the cat good-bye and drove around Laugharne for a farewell look, then left. That visit has stuck in my mind, for what I didn’t see and what I did see. It was devastating to not be able to go in the Boat House, but the cat at the graveyard felt right. It was like she was greeter of Dylan Thomas fans and keeper of the grave.
Vacationing in the Azores, my reading was Humberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. It was my introduction to the Knights Templar and I fell in love. I was going on to Portugal, and Tomar with its Templar Castle was on my itinerary, come hell or high water. I met a friend in Oporto, and after a few days in that amazingly beautiful city, we headed south, with a stop in Tomar planned.
Driving fast because we’d got away late and wanted to get to Tomar before nightfall. Driving through the city of Coimbra, with its ancient university – no time to stop, gotta get to Tomar. On the highway through the city, looking at the map and out the window, I could see rooftops – “there it is, that’s the university over there”. My partner, driving, took a glance over. And that was our tour of Coimbra.
Just out of Coimbra, we saw a sign for Roman ruins ahead. We’d made good time, so decided to stop for a look. There was no one there, and we just walked in. It was astounding. Beautiful, peaceful, eerie almost. We spent quite a long time there because it demanded time and attention. Not attention to explanatory signage, although it was useful. Just looking at the mosaics and their beauty and the engineering and its beauty.
Feeling glad for having seen this true pearl of history, we continued to Tomar. I was a bit anxious; I feared it would be dark when we got there. We had to find a place to stay, had to find the Castle, I had to psych myself up for this pilgrimage to the holy land of the Knights Templar. Still, I didn’t regret our stop to see the Roman ruins.
Drove like hell to Tomar, got there almost at dusk. I’d been looking at the maps, so knew where the Castle was (plus it’s a castle, how can you miss it?). “Quick, let’s go there first, just to see it.” We drove through the town and headed up the winding lane that leads up the hill to the Castle. All the way through town, you see the Castle looming above you. The hillside is wooded. Darkness was falling. We park and jump out. Quiet, nobody around, just the trees and the massive dark wooden doors. I’m crying, I’d started on the way up the hill.
Tomar at Easter
There’s a sign beside the doors. It gives the hours for the Castle and its very few closed days. Easter Sunday is one of them. This was Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday. The castle had closed an hour before we got there. We had to leave Sunday evening; we had only blocked out the one night and day for Tomar. There was no choice; this was a working holiday and the holiday part was ending, with work starting Monday.
We found a hotel and I read pamphlets about the Castle. Sunday morning, I went to Easter Mass and the procession through the streets. It was beautiful, the old church in the town square, the service, the old women in their black shawls, the little kids spit-polished in their best clothes.
Afterwards, I walked around the square and went to a park along the river that went through the centre of town. I sat on the grass and looked up at the Castle, stone battlements against the tree green and black and sky blue. I watched people strolling in the park with scampering kids, all dressed in their best clothes. All, like me, just out of Mass. Picnic hampers were unpacked, grannies called kids to come and eat. I wandered across the square again, quiet now, and went back to the hotel. We went to a restaurant, had a fabulous meal of seafood and drove around the castle grounds again and then out of Tomar.
One miss, two hits
So one big miss on the bucket list in this trip, and two unexpected hits: the Roman ruins and Easter in Tomar. And I never hear of Coimbra or its university without remembering yelling “there it is, look over there” and waving my arm toward a tower and rooftops way in the distance from a highway while the driver negotiates through high-speed city traffic reading road signs in a language he doesn’t speak.
I gathered these photos from several sources. The photo of the procession in Tomar I took that Easter Sunday. The panoramic photo of Tomar and the photo of the Conimbriga ruins I found online. American women took the photos from inside the Templar Castle, of the archways and the view from the top. I met them in the Algarve and we talked about where we’d been and what we’d seen. When I told them about my trip to Tomar, they said “You poor thing! We’ll send you our pictures when we get home.” And bless their hearts, they did. In their letter, they noted that they “hope these are Tomar, so many cities, so many castles…” But I am happy to look at them, and imagine myself in the Castle keep.
Newfoundland Mi'kmaq, family history, Coronation Street, etc.