Goodbye home

My parents’ last home has finally sold and today it becomes home to someone else.

I’m filled with mixed emotions: it was never a family gathering place, nor was it a place where my parents felt altogether themselves. Any given evening saw them sitting side by side on their apartment-sized couch, hand in hand, reminiscing about each home they had shared in their lifetime together. True, it was a memory journey but it was also a way these two people, who were both losing their memory, could make sense of their own chronological history.

First, the basement apartment in the charming neighbourhood of New Edinburgh. Then the stifling third floor apartment in a heritage house in the Glebe. But as my Mom was pregnant with my sister at the time, the clock was ticking and she found herself walking the surrounding area looking for a place to settle. With a mortgage totaling twenty five thousand dollars, they purchased what became our family home – a gracious brick house on a generous corner lot. So in 1958, Pat started her career as a mother and Jack as a civil servant and part-time father.

They lived in this friendly four bedroom house for many years and then, when all three daughters had left to go to university, they sold it for what seemed like a fortune. The next home was what I considered an elegant single floor condo in the west-end, with a view of the river; it boasted no outdoor maintenance and the convenience of an elevator. Ironically, the move several years later was to a newly built three-storey townhouse that backed onto a forest and made getting a gardener and snow plow contractor necessary. The curving staircase to the bedrooms on the second floor, as well as the steep stairs down to the basement, made staying there unsafe. But it was the last home of any generous size and the first one where it became clear that Mom was beginning to suffer from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. So they were finally convinced to move out, into the apartment building whose architectural style Dad called ‘Brutalist’ (with considerable emphasis) that sat on the footprint of Mom’s childhood home. ’10 Driveway’ was positioned on the canal, providing a stunning view and ample living space. My concern was that they’d topple off the balcony. But in truth, the real concern was burning the place down or having absolutely no in-house support should they have a fall or worse.

Enter their last home together: an owned space in a retirement residence. But gleaming hardwood floors, their first walk-in shower and a view over the neighbourhood where they brought up their family – none of this was enough to counteract the reality that their space was shrinking. And now canes, walkers, a community dining room, nurses bringing medication and the sudden difficulty getting in and out of their chairs became routine.

It is the last home where they sat together. The last place they enjoyed a meal together. The last place they greeted each other in the morning when they came out of their respective bedrooms. And it was also the first place I saw my father weep. It was the first place that I saw my mother removed in a stretcher as she was taken to the hospital. And it was the last place that I would ever see them together where they weren’t in a wheelchair or a hospital bed.

I can still picture them bickering: Mom was often confused and frustrated by her memory loss, made more so by Dad’s hearing loss. I would joke that Dad would say to Mom, “What?!” and she would respond, “I can’t remember.” Indeed, if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.

Goodbye home. Goodbye.

The Man I Adored…

My dear Dad died after living 100 years and 268 1/2 days.

He taught me that life was for living and to just get on with it.  This was no better illustrated than the story he would often tell of hitchhiking from Ottawa down to the southern states, with nothing more than the clothes on his back.  When asked if he didn’t think it would have been a good idea to take money or heck, even a toothbrush, he’d say, “Nah.  I figured I’d stay at the ‘Y’ and they’d feed me and give me a bed for the night.”  Indeed.

Granted, this was during the 40s when times were more innocent and you could rely on the kindness of strangers.  He would laugh remembering the story of the trucker who stopped and, upon letting him climb up into his cab, asked, “You don’t have a gun, do you?” to which my surprised and suddenly anxious Dad replied, “No…do you??”

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Photo by Caio Resende on Pexels.com

 

Eight days after he died, I could no longer stand the pain,

so I got out of “Dodge” myself.

Grabbing a few clothes, a toothbrush, some dog food and of course, the dog, Scout and I took off.  But first, I needed a coffee for the road; this was a choice that cost me one hundred dollars before I’d even hit the highway – yes, I did park in a “no parking” zone but I was only there for a moment.  Then, on the highway, not even out of city limits, my phone rang and the voice on the other end said my car was being recalled for “corrosion.”  “Is that all?” I said.  “I’m driving to Florida.”  What’s a bit of corrosion, especially to a ten-year old car and Ottawa winters, I thought.

I had driven to Florida before but never on my own and never with this dog.  This dog who had barely been in a car, or been around the block two and half years ago.  But this dog rode like she’d always been my co-pilot.  With a softly placed paw, gently letting me know that it was ok, and I letting her know that this long journey would indeed have a reward at the end.

Dad used to say, “Why the heck would you want to go to Florida?”  The sun, sand, heat, hoards of tourists….what’s down there worth seeing?  Of course, what he meant was that there was not one good antiquarian book store in the whole of Florida, unlike his beloved London or Manhattan.

My Dad never took his shirt off; well, for a shower, yes, but his default outfit was forever and always a suit, a crisp white shirt and tie.  “You have to dress the way you want to be treated,” he’d say.  Oh well.  I guess I just wanted to be treated like a regular person.

And Dad would also say,

“Always that dog.”  Yes indeed.  He finally got me.

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There are memories I hold dear.  Like the time he told me of his own beloved childhood dog who had died and showed me that he too had lost a cherished companion.  Like the time he would tell me that he was proud of me after first doubting my abilities to pursue a dream.  He told me about the day he had to deliver a speech at a work conference and going AWOL from fright.  I believed the story at the time he told it, but realize now that it was likely not true, but might have been what he wanted to do — it was his way of showing me he also experienced self-doubt.

To me, he rarely exhibited any kind of frailty.  Even in his 101st year.  As he shuffled impossibly with his cane, staying upright despite his pronounced stoop, and then with his walker (the walker I’m now selling for $125 * — a price that seems to be an insult to the man it supported), he personified strength and dignity.  On the day of his diagnosis of kidney failure, he was offered two choices:  pursue dialysis several times a week at the hospital or let nature take its course.  He made his decision swiftly – the choice was easy.  Like he always said when I wanted to buy him a new pair of socks or pajamas, “the law of diminishing returns Ails (he would always call me) … I’m too old to spend good money on.”

That damned raincoat.

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I can’t tell you the number of times I took it to the dry cleaners to try to get the stains off of it: the ice cream, the chocolate, the Pepsi, the whipped cream, the smoked meat sandwiches.  I do believe it was the same raincoat he wore on his honeymoon, but now with a new lining that protruded at the cuffs but held it together otherwise.  I contemplated buying him a new one but it came down to finding the exact same raincoat, which of course doesn’t exist, unless you’re buying a vintage one on Etsy for a few hundred dollars.  And that is what I paid for his pajamas, made in the UK and shipped by an English friend to me here.  He had to have pajamas that had a drawstring at the waist; not elastic, mind you, a drawstring.  I defy you to find any such thing in the colonies!

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That blasted raincoat!

Sometimes when I came into his bedroom during the day and found his coat on his bed I’d ask, “Why is your raincoat draped over your bed Dad?”  “Because I was cold,” he’d say.  So I got him an electric blanket and hoped he wouldn’t fry himself.

Jack Peter Francis was a voracious reader and his books of choice never seemed shorter than 500 pages.  I would order them for him on Amazon and a couple of days after they were delivered, he’d be reading them for the second time.  I remember telling him once the name of the book I was reading and he seemed interested by the title, Sapiens.  I bought him a copy and when I asked him a few days later how it was, he essentially implied that it was a book version of the “History of Mankind for the Simple-minded.”  No beating around the bush there from someone who I imagine devoured Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in one sitting.  It was a stinging review.

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Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Jack Peter Francis was a respected and conscientious civil servant, but he was not selfishly ambitious.  He always said that when he was in public service, he saw what needed to be done and simply did it.  He had little patience for people who sat on the sidelines and didn’t just take the reins.  I remember visiting his downtown office when I was young and being impressed and surprised by his obvious importance: outside his door was an efficient and friendly secretary.  Inside was a huge desk with an equally huge chair.  He had what he proudly called a “Jack Shadbolt” (before I knew what or who that was) on one wall and a fully stocked bar on the other.  There was a pipe in his desk drawer which he would not so much smoke as pose with while leaning back in his chair and looking pensive.  But I do remember the sweet scent of it when he’d light up after dinner in his basement study.

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Photo by Leah Kelley on Pexels.com

Jack Peter Francis was a believer in charity.  He embraced good causes and practiced tithing, giving money to the church, the Green Party, his daughters … he was always offering aid but in our case, there was a catch: it was that painful discussion about investments we hadn’t made, pensions we hadn’t started, savings accounts we hadn’t opened and budgeting we never did.  As a professional economist, I can’t tell you what an irony it is that his daughters inherited so little of his financial DNA.  As a result, you learned never to bring up the subject of money unless you had a stiff drink waiting for you.

Jack Peter Francis was a joker.  He took great relish in making the paperboy squirm, which he did at the front door by asking him in the sternest voice he could muster, which was pretty stern, “What’s the damage?” when he came to collect.  I’m sure the poor kid was left imagining what window he had broken or tree branch he had mangled.  I remember he had little patience reading to his children; as a result, he would embellish or even change the story.  For years I recall being apoplectic when he prematurely killed off Aslan, the heroic lion in C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece, The Chronicles of Narnia — WAIT….I REALIZE AT THIS VERY MOMENT that Aslan did indeed die, by the hands of the White Witch in the first book of the series — until he rose again.  The parallels to Christianity are unmistakable to me now, but of course at the time I believed he resurrected Aslan purely because of my protestations.

Jack Peter Francis possessed a fierce intellect.  He would demand much but not more than he demanded of himself.  He believed that you had to travel your own path, exercising your brain and keeping it well seasoned.  I remember standing in front of the glass display in the British Museum that housed the Rosetta Stone when I was 18 and saying to him, “What is the Rosetta Stone?”, to which he replied, “YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT THE ROSETTA STONE IS?” and then promptly walked away.  I didn’t realize it at the time, as I was too overcome with the feeling that I had disappointed him, but this tactic was meant to challenge me – to push me headlong into doing my own work.  He would not spoon feed anyone, let alone his daughters.  Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.  But I craved his admiration, so that’s what sent me off to university.

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Yes, this is The Rosetta Stone; its discovery in 1799 provided the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics

 

Jack Peter Francis admitted when he was wrong.  Mind you, that wasn’t often, but when he said that we’d have to tell the woman I’d be renting an apartment from during my first year at the University of Toronto that my roommate wasn’t white, and I said, “But why? What difference should that make?”, he thought for a moment and blessedly agreed.  And if it had been up to him, he would have said goodbye to Skye-dog when she was first diagnosed with lymphoma – I never let him forget (and he relented that he was wrong) that I didn’t give up on her and as a result, she lived another 5 1/2 healthy and active years.

Jack Peter Francis was a friend, but only if you measured up, otherwise he might make small talk but don’t count on much else.  Luckily I had an “in” being family, as I’m not sure if he would have given me the time of day otherwise. And when he finally realized that I was never going to become a dental hygienist, much to his dismay (we joked about that days before he died – no offense to dental hygienists everywhere), he always made a point of applauding my efforts and saying I didn’t charge nearly enough for my gardening services.  He was my epic marble playing competitor, my lawn mowing teacher, my mentor in learning, my inspiration in life.

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I say his name like this because I’ve learned that when someone dies, the first thing that happens is that their name is erased.  Erased from bank accounts, erased from cheques, the evidence of their existence in the form of birth certificates, passports, social insurance numbers — all of them cancelled.

I know why my Dad lived to 100.  You see, early in his life as a parent, he didn’t express his affection for us very openly.  There were few hugs, few words of encouragement, few expressions of love.  I realize now he was too busy trying to make sure we were financially secure and was too distracted first, by his career and then, by his all-consuming hobby.  It took him more than 90 years to recognize what really mattered: and that is, the love of your family and that love expressed. It wasn’t until my Dad was well on in age that I began to hear “I love you” and “You’re a great kid Ails” every single time we were together.  Those words will always remain with me…

 

He accepted his end with grace.  All we could do was make sure he was surrounded by our love and that we were all there next to him, honouring his wishes.  And then he said, “It pains me to leave you.”

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It pains me that you’re gone Dad.

 

* I ended up donating his walker, not selling it, to a man who’d had a stroke and was on disability.  Dad would have liked that.

 

 

The weight and the wait.

Getting ready for 2019, I looked back and saw that I started this blog waaaay back in January 2011 – almost exactly 8 years ago.  It was four years after my retail store closed (hence the name) and I was looking for things to keep me busy, other than my re-established gardening business, and allow me an outlet for my writing and photography.  That sometimes feels like a lifetime ago.

I have seen many blogs come and go since then.  Like life, peoples’ interests wax and wane.  Peoples’ lives change.  Different passions and distractions appear and often thwart the best of intentions.

I’ve not been on here very often in the last couple of years as I have found my concerns shifting.  I’m still passionate about plants and gardening and love my gardens — that is, my own as well as those that I call “mine” but technically aren’t as they belong to my wonderful clients.  Many of them have grown and changed over the years and it is such a pleasure working in them.  And many of the people I have had the honour of working for have become great friends.

But I also have found myself thinking more about life – that is, what it is to live our life, what it means to have had a “good life.”   And how to juggle living with waiting; waiting with living.

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Ironic that I crave moments now and not things, this coming from an ex-retailer!  Indeed, I have been shedding many of my possessions as I begin to realize that although they might be nice to look at, nice that they provide padding to the corners of the house, they are collecting dust and not doing anything other than weighing me down.

I now crave lightness.

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My father is 100 years old and my mother is approaching 90.  I will be 60 in 2019.  As my parents struggle through the meanness that is old age, their mature children are left behind to negotiate their comfort and care.

They both struggle with memory.  So moments disappear with the tick of the clock.  They refuse to become memories.  Perhaps that is why I am craving moments — while I know they will still warm me with memories.

Do you follow Jann Arden on Facebook?  If you’ve ever experienced a family member who is suffering from debilitating dementia, then look her up.  She writes, of course, in words like she does in song.  She at once describes the sadness, loss, guilt, ugliness and reluctant acceptance that is the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.  She is the daughter of a mother who let her in and they were good friends before this disease began to take her away.  Truthfully and sadly, that has not been my experience.

If you’ve read my other entry here about my feelings toward my mother, you’ll know it has never been a close relationship.  Now that I find myself being the “go-to” person for both my mother and father’s care, the clash of feelings is only getting louder and more pronounced.  The expectation of attention, the weight of duty, the guilt that the tender feelings are not present.  It’s all there.  Laid bare when I think to place my hand on her shoulder to quell her shaking when she is scared and confused.  When I realize that telling her about her condition is actually terrifying her, so I withhold and edit.  The mental processing and the operating on dispassionate, automatic pilot.  It is exhausting and it strips you bare.  You need moments of relief to find yourself again.  And to somehow forgive yourself.

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When I say I have to leave to walk the dog, it is true, but it is also self-preservation.  I need an outlet that gives me joy in this time of weightfulness.

I don’t know what the next few years will bring, but I fear it will be more of the same and I am terrified that the dreams I am chasing will go ‘poof’.

I continue to research “how long does someone with Alzheimer’s live?” and look at statistics.  I tell myself I am a horrible person.  Then I whisper to myself that I am not.

“Longevity is in your genes,” the ER nurse says to me today.  I cringe.  Please no.  This is not life.  This is not living.  This is waiting.  Everybody’s waiting.  And the clock is ticking.

 

 

 

Preventing your new dog from going AWOL

Strange title for a gardening blog entry, no?

Well, as you already know, my two biggest loves are gardening and dogs (well, there are three, but the third doesn’t apply here lol).  I don’t think I’m alone in that.  The companionship of a dog and a garden can be equally comforting and rewarding.  Over time we learn what makes our plants tick much the same way as we learn about our dogs — we spend time together, we watch, we make deals, we try different methods to get a desired outcome — they are both always a work in progress!

But today I want to talk about how to keep our new dogs safe.  It was prompted by the story of Yoghi, a young male Spinone Italiano — aka an Italian hunting dog — who went missing on October 20th in Ottawa, after having just arrived in Canada.  Despite two weeks of sightings and 24 hour searching, Yoghi was too fearful and would not be caught.  Just barely in advance of winter, he was found today and is now back home in the loving arms of his family.

Truth is, many dogs today are being adopted on foreign shores and then brought back to Canada to start their new lives.  The trip can be scary and disorienting, and it is not unusual for a “new Canadian” dog to bolt at some stage during the journey.  If it does get into the arms of it’s new owners without incident, it may still be what is known as a “flight risk” — that is, a dog who is easily spooked and must be handled with care and a tremendous amount of safeguards to ensure its security.

But it’s not just foreign dogs who can go AWOL – in truth, any dog who is changing hands can, as can any dog who is spooked by something sudden.  Even a dog who has been with you for years can suddenly disappear.  So that is why I’ve decided to write about strategies you can use to ensure your dog’s safety.

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Our newest dog Scout was a two year old first-time mom when she was abandoned at the vets by her previous owners.  She was so scared and confused when she landed at the Humane Society that she needed medication to calm her fears.

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Scout is a mixed breed with 1/4 border collie DNA and is the most cuddly and food-motivated dog I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.  However, these character traits weren’t fully obvious at first.  I understand that it takes anywhere from 3 to 6 months for a “new” dog to show its true colours.  And more than this, it takes an uncertain amount of time for a “new” dog to bond with its new family.

A few months after we adopted her, Scout pushed open our front screen door, ran past my husband, mouth gaping, on the front porch and down the street.

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SOMEONE’S HAVING A BLAST!

We ran! We called! She stopped, looked at us and kept running in the opposite direction.  Thankfully she ran “right” instead of “left” at the bottom of our front steps, a decision which meant we intercepted her in a neighbour’s backyard rather than as a crumbled, lifeless heap in the middle of a very busy four lane thoroughfare.

Truth is, making sure a “new” dog is safe is a multi-pronged endeavour but can mean the difference between life and death.  After Scout’s brief adventure, we made sure we put several safety protocols into play so that she would never be at risk again.  I share several of them with you here, as well as others that might be useful to you.

1.SECURE THE FRONT DOOR WITH GATES:

After Scout’s getaway, we realized our front door was not secure.  So I searched online and in local pet stores for a gate that would be appropriate.  Our front door didn’t seem to be “standard”, so many options were simply too big or too small.   I didn’t want the type of gate that simply pressed against the door jamb; in my experience, these gates could be pushed out of place.  Nor did I want a gate that was too short, as Scout would surely jump over it.  I also wanted a gate that could be opened and closed fairly easily for humans, but be more difficult for a dog to do the same — even a border collie!  I opted for one that was secured into a bracket that had to be screwed into the jamb.  There was a mechanism on top of the gate that allowed it to be opened inwards, meaning it didn’t interfere with the screen door on the other side.  This is a version of the gate that we chose.

Then I realized we also needed a barrier for the front porch, as we often sit out there in good weather.  The top of our stairs didn’t seem to allow for a built-in wooden gate, so we found something that was sturdy, tall and relatively attractive online: this one is it.

Here are the two gates pictured together…Fort Knox!

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Of course I won’t tell you that the opening mechanism on the inside gate kept getting harder and harder to release so I kicked it (really hard) one day and voila, it’s so much easier to operate now <wink>

2.CAR STRATEGIES TO PREVENT BOLTING:

I quickly realized that I could not take Scout in and out of our car through the back hatch.  When I lifted it, the opening it created was too large for me to block with my body in case she decided to leap out.

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NOT THIS WAY!

This was before I had had a chance to teach her manners, so I had to think of another solution.  I decided to take her in and out from the back seat, even though it meant putting the car barrier between the front and back seats, rendering my vehicle a paddy wagon for whenever my poor parents had to ride with me….

The barrier was necessary because she really wanted to ride in the front seat, ideally with her feet on the dash and her nose pressed closed to the windshield.  This riding-in-the-car thing was new to her and she was fascinated by it!

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THIS WAY!

There are plenty of seat covers that work in the back of all cars to keep the seats clean.  This is by far a better solution with a dog who may jump out of the car without warning.

The other precaution is either using dog seat belts or tethering the dog inside the car with a leash.  Both of these strategies work best with the dog situated in the back seat.

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This seatbelt is available through iheartdogs:  https://iheartdogs.com/product/heavy-duty-adjustable-dog-seat-beltdog-safety-belt/

3.WALKING PROTOCOL: LEASHES, COLLARS, HARNESSES:

It is important, even with the most reliable and predictable dog, to ensure that you have control over him/her while you’re out and about walking.  Using a collar or harness that they can’t break away from is paramount.

A regular collar with a clip-on leash is totally unreliable: firstly, if the dog pulls or lunges or bolts, either the collar will potentially injure the dog’s larynx OR it will slip right off allowing him/her to get free.

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Sophia Yin gives a good analysis of all collar/harness types from the point of view of medical safety in this blog post here.  She favours the use of front clip harnesses and head halters.  Surprisingly, savvy or insistent dogs can actually rid themselves of a harness, as can be seen in this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKNAw3r2F2g) so never leave a dog unattended while secured using a harness.

Choke chains, prong collars and regular collars are not safe choices unless your dog is very well trained already (some trainers believe the first two choices are not good ones under any circumstance).  Martingale collars, which operate under the same principle, that is, tightening as the dog pulls, are a superior choice because of their wider profile and regulated tightening capability.

Whatever you choose, make sure it a) is safe for the dog’s neck and body, and b) doesn’t allow them to escape easily.

Some dog owners fasten their dog’s leash to their waist, so that they don’t have to rely on their hands to keep the leash secure and that their whole body acts as a means to stop their dog from getting loose from a bolt or lunge at full speed.  Ruffwear has a great selection of dual purpose hand-held and waist-attached leashes here.

 

This video shows Scout waiting for her Dad to come out of the washroom at Upper Canada Village wearing her Ruffwear harness, embroidered collar with phone number and leash attached at the chest.  You’d think I was torturing her!

Whatever you do, do NOT rely on flexi-leashes to secure your dog.  If he/she bolts, even if this leash is attached to a well-made, super secure, front-clip harness (some of the best are also found through Ruffwear here), by the time your dog runs to the end of the flexi-leash’s tether, it will fly out of your hand so fast (perhaps even injuring you in the process) that your dog will be free, dragging the flexi-leash behind him!

4.TRAINING:

Over time with a new dog, being a very judicious trainer will ensure that he/she will have a more predictable behaviour in unpredictable situations.

One of the first things you should teach is “wait” — wait before leaving the house, so that you can lead the way, rather than being pulled out the door and down the stairs.  And wait before exiting the car until you have given the say-so.  This command alone may save your dog’s life.  The other command, in my opinion, equally important to “wait” is a recall.  A solid recall is something that you’ll need to practice every day of your dog’s life.

Loose-leash walking is also something that all dogs need to learn.  It makes walking together a pleasure instead of a chore and in the end, will save your shoulder sockets and back!

5.WHAT TO DO IF YOUR DOG DOES GET AWAY FROM YOU:

a) Don’t panic!

b) Don’t chase!

c) Use your recall word…if that doesn’t work, try yelling “Puppy, puppy, puppy!”;

d) Run in the opposite direction;

e) Drop to the ground and make high pitched, happy noises;

f) Use treats to get the dog to come closer;

g) Secure the dog with a leash slowly and carefully – no sudden lunges or movements.

There is an excellent blog post on how to navigate what can be a very stress first few moments of a loose dog; you can find it here.

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If your dog does not respond to these actions and keeps running or disappears from sight, then immediately take action.  Petfinder has a great resource in this article to help you take the appropriate steps when your dog is lost: find it here.  The more people you can reach about your lost dog, the better.  It often takes a village to return a dog to it’s owner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

These gardening books might be for you!

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve received some gardening books in the mail to review.  Despite the fact that I no longer write for the city paper, the kind folks at Thomas Allen & Son and Firefly Books still send me titles that might be of interest to gardeners in my neck of the woods.

I said, “Sure, I’d be happy to receive them.  But I’ll be honest about what I think.”  As if they would then say, “Oh, no, I’m sorry then.  We’ll take you off our list.”  So damn the torpedoes — let’s take a look.

The first, called “the less is more garden: BIG IDEAS FOR DESIGNING YOUR SMALL YARD” (adept use of typography there) by susan morrison, is published by Timber Press (2018) and available in Canada through Thomas Allen & Son ($29.95 US).

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This book follows on the heels of my own recent thoughts about minimalism, both stylistically and practically.  The days of planting gardens with perennials beds nine feet deep and fifty feet long are long gone.  In fact, they were never “on”, other than in the dreams presented by big glossy coffee table books making us feel inadequate and not up to the task.  I blame Martha Stewart for much of this and all of those National Trust properties across the pond that were pulled back from the brink and planted up with Gertrude Jekyll-type borders, not only full of colour but also stakes and wires and other supports, requiring spraying and clipping and wiping down by teams of professional gardeners.

Anyway, small gardens that look great with less seems on the face of it to be sad and defeatist, but in reality, elegance is often achieved in the garden with fewer plants.  The author Susan Morrison is a landscape designer working out of California and as such this book spends much of its time talking about creating outdoor spaces to be lived in for much of the year.

One of her introductory chapters presents templates for smallish backyards with specific challenges: a long and narrow space, an awkward, wedge-shaped space and a relatively larger space that was required to be multi-functional.  The last template is clearly for homeowners who want a calm retreat but are not active gardeners.

It is perhaps not surprising that lawn does not figure predominantly in Morrison’s designs or discussion.  Her gardens centre around the use of patios, pathways, decks and other surfaces that don’t require constant mowing and fertilizing.  She favours well-placed planters, raised vegetable and herb plots, as well as mixed plantings of trees, shrubs and perennials.

Because her book’s challenge is small spaces, she identifies plants that can satisfy different important functions given this mandate: for example, plants that can be enjoyed in the moonlight (after a hard day’s work), herbs for all the senses, diaphanous plants that don’t block the sun or view, plants that cover ground or that grow upwards (i.e. against and over walls), plants that mimic water, and of course plants that don’t require much from us but that still have much to offer (colourful foliage, a more diminutive size, and plants that perform especially well in each season).

Unfortunately for us, the plants she lists are often too tender for us to grow in our zone 4-5 climate.  And in a place (California) where perennials often act as shrubs and vice versa, her lists often don’t make clear which is which, something that can be problematic for the novice gardener or designer.

Her designs have a distinctly Californian feel to them, with brick patios, adobe buildings with brightly coloured trim and giant rosemary plants alongside succulents.  Still, there are enough ideas and direction here, both in text and photos, to point someone with a small space in the right direction.  With the pragmatism of a professional who has learned that less is almost always best, Morrison tells you to ask yourself these three questions before you plan:

  • what will you be doing in the garden?
  • when will you be outside?
  • who will be with you?

By doing this, you won’t waste even a square inch and end up with a garden you can truly use and feel at home in.

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By contrast and boy, do I mean contrast, there is Andy Vernon’s colourful manifesto called “THE flower-powered GARDEN: Super-Charge Your Borders and Containers with Bold, Colourful Plant Combinations, published as well by Timber Press (2018) and available in Canada through Thomas Allen & Son ($29.95 US).

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Let me tell you right away that this is a book not everyone will embrace and is diametrically opposed in style and temperament to the previous book.  Whereas Morrison’s book is understated and refined, Vernon’s approach is unbridled and passionate.  But if you love colour and are not in the least intimidated by it, this is the book for you!

Vernon’s interest is the Victorian art of “bedding out” and container planting.  His approach is highly personal in that, at first glance, his arrangement of plants seems haphazard.  But if you look more closely, it is really quite quirky and humorous.  He is unapologetic about his love for colour, and more than this, about his passion for combinations that are either electric, romantic, nostalgic or trendy.

The book starts as he recounts his Cheshire, England, gardening upbringing alongside his granddad, where he admits that his plant fetish began.  He visited the numerous allotments that his granddad lovingly tended and then they took regular walks through the public park “bedding” displays to “ooh” and “aahh” at the colours.  He was hooked.

There are two chapters at the beginning that deal with colour theory (contrasting vs complementary, harmonious, etc.), choosing where, how and what to display, as well as where to view plantings that can inspire your own.  He then talks about care and cultivation of your plantings.

But it is really the following chapters, variously titled “Sherbet spring into summer”, “Royal velvet”, and “Liquorice allsorts” that allow him to go crazy with combinations of annuals, bulbs, vines, shrubs and tropical plants that together make an impressive and unforgettable display.

If you’re queasy, you’ll find many of them a bit too, let’s say, exuberant.  But don’t worry – he’s thought of you too with his less electric and more “refined” combinations, for example, of bronze, apricot, mahogany and marmalade plant collection.  Or if you’re a classicist, try the pastels in the combination called “Apple Blossom”. Or if you consider yourself more on trend, the sophisticated collection called “Chocolate limes”.

What’s missing here is a completed display and corresponding photo for each featured combination — that’s too bad.  Of course, the options presented for each theme is far more than is needed, and I do like the fact that he has identified every plant with its full botanical name, including the most relevant part, its cultivar name.

The way to use this book is not to jot down every plant in each featured combination and then go out and find them.  That will drive you mad because you won’t find them all in one place.  But rather look through each combination to find what appeals to you, make note of the colours and perhaps some of the names – especially of the plants that will end up being the centre of attention – and then visit the nursery or garden centre to see what they have.  You’ll find that the plant you saw in this book is in reality not the size you expected it to be, or that it’s flower is much smaller than you envisioned.  As a result, you’ll have to make changes on the fly as you plan and then buy.

This book provides a great opportunity to teach your eye — to understand what colours work well together and which combinations appeal to you.  It may teach you to be more adventurous in your juxtapositions and introduce you to plants you hadn’t met before.

But most of all, this book will give you the eye candy you crave after months and months of white and gray.

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Next review post will talk about Niki Jabbour’s Veggie Garden Remix: 224 New Plants to Shake Up Your Garden and Add Variety, Flavor, and Fun (Storey Publishing, 2018 – distributed by Firefly Books in Canada; $19.95 US) and Emily Murphy’s Grow What You Love: 12 Food Plant Families to Change Your Life (Firefly Books, 2018; $ 29.95 CAN).

 

 

 

 

 

Memories of my mother

First, my mother is not dead.  But she has never been a source of comfort.  And now, in these later years, while I find myself flung into the role of care-giver, I am remembering our history together and coming to terms with why I have conflicting feelings of duty, resentment and anger.

When I recall happy memories from my childhood involving my mother, I remember her sitting by my hospital bed reading aloud Paul Gallico’s novel, Jennie, as I recovered from a a very serious back operation when I was 12 or 13.

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Jennie is the story of Peter, the young son of busy upper class parents in London, England, who have no time for him.  Peter longs for a cat to ease his loneliness, but his pragmatic nanny does not suffer animals gladly…(I instantly recall my own childhood babysitter, who was unaffectionately called ‘DoDo Bird’ — I believe her name was the French ‘Dault’, pronounced ‘Dough’ — who cold-heartedly tossed the neighbour’s cat Fluffy, who I loved, over the fence one day, much to my horror).

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Fluffy, the cat; note how I want her all to myself.

Early in the book, Peter sees a kitten across the road and in his zeal to get closer, he crosses traffic and gets struck by a vehicle.  In his state of unconscious, Peter awakens as a cat and is befriended by Jennie, a stray, who had been abandoned by her own family.  The story follows his journey as he learns how to be a cat in a world completely foreign to him and it concludes with him awakening back into his human world.  It is a story of love, loss, isolation, friendship, fear and courage.  But it always struck me that his life would have been more fulfilled and happy had he stayed a cat.

My mother might have found several threads in this story that paralleled her own life.  Her older brother, as a child, had been hit by a car and died as a result of his injuries – this was back in the 1930s and I can’t help but think that if he had lived today, the accident wouldn’t have taken his life.

Also, my surgery, in my parents’ eyes, may have been considered life-threatening.  It involved the placement of a metal rod against my spine so that the curve caused by scoliosis would be straightened.  It was a serious procedure that was still in its infancy in the early 1970s.  From my parents perspective, there was a lot of fear and uncertainty around it, including whether I might be rendered permanently paralyzed or worse, die on the operating table.  Luckily I wasn’t and didn’t.  But to this day I remember the most embarrassing moment of the entire process, which was when my father asked,

“Doctor, will my daughter still be able to have children?”

Whereas my concerns centered around whether or not I’d be able to ride a horse or jump out of a plane.  In my mind, those two things were imminently more likely than procreating.

(The only discussion my mother ever had with me about sex was sliding an educational book across the counter to me.  I always felt that this was how she related to me: at arm’s length.  It was mortifying and taught me that talking about sex was taboo.  I’m sure my experience was not unique.)

I don’t know if my mother realized the extent to which this novel mirrored my own shy and isolated life: like the protagonist Peter, I also felt invisible to my parents and wished more than anything to have a companion, a pet.  For Peter, it was a pet cat; for me, a dog.

I cannot overstate the extent to which I yearned for a dog.  But time and again, I was told that it was not possible due to my parents’ and my younger sister’s allergies.  Sadly, I had to make do with gerbils, an iguana and goldfish.

My young life involved one blow after another.  Years before this surgery, what exact years I cannot say, I was regularly sent off with a close friend of my mother’s, an Anglican priest, who took me to the park and molested me.  Too timid to tell, too young to resist, and too naive to believe that this behaviour was not endorsed by my mother, I suffered this indignity for what seemed like eternity.

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My 6 year old self in 1965

Two years after this picture was taken, our family temporarily packed up and moved to Quebec City where my younger sister was born.  This was a turning point in my life and marked the moment when I became most invisible.  My sister was a sickly child and her care demanded every ounce of attention and energy my mother could muster.  It was not surprising that she was grateful for any “babysitting” that was offered.

When my sister got older and I was poised to move away from home (she would have been 11 to my 19), my mother bought her a dog.  A DOG.  My sister didn’t want a dog, nor did my mother.  It just seemed like a good idea apparently.

As you can imagine, this dog, a dachshund beagle mix we called Kipling, landed in a family that didn’t know how to care for it.  So, after at least one episode when it escaped the house and chased wailing children down the street, nipping at their ankles, my mother gave it away.  I came home from university to this heart-crushing news.  Although Kipling was never my heart-dog, I never forgave my mother for this.

Years later, while in my 20s and as my wedding approached, I asked my mother if I could wear her wedding gown.  The dress was fitted and beaded and as I handled its smooth fabric and shiny embellishments in her closet, I imagined myself in it — glamourous and feminine and glowing — everything that a woman would like to feel on her wedding day.  To my horror, she replied,

“You’ll have to dye it.”

It should not have come as a surprise to me that my actual wedding dress was a simple, hand-made affair, in off-white velvet, but also that my father’s words of advice on my wedding day were, “Ailsa, marriage is hell.”

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My 88 year old mother now has Alzheimer’s disease and her memory of any of these experiences is long gone.  She now lives in a world of her own youth; she re-reads her letters home to her own mother while she was adventuring overseas.  She remembers these as the “best years”; gone are any memories of her wedding, her early marriage, my youth and her later years.  It is a mercy that these best memories are what remain.

When I was young, my grandmother took me to church for Sunday service.  It was known (and still is today) as a “high church”, which meant incense was generously dispensed.  I hated this ceremonial “aid to prayer” as it always made me feel light-headed.  At worst, a full-fledged fainting episode would begin with my peripheral vision getting fuzzy, a loud buzzing would drown out any sound and whatever I could see was starting to become confined to an ever-closing-in, darkened tunnel.  The only way to stop the progression was to put my head between my knees — I always felt so awkward, but I’m sure onlookers just saw a demonstration of piety.

This is what I imagine it feels like to lose your memories to Alzheimer’s  — it leaves you with an ever-narrowing vision of your own history.  Until finally, all you have left is your earliest remembrances, and then nothing at all.

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I am well aware that my mother and I never had a nurturing relationship.  I know many friends who have either lost their beloved mother prematurely to illness, accident or Alzheimer’s disease and who grieve the loss of their loving parent.  As they struggle to understand why, blame themselves for any perceived transgressions for which they failed to make peace or to provide care in this most difficult time, I feel their anguish.

My own experience is different.  I am the care-giver, the driver, the secretary, the accountant, the housekeeper, the daughter/mother and I see her as the petulant child.  I get annoyed, I feel shame; I chastise her for bad behaviour, I feel shame; I get frustrated, I feel shame.  I feel little connection, I feel shame.  I google how long people live with Alzheimer’s disease, I feel shame.  I say all the wrong things in response to her illness and I feel shame.

This feeling of being conflicted is, I’m sure, normal.  The so-called bond between mother and daughter is often a fabrication, like a well-meaning fairy tale.  In my life, my strongest bonds have been with my dogs and these relationships have been my most fulfilling: unchained, giving, freeing, natural and joyful.  I’m lucky to have found what gives me joy.  And lucky to understand that the comfort it provides me is legitimate and unapologetic.

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Jeff’s countryside idyll

It is hard to believe that there is life outside on a day when your cheeks will freeze in five minutes!  The birds are huddled in evergreens, the squirrels curled up in their leafy beds and the mice and voles are buried deep under their blankets of snow and soil.  Only the pushy crows and hungry hawks can be seen cutting through the skies….

I lie on the couch in front of a gentle fire with my dog Scout curled on my legs.  I’m half watching an impossibly young, blonde couple looking for a house in Goa, India, and in other moments, the unending and maddening political analysis on CNN.

What would be better than going back in time, back to the summer and to one of my favourite places, my friend Jeff’s house in the Quebec countryside.  Come with me as I show you his place, with gardens that are now relatively mature.  Jeff invites me annually so I can swish around the gardens, point here and there, saying this needs to go here and something else needs to go here instead.  He is a very patient man.

If you’re interested in earlier visits to this garden, go here, here and here.

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The house’s blue mirrors the colour of the lake below.  Jeff is working on the forest that descends to the water, culling the diseased and dead ones, thinning some to maximize the view but still give privacy and encouraging the “keepers”.

The monumental thyme steps have grown in and beckon the visitor to follow….a path that leads to a grassy landing at the backside of the house, held up by another beautifully constructed stone wall that holds the hillside.

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The multi-stemmed Amur maple (Acer ginnala), which turns a rich shade of red in the fall and is bullet-proof in terms of disease and insect damage, is surrounded by the species form of Japanese forest grass, Hakonechloa macra.  A few shaped golden cedars join the party but will likely be moved elsewhere as this form of forest grass grows quite tall and dwarfs them.

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The dry-laid flagstone patio at the front of the house is a step down from the gravel road but is the perfect place to sit for tea or simply to enjoy the garden.  Pots with bright annuals are perched about, lending the space intense colour.  Indeed, primary colours abound in this new design — Jeff’s younger love of pastel colours has matured into a passion for depth and richness.

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This raised bed, the first to be seen from the road, combines creeping sedums, Siberian cypress, Geranium ‘Rozanne’ and purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea), among others.  The idea is for the plants here to be low or diaphanous, so they do not present a visual barrier to the other plantings.

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The bristlecone pine (at right; Pinus aristata) provides structure and interest.  A slow growing, beautiful, unique and ancient evergreen, it will over time reach great heights — but long after Jeff has kicked the bucket (sorry Jeff!)

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The solidity and gorgeous texture of these stones are in glorious contrast to the plants above and adjacent.  The mounded shrubs that bracket this step are lace shrub or cut-leaf Stephanandra (Stephanandra incisa ‘Crispa’), which will over time tumble down over the edges.  They produce delicate white flowers in the early summer which attract the hum of bees and wasps; in autumn, the foliage turns a brilliant gold.  Jeff’s bold colour choices in this circular bed include lilies, beebalm, yarrow, geranium, garden phlox (yet to bloom), persicaria (the garden-worthy type!) and Calamagrostis.  The staked tree at the corner of the house is a young fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus), which will produce white filigree blossoms before it matures in late spring, early summer.  Hardy to Zone 3, it will provide an interesting feature and a tree for visitors to talk about long after they leave.

Thank you Jeff for letting me be a part of your beautiful countryside idyll!  I can’t wait for next year……….

 

There is life after retail

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