musings from Canadian author Cheryl Cooke Harrington ... home of The Write Spot

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

a tree worth hugging...

"I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree."* Yes, it's true. I'm a tree hugger. I've always felt a deep affinity for anything with branches. But there's a special place in my heart reserved for one particular spruce – the heroic tree that saved my family's home.

It was a sticky-hot afternoon in the summer of 1985. My three young sons and I were picking peas in our farm garden when a fierce and unexpected storm blew in across the fields. We ran for the house with rain pelting our backs. Wind ripped the door from my hands as we struggled to get inside, and then slammed the door behind us with an angry gust. We stood gasping and dripping in the middle of the room as the storm raged around us, rattling windows and battering the shingles until our little house trembled like leaves on an aspen. When the first flash of lightning split the suddenly dark sky, the answering boom of thunder seemed ominously close.

Photo by Brandon Morgan via Unsplash

The kids were frightened and so was I – I've never liked thunderstorms and this one was a doozie. But I pasted on what I hoped was a brave face, gathered them close, and told them not to worry, we would keep each other safe. I had barely formed the words when a flash of dazzling blue light and a massive BANG-crack assaulted our senses. The air around us seemed to sizzle, our ears popped, and the hairs on our arms prickled to attention. In one surreal moment, the plastic thermostat casing flew off the wall and struck my eldest son in the forehead. A trickle of blood leaked from his wound as we stood there, trembling and holding each other tight. A final gust of wind rattled the windows and the storm roared away as quickly as it had arrived.

After a quick head check and a Band-Aid for number one son, the four of us ventured outside. Instead of the usual after-storm freshness, the sharp tang of burnt wood filled the air. Lightning had found the highest point on the farm: one of three mature spruce trees in the yard. That poor tree was split from top to bottom. Wisps of smoke rose from the jagged scar and charred wood chips littered the lawn. Electricity had run to ground through the tree's roots, jumped to the plumbing that crossed the yard from well to house, burned out the water pump in the basement, and then surged through the electrical system to launch the freaky flying thermostat.

We'd had a close call. I'll always be grateful to that majestic spruce for taking the hit, because the second highest point on the farm – mere feet away from the tree – was the chimney on the roof of our beautiful little house.

Harrington House in Box Grove, Ontario circa 1990
Painting by Jorge Nascimento

I don't have a photo of my heroic spruce to share but I hope you'll enjoy this slideshow of other trees I've loved. Click on the player to start/advance the show.


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*Poem fragment from Trees by Joyce Kilmer.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Guest Post: A Special Chemistry

Guest author Sandra Carey Cody writes about the bond between people and their pets…

When Cheryl invited me to share a pet memory for her blog, I was delighted. It seemed such an easy thing to write about. It didn’t turn out quite that way. How do you choose a single memory out of years of pet love? Which pet do you write about? They’re all special in their own way and they’ve all added something special to our lives. I have wonderful memories of each of my pets, from my first dog, a mixed-breed I named Fancy Ann, through the snakes and other exotic creatures our younger son was always bringing home, to Missy, the rescued road-drop cat, who brings such joy to our empty nest these days.

The chemistry between humans and animals is a mysterious thing, a connection that seems to bring out the best in all of us.

When our children were growing up, our family did a lot of camping. For us, it was the perfect vacation. It was affordable. The kids (two boys Mark Twain would have loved) could experience the world in a way they only glimpsed in our suburban neighborhood. Equally important, we could include Lance, our pet-in-residence for many of those years. Lance was an energetic, half Irish/half English Setter who remained a puppy all his life.

One summer we were camping in Florida, near the beach at Pensacola. After our site was pretty much in order, my husband, Pete, took Lance for a walk. The boys stayed with me, ostensibly to help, but really to give Pete a chance to scope out the area and make sure it was safe for them to explore. Turns out, it wasn’t. There were multiple signs warning campers to stay on the trails. These, of course, meant nothing to a dog. Luxuriating in the wealth of enticing unfamiliar scents, despite Pete’s best efforts to rein him in, Lance poked his nose into the undergrowth at the side of every trail. After one such foray, he yelped, jumped back and began shaking his head like crazy. Pete barely had time to see a long, thin shape fly off into the brush, but it was long enough for him know that a rattlesnake had had its fangs in our dog’s nose.

You’ve probably all been there in one way or another – a vacation just begun – and a catastrophe. What to do?

Pete found the ranger, who gave him the number of a veterinarian, but by the time he was able to reach the vet (this was long before cell phones came into being), close to an hour had elapsed – enough time that he was told there was probably nothing we could do at this point. We’d have to wait and see. So the long night began. Lance’s nose swelled up like a small melon and he didn’t have to be coaxed to stay quietly by our side. It was a quiet we (especially I) usually longed for, but this time, it was not welcome. The next twelve hours were filled with both hope and dread. Lest you’re worried, I’ll tell you now – the story has a happy ending. Lance woke up the next morning none the worse for his misadventure.

The bright side to the story and one reason it remains so vividly alive for me, aside from Lance surviving, is the way other campers reacted. Campgrounds are like small towns. The kids get to know each other almost immediately and news spreads like campfires left unattended. Even before Pete was able to reach the vet, the other campers knew our dog had been bitten by a rattlesnake. All night, people, young and old, dropped by with treats for him - steak bones with lots of meat left on, bits of chicken carefully scraped off the bone, you name it - anything a big, foolhardy dog might like. Everyone offered their best wishes, some with tears in their eyes. The next morning, they all dropped by to check on Lance and all seemed genuinely happy to hear that he was alive and well.

I don’t think I’ve ever gotten to know so many strangers so quickly – all because of that mysterious chemistry between people and their pets. It’s a bond we all can relate to.

I’d love to share a picture of Lance, but it was so long ago, the only photos we have are dog-eared (sorry) and blurry. Maybe you’d like to see a picture of Missy, the current love of our life, who considers herself a mighty hunter - or one of David (the son who dragged home all the exotic pets) with Badger, his devoted Jack Russell.

Missy - mighty hunter!

Badger the Jack Russell Terrier with David, his human.

What a wonderful story, Sandra – thanks so much for sharing it with us and thank goodness it all worked out for Lance.

Readers, please click through to Sandra's Write Spot interview to meet the woman behind the words and take a peek at where she works her writing magic. You can also visit Sandra at, at her blog, Birth of a Novel, and on social media at Twitter and Facebook

Lethal Journal, the fifth and latest in Sandra's Jennie Connors Mystery series is available now. I love mysteries and thoroughly enjoyed this one. Here's my review

Jennie has been promoted out of the job she loves. But there's one thing she wants to do before she moves into her new position: Jake Appleton, known throughout Riverview as Sour Appleton, needs to be integrated into the retirement community's social life. It won't be easy.

Jake spends his days alone, staring out the window and mumbling that the world is full of crooks. Has he witnessed wrongdoing in the construction project going on outside his window? Or is he looking back over his own life. Jake's not telling. He shares his thoughts only in his journal.

Jennie doesn't give up - and, finally, one morning Jake surprises her. He taps the journal, says "it's all in here" and agrees to talk to her later that afternoon.

But someone else gets there first. Jennie finds Jake with a bullet in his head. The journal is gone - and Jennie is determined to find it and solve the puzzle of a lonely old man and restore peace of mind to the residents she loves. If you've read any of the other Jennie Connors books, you won't be surprised to learn that the residents insist on becoming involved.

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Wednesday, September 07, 2016

school dazed...

On a scale of one to ten, where ten meant "favourite thing ever" and one meant "bane of my existence", school consistently ranked a lowly one or two in my books. Sometimes it managed to slide right on down into negative numbers. Mine was a passionate aversion. So intense that, even now, decades after leaving the hallowed halls forever, I'm still haunted by the icy fingers of anxiety at this time of year.

Suddenly I'm five years old again, horrified by the fading summer, by the looming menace of the great unknown, by… The First Day of School. The situation required a firm stand. "No school for me," I told Mom and Dad. "I don't want to." It may have been more like foot stamping than firm standing.

My parents, bless them, tried gentle encouragement and even a bit of bribery. They said I'd make lots of new friends. ("Don't want new friends. I'm shy."). They hinted at wonderful new toys and games to play. ("I like my toys.") They promised I'd love my teacher. (I won't! She's mean!) They offered new shoes and a pretty new outfit. (Tempting, but… "I won't go and you can't make me!")

I can only imagine how exasperated they must have been when, after weeks of cajoling, they finally resorted to, "Enough! You have to go to school. It's the law." 

I consulted the neighbour kids, Linda and Billy. Older than me and wise in the ways of school and the law, they filled my head with whispered tales of truant officers and reform school – a dismal place with bars on the windows and stale bread with tepid water for dinner.

And so, on a fateful September Tuesday, I marched (not so) bravely up the street, wearing my crisp white blouse, swishy plaid skirt, and shiny new shoes. Mom pep-talked me all the way to school, holding tight to my hand in case I might bolt for home. I didn't want to cry, but by the time we reached the school yard, my face was wet with tears and each breath came in a tight sob. 

Life as I knew it was over.

Norway Public School, circa 1955 | Public Domain photo
courtesy Toronto Public Library Archives

The hallways at Norway Public School smelled of paste and paint, of ink and floor wax (and sometimes, I soon discovered, of wet wool, old shoes, and sweaty boys). My first-day strategy was to look forlorn and say absolutely nothing. Between that and the floods of tears I couldn't seem to control, I figured they'd soon realize I didn't belong at school and send me home forever. It didn't quite work out that way.

The teacher, whose name remains a blank spot in my memory, tactfully ignored my streaming tears and sniffles, distracting me with a brand new box of crayons and a big sheet of construction paper. I didn't want to like her. I tried really, really hard not to like her. But when she admired my first drawing, I had to admit that perhaps she wasn't so mean after all. And when she pinned my drawing to the wall beside her desk, I might even have thought she was nice. But I still didn't want to be at school.

Recreation of my vividly remembered first drawing.

Being painfully shy, not to mention being the girl who cried, invariably meant I was last to be chosen for games of Red Rover or baseball. This wasn't entirely a bad thing – Red Rover scared me and baseball was downright dangerous on the cinder-covered schoolyard. I was happiest when I could avoid being chosen at all.

One of the big grade two boys liked to follow us younger kids around, 'accidentally' bump into us, and then steal our recess snacks. I had the scabby knees and cinder scars to prove it. My eventual revenge, though unintentional, was sweet.

Back in those days, I had a great little dog named Cookie. Every morning I'd tuck a Spratt's Oval dog biscuit into my jacket pocket as a special after school treat for her. One day bully-boy caught me checking it out and ran across the playground to confront me. I shoved the little biscuit back into my pocket.

"What'cha got there?" He grabbed my arm and fished out the biscuit. "Hiding a cookie, eh?"

I almost spoke. Almost told him it wasn't a cookie…

"Mine now," he said, and popped it into his mouth, crunching it up as he strutted away. And then he stopped, doubled over, and vomited on his shoes. 

I guess that can happen when you're expecting sweet ginger but get charcoal and liver instead. The bully never bothered me again. But I still didn't want to be at school.

Eventually I managed to get my tears under control (mostly) and by grade one I even worked up a smile in time for the class photo. But I still didn't want to be at school.

I was one of those kids who managed to catch every bug that made the rounds. For me, the best parts of the school year were those quiet days at home where Mom would install me on the living room sofa with colouring books, ginger ale, and green Jell-O to help me feel better. I liked it so much that I always stayed sick for a few days longer than was strictly necessary. If there was no bug making the rounds at school, I'd invent one. I even devised a way to make the thermometer read a few degrees higher than the truth when pulled from beneath my tongue. (My method remains a secret to this day, lest I corrupt a new generation of slackers!) 

In later years, I spent those lovely sick days lost in library books – Swallows and Amazons, Anne of Green Gables, and more. Somehow, despite many absences, I managed not only to pass every grade but to do so with report cards full of As and Bs. Of course, the teacher comment line always included some variation of, "Cheryl needs to work on her social skills." Followed by, "She has a vivid imagination." Tsk. Of course I had a vivid imagination. I spent most of my happy time hanging out there!

Everything changed in grade seven. I was packed off to a new school and a new class for bright, alternative learners – an experimental class that might, it was hoped, bring me out of my shell. (It didn't seem to matter that I quite liked my shell.)

Surprise number one: my new teacher was a man! I was terrified of Mr. Gibson for the first five minutes and, like everyone else in the class, a little bit in love with him ever after. And the surprises just kept coming. 

Mr. Gibson took us to visit his mother who demonstrated weaving on a gigantic loom in her attic. He introduced us to musical theatre with a trip to see The Mikado and follow-up singalongs of Gilbert and Sullivan patter. He brought fresh oysters and raw turnip to class and lined us all up for taste tests. (I liked the turnip but managed to stay at the end of the line until … uh-oh, no more oysters, oh well.)

Mr. Gibson didn't believe in exams. When we took tests, text books were always left open around the room and we were free to look things up. We rarely did. He encouraged us to experiment with science, art, and literature; to work in teams and form new friendships. I met a kindred spirit in that class – Kate, who remains my best friend after all these years. Most important of all, Mr. Gibson taught us to think for ourselves and then to be brave enough to say what we thought. We would've done just about anything for him. 

Unfortunately, most of the parents – my own included – thought Mr. Gibson was doing everything wrong, turning their sweet, bidable children into outspoken little monsters. His great experiment lasted only one year, but I was a part of it. And for the first and only time in my life, I wanted to be at school. Mr. Gibson, if you're still out there… thanks for the very best of times.

So, reader, are you a school lover or loather? Let me know in the comments. (But if you think you know how I spoofed the thermometer, best keep it to yourself. We wouldn't want to start an epidemic.)

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Postscript: I've just discovered that a young friend of mine had his first day of Junior Kindergarten yesterday at – you guessed it – Norway Public School! Today's Norway is a very different place from the old school I knew. The creepily Gothic building is gone and so are the dreadful cinders in the yard. Also gone are the first-day jitters and tears. My young friend looked forward to school all summer and, judging by the photos shared by his proud parents, he couldn't be happier there. And you know, after writing it all down I'm feeling a little better about the whole school experience myself. (But I still don't want to be there.)

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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

mystery in my history...

I keep an antique chest beside my bed. It's small – only eight by twelve inches and five inches deep – and it's showing its age with bumps and scars. Even so, it's a real beauty, hand crafted from dark burled wood with mother-of-pearl inlay on the top and around the key hole. 

A hand lettered card glued inside the lid reads:

M. S. Gainfort
from I. Sawyer

I'll probably never know who I. Sawyer was. That detail is lost to the mists of time. But M. S. Gainfort was Margaret Susan, my maternal great-grandmother. I imagine she thought the beautifully polished box was a very fine gift. For me, though, the real treasures are the bits and pieces of history that dwell inside. Some of those bits and bobs have been puzzling me for a very long time. These, for instance... 

Puzzling bits and bobs. (Quarter included for scale.)

I remember how thrilling it was as a child to be allowed a peek inside that box. I loved the tiny boot with its secret compartment. What, I wondered, had the owner been able to hide in such a small space? A banded wood cylinder revealed another small hiding spot. Very odd. And what about the chunk of quartz? It looked like a stone I might find on the beach but... was that real, honest-to-goodness gold glistening on its surface? Most intriguing of all was the weird glass ball with numbers all around. Was there a Victorian era version of Dungeons and Dragons? Somehow I couldn't imagine great-grandma in the role of dungeon master.

Last week I peeked inside the box again and decided to do a bit of sleuthing. It's true what they say. You really can find everything on the Internet. Here's what I discovered...

My cute little boot with its secret compartment is probably a Georgian era snuff box. Snuff box collectors have pinned thousands of images at Pinterest, some of them incredibly ornate. Shoes were a popular shape and I spotted quite a few similar to this one. Mystery solved. (I'm left to wonder... who was the snuff user?)

I'd long suspected this little container may have held pencil leads. Research suggests I'm right. Some similar containers were large enough to hold a small mechanical pencil as well as spare leads.

Did I strike it rich or not? Alas, everything I found makes me think this is iron pyrite or fool's gold, not the real deal. Of course, the only way to be absolutely sure is to have it tested. I think I'll put it back in the box and let the dream live on.

Turns out this little Czechoslovakian crystal ball with its thirty-two numbered faces does exactly what you'd expect a crystal ball to do. It's a fortune teller. This was definitely a surprise and the best discovery of all, but I sure wish great-grandma had saved the instructions.

I managed to find a few photos of partial instruction sheets online and decided to give it a try. I chose "surprise" and rolled a nine. My fortune said:

"An old bag or trunk holds a hidden fortune for you."

Excuse me while I retrieve that hunk of quartz with the solid gold veins. I think I'd better take it to the bank.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Guest Post: a day in Venice...

One of the Big Things on my ever-growing retirement wish list is travel. Faraway places beckon: Cornwall, Paris, Maui... So many choices! No doubt I'll eventually drag myself out of the wishful/dreaming stage and take off. Meanwhile, I'm enjoying my 'staycation' while feeding my wanderlust with the photos and journals of traveling friends. Here's Ian McCallum's tale of a day spent walking through Venice. Enjoy!

* * *

It is morning, a bright, sunny, cloudless morning. I take the bus from my hotel in Mestre to the bus terminal in Venice. Venice, ancient city of wood, brick and stone, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Byzantine styles, and there before me, a bridge, a bridge to the train station, a bridge by... Calatrava. Santiago Calatrava. A modern master! A clean curving arch of bronze, marble, glass and steel, its structure like a spine, metal intertwined, almost organic.

I cross.

I walk along the Grand Canal, its ancient stone borders wearing away from the waves produced by the constant traffic. 

The Grand Canal, loud, crowded, a mass of Gondolas, water taxis, boats of all descriptions, horns, bells, birds, a cacophony of sound reflecting off the centuries old structures. The path ends. I walk through the side streets. Stone paving, sometimes modern interlock, sometimes granite, worn, no longer even. The Doges walked these streets for over a thousand years. I have yet to see a street that runs straight for more than a few hundred feet. They twist, they turn, there is a maze of side passages, thoroughfares that may be twenty feet wide and lined with shops, to passages that are barely wide enough for two to pass. Sometimes they end, at a wall, at a canal, I must retrace my steps. 

I turn a corner, a piazza, at the end, a church, crumbling, the limestone and marble details blurred, sometimes indiscernible, I enter, there are carved marble columns in every style imaginable, in every colour, in every variety. The walls, the ceilings covered in frescoes, icons, statuary, relics everywhere. I go on. 

I walk along a narrow passage, at the end stairs, rising to the left, at an angle, straight ahead, a wall. I climb the stairs, over a canal, and down the other side to another alley, they do not line up, the stairs connect the ancient passageways. 

Another corner, the Rialto Bridge. The oldest bridge over the canal. First built of wood in 1181 it was reconstructed over the years. The present bridge, stone, built in 1591 has a central pediment at the peak of the arch, two lines of shops with a central passageway, and passageways on either side. I pause for the obligatory pictures.

Continuing on, more twists, more turns. Churches, monuments, homes, shops, never knowing what is around the next corner, the next bend. Sometimes a vista across the Grand Canal bathed in sunlight, the temperature in the 30s (90s), sometimes in a narrow passageway, cool, damp, encased by decaying brick, the only light from the clear blue sky glimpsed above the walls 3, 4, 5 stories tall.

Church bells.

Close by.

In the distance.

It is Sunday.

Everywhere, church bells.

Another turn, a tree filled park, birds chirping, once again alongside the Grand Canal. It is bordered by a large building and beyond, rising over the rooftops, the Campanile, icon of Piazza San Marco. At the entrance to the Square, two columns, in honour of St Mark and St Theodoro, patrons of the city. To the right The Doges Palace, beyond, St Mark's Basilica, straight ahead The Clock Tower. the square is a seething mass of humanity... and pigeons! I walk beyond the clock tower. A somewhat narrow street, lined with shops, rays of sunlight descend from above. In the distance, singing, chanting. A religious group walking through the streets. I move on.

I walk. I walk through more narrow corridors. Past more churches. Through many squares. I walk along a sun drenched street. It is interrupted by a canal. A narrow canal. Sunlit. Gondolas. Gondoliers singing, accompanied by accordions.

I am walking alongside a canal. Three, four story buildings line the street. In one, a passageway. Outstretched arms can almost touch the walls. Raised hand can almost touch the ceiling. The walls dark, damp brick. Embedded in one wall two columns, a beam. Wood. Rough. Lightly dusted with the white hairs of fungi. On the wall a sign… The Gheto.

The Ghetto?

I discover that 'gheto' is a Venetian word adopted into English.

I walk in.

Narrow passageway.

Long, narrow passageway.

It opens to a small square.

On one side, a Synagogue. On the opposite side another. The other sides are residential buildings. Tall buildings. Many floors. The ceiling heights are lower than most. A lot of humanity in little space. There is a memorial on one Synagogue wall. I continue on. A larger square. Sunlit. Open. A tree in the centre. On the far side wall I see bronze plaques. The wall is brick, old brick, there are doors, they are steel, old steel, heavy steel. On top of the wall, wire, rows of wire, barbed wire. 

The plaques? A memorial. To the holocaust, to the memory of those who were sent out from The Ghetto. In the square, near the memorial, a large booth, a manned booth, by the police, 24/7, because... in this day and age... they are needed... to protect those who live, those who live in The Ghetto.

I leave.

I walk to the Calatrava bridge.

The sun sets.

Ian A McCallum is a Canadian horticulturalist, educator, and enthusiastic world traveler. Find him on Facebook

All photos ©Ian A McCallum, used with permission.

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