The Kindling of a Flame

As a kid, I always loved the return to school every September. I missed a lot of my friends who I hadn’t seen all summer. I couldn’t wait to go out shopping for a new outfit for the first day with my mom. I knew that fall colours and Halloween were getting closer. But most of all, I loved the buzz of learning.

I started school a year earlier than most children because my brother, five years older than me, had been going to school for a while and I wanted to go too, pestering my parents enough that they finally gave in and found a private kindergarten run by nuns that was willing to take me on.

By grade one I’d taught myself how to read and was so excited to go to the big school with my brother, who I’d guess wasn’t tickled to have me in tow on the walk to and from. I loved grade one so much that I chattered constantly, until I was reprimanded by my teacher. On the flip side, I was a good reader, and several times during that season the school hauled me around to higher classes to read to them, which I thought was pretty cool but which likely didn’t impress the older kids who had to listen to it.

What I actually remember the most was sometimes going to the factory where my dad was a security guard. I’d do the rounds with him, at night when everything was shut down, and all the machinery, hulking and shadowed, was like an intriguing alien city. Machinery fascinates me to this day.

When I was six we moved to a farm in northern Ontario, where school became a wild adventure. Elementary school took place in a classic little brown one-roomed schoolhouse, heated by a wood stove.

Once paved roads were put in, the school districts were amalgamated and the old schoolhouse torn down – someone bought the property and built a home on it

Autumn was wonderful there, long walks to the school past our friends’ farms, surrounded by gorgeously-coloured trees and goldenrod waving along the roadside, the tang of woodsmoke scenting the cool fall air. I think that’s where I irrevocably fell in love with autumn.

Scenery for walking to school doesn’t get much better than this, still looking much the same as it did when I was a child[ my brother and I used to toboggan down that hlll

There was a crab apple tree flourishing in one corner of the school yard that provided ammunition for friendly wars during recess, and across the road a small hall that the school used for special projects and our annual Christmas ‘play’.

The little old hall still exists, with a fresh coat of paint

Winter presented a challenge, with several feet of snow blanketing the roads from November to April, and temperatures that could drop well below zero. Sometimes our teacher, who lived in a small town about 30 minutes away at the best of times, couldn’t make it to work, typically because ice had knocked out the bridge crossing the river that separated the wider world from our little hamlet, but just as often because we’d had a major snowfall and the roads were impassable from our farmhouses. One of our neighbours had a snowmobile, so sometimes he’d make the rounds picking us all up – I remember huddling in multiple layers of clothing against the extra chill from the wind in my face as we zipped over the snow.

Spring was always welcome, with sugaring season and the first bits of green peeking through the snow, although trips to town for groceries could be dicey with sudden flooding from snow melt. Summers were long and full of wildflowers, whip-poor-wills calling to each other at dusk, and swimming in a local lake.

It was a glorious place to be a child, entwined with nature and wildlife. I missed it desperately when we first moved to southern Ontario when I turned eight, but Halloween saved the day – I was finally old enough to go trick-or-treating without my parents, and we lived in a city where the houses with candy were all next to each other in walkable blocks instead of a quarter-mile apart. There was even a lady who made popcorn balls!

Since then I’ve never stopped learning. Travelling with my hubby, the whole world has become a fascinating classroom. Every culture has had something to teach us, and with each trip we’ve grown both personally and as global citizens. And we’ve had a blast doing it.

My mother-in-law for many years couldn’t understand what the appeal was; as part of the post-war generation, her vision of adult life was to settle down in a big house (with a big mortgage) and fill it with kids. But then she finally came with us to Europe, on a sort of ‘tale-of-two-cities’ adventure to London and Paris.

Houses of Parliament, London England

I still remember the look on her face when we took her to the massive Houses of Parliament overlooking the Thames in London – she was blown away by the age, the history and the incredible architecture. By the time we returned home – after exploring the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey and the British Museum, seeing Princess Diana’s gowns at Kensington Palace followed by delectable afternoon tea in the Orangerie, prowling through all the shopping halls of Harrod’s, watching street performers in Covent Garden and eating great home-cooked food in historic pubs, cramming in as much of the Louvre as we could before having afternoon tea in a Paris tea salon, looking at the grim prisoner cells at the Conciergerie and the medieval tapestries at the Cluny Museum, having chocolat chaud Viennoise piled with whipped cream on a blustery day at the Eiffel Tower and chocolate mousse at every bistro we visited, along with a superb cassoulet just down the street from our funky little boutique hotel in the Left Bank – she’d become an utter convert and couldn’t stop talking about the trip for months afterward.

Travel is one of the best educations available, but everything should remain a wonder and a gift to our minds, big or small. Never lose your curiosity and your willingness to invite something new into your brain – it’s what gives richness and stimulation to our lives. Don’t ever let your kindled flame go out.

To celebrate Labour Day this year, even though I’ve retired from full-time work at a local college and this fall have had no need for a new outfit to kick off the academic year (hey, any excuse for going shopping works for me), I cooked something nostalgic for dinner. Memories of food have always been tied to my learning adventures, whether it was trading lunch items in elementary school or sitting down for Sunday roasts on the weekend, dumping our pillowcase full of Halloween candy out on the carpet to sort through in order of desired eating, or having our first Chicken Satay in a little restaurant in the hills of Bali. My mom excelled at making meatloaf, so I tried out this online recipe from Bon Appetit, served with classic fluffy mashed potatoes, basic onion and mushroom gravy and some buttered tender-crisp asparagus. Perfect!

Stormy weather

Rain falling on a juniper branch

I love storms.

After my previous post about hurricanes and earthquakes, you might be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at that statement, but I grew up with storms, and I’ve always enjoyed both the drama and the feeling of being safely tucked inside my house.

As I write this post, there’s a fabulous summer thunderstorm raging around our community. The skies are dark, the rain is sheeting across the streets, and thunder is rattling the windows of our house.

Tornado warnings have been posted for parts of Ontario, and even though there isn’t one where I live, our area is prone to them and I have my Red Cross Alerts app updated to my current location.

The week that I’m writing this has been brutally hot and humid. I don’t do well under those conditions, and even though I’ve been hiding inside with the air conditioning, watching the televised drama of the Open Golf Championship, I’ve had a pounding migraine for three days. Today has been the worst – although my medications have blanketed the pain for now, I can feel it lurking like a monster waiting to pounce.

Since the storm hit, though, the pain has eased and the nausea has dissipated, which is often the case for migraine people – see, another reason to love storms!

Thunderstorms give me an excuse to light candles – just in case the power should go out, you understand. I’m sipping some light Keemun tea while I eat a few crackers with goat cheese and tomato slices to keep my stomach settled.

(On a side note, did you know that acidic or tart food is one of the best things to combat nausea? I learned this in Egypt from one of the staff in our hotel in Cairo, and while I wouldn’t recommend eating one of their very bitter lemons as I was told to do at the time, whenever I fly I always have a glass of tomato juice to ward off airplane sickness.)

We actually have a transformer on our street, and it has blown impressively a few times, plunging our entire neighbourhood into darkness until the city crews can fix it, so I do have reasonable cause to take lighting precautions.

My early childhood took place in Windsor, Ontario, which at the time had some deep (for a child) storm gutters, and after a good rain my mother would let me take my shoes off and wade in them. I could spend hours splashing about happily – cheap entertainment, and my mom had only to look out the door from time to time to see that I was okay.

When I was five we moved to northern Ontario, where the weather is extreme and spectacular. I can recall my dad having to pull the truck over to the side of the road many times when either fog blanketed the car or rain was falling so heavily that we quite literally couldn’t see anything beyond the front bumper. Our farm included a hill where the passing gravel road curved up and around, and the road surface could turn into a river of muck in minutes – we would see truckers try to make it up that hill, lose traction and slide backward to the flat part. My parents would invite them in for some hot coffee while they waited out the storm.

Winters meant several feet of snow on the ground consistently from November to March or April. Plows would come by from time to time, but all that snow had to be pushed aside somewhere, usually into ten-foot high drifts at the end of our long driveway. Temperatures could plummet far below zero – I remember a record-setting -42oF on one day, when no one went outside if at all possible (fortunately we didn’t have any farm animals to be concerned about, but I’m not sure what friends of ours did with their cows, horses and chickens).

Spring thaw was a relief, but it could be treacherous as all of that deep snow melted. A trip to town to buy groceries could be fine on the way in but impassable a couple of hours later if one of the small lakes along the roadside flooded over. I remember our parents taking my brother and me out into the bush for maple sugaring one weekend. The path through the woods crossed a fresh, cold rivulet of water on our way to the site. We spent several hours there watching the trees being tapped and the sap being boiled down in huge vats. By the time we decided to call it a day, though, the rivulet had turned into a rushing stream and my dad had to carry me safely to the other side.

By the time we moved back to southern Ontario the year I turned eight, my love of dramatic weather had become ingrained, which has turned out to be a good thing in light of the strange relationship my hubby and I have with it.

We almost got hit by lightning on a golf course once while we were still dating – we were being careful, waiting for the stormy weather to recede by the time we set out on the back nine. Thunder was rumbling faintly far in the distance when a lightning flash out of nowhere speared the stand of trees on the fringe of the hole we were playing. We instantly flattened ourselves on the ground for at least a minute and then grabbed our carts and fled back to the clubhouse as fast as we could.

Our first dating anniversary was celebrated during an unexpected blizzard. We’d just been seated at the restaurant when the power went out. A bottle of champagne held the fort while the management fired up an old wood-burning stove to cook everyone’s meals. Probably the most entertaining parts were visiting the bathrooms by the light of kerosene lamps as all that champagne got metabolized. The power came back on two hours later just as we were finishing our meal.

The list of our weather events is long and distinguished, so perhaps the universe is giving me treats from time to time.

lit candles on a fireplace mantle

The storm has ended. It’s still comfortably overcast outside, though – glaring sun and a migraine don’t go well together – and the heat has let up a little, with a nice breeze riffling through the trees. My headache is gone, at least for the time being, and I’m enjoying the respite however long it lasts.

I think I might go and make some dinner. Meanwhile, the candles are still flickering away in their holders around the house, because, well, you just never know…

Nostalgia – Childhood Homes

French River, October 2013 - photo by E Jurus
French River, October 2013 – photo by E Jurus

This Thanksgiving weekend Mike and I did a fall-colours road trip that began out of a desire to see the farm in northern Ontario that my family lived on for a few short years when I was a child.

There’s something about childhood homes, if the memories are largely happy ones, that always seems to draw us back. I think it’s because we’re in them during our formative years, when we create the most powerful memories.

Certainly as a child I loved living ‘up north’, and missed it terribly when we moved down to southern Ontario just in time for my 8th birthday.

We moved to northern Ontario to follow family friends who’d moved there a couple of years previously. My father was a very smart man with a strong entrepreneurial streak but not a great facility for making money. Coming from a European background where hunting was a long-standing tradition, he decided to open a pheasant-hunting farm in the tiny community of Kynoch, at that time about two hours west of Sudbury, where our friends had their own farm.

We drove through miles of wild forested land where the roads snaked through towering cliffs of granite. Once we left the Trans-Canada Highway, though, at the small town of Iron Bridge, we were really in the hinterland, bouncing up and down a steeply rolling dirt and gravel road about half-an-hour to where our farm was located.

Our farm was just around a bend in the road along a creek lined with alder trees. Our property covered both sides of the road – in the summertime my mom and I would go across to the other side to pick wild blueberries. We lived in a 2-story pink-sided farmhouse overlooking another winding creek; we had a barn that my dad painted with the lettering Sandhill Farms (for the sandhill cranes that migrated through the area), 2 large toolsheds (one of which became the brooding house with incubators for the pheasant chicks), an outhouse and a pump house (in those days no one had running water or indoor plumbing), hollyhocks out front and a long curved driveway where I first learned to ride a bike.

Northern Ontario was a spectacular place to be a kid, but I don’t think it was an easy life for my parents. The weather was often lovely – fresh clean air, a dry climate and lots of sunshine – but when it decided to raise a tantrum, the results were dramatic. I remember torrential rain and fog so heavy we couldn’t see past the hood of our truck, snow several feet thick from mid-autumn to late April that blanketed the countryside and sometimes made going to school impossible, winter temperatures that dipped as low as 42oF below zero. There were also a wide variety of biting insects that all loved to eat me, although they didn’t bother my brother very much – so much for equality in genetics!

But there were long twilights when my friends and I would walk barefoot through the dewy fields for miles, breathtaking fall colours lining the winding road that my brother and I walked to school every day, building huge and elaborate snow forts in the winter, the scent of wood smoke in the air, swimming in a clear cold lake for hours after which we all had coffee from a thermos and Spam sandwiches. At dusk the whip-poor-wills would make their eerie calls, and many times we’d spot white-tailed deer bounding away into the woods as we drove along the roads.

I wasn’t sure what I’d still find there on our adventure last weekend. Mike and I have driven up there before, although not for many years, and I knew that our farmhouse had at some point been demolished and a small log home put up in its place.

The old one-room schoolhouse had long since disappeared and a small house erected; the road had been roughly paved and many of the dramatic rises and falls had been smoothed out. When we lived there we had access to only two television stations, but in the intervening years satellite dishes had begun to sprout on the farmhouses.

Fabulous picnic with pumpkin whoopee pies - photo by E Jurus
Fabulous picnic with pumpkin whoopee pies – photo by E Jurus

Mike and I set out before dawn on a very foggy morning, stopping at French River just like my family used to do on our trips to visit our friends after we moved down to the Niagara region. The old picnic tables and roadside rest area have been replaced by a provincial park area that includes quite a trek to get the river, but we spread a plaid blanket on some rocks overlooking the river and had our breakfast baguettes with a thermos of hot tea, followed by some wonderful gluten-free pumpkin whoopee pies.

We ran in to quite a bit of construction the further north we got, but the fall colours were spectacular. We stopped in the town of Blind River, where my family used to go about once a month to get groceries, and I think it’s gotten smaller rather than larger. Certainly the hospital where I had my tonsils out has been replaced by a smallish health centre. The town of Iron Bridge, where we turned off onto RR 554, has so little left that it’s almost non-existent.

But, oh the feeling as we drove along 554 through the brilliantly coloured trees! We stopped at Little White River, where my dad would often take us to swim among the rocks, and the old church and graveyard are still next to it. Our old farm, just down the road, looks very much the same, although all the outbuildings are collapsed – but the views up the hillside where the road swings left are the same, and the small alder trees still line the creek.

Many of the old families are still living in the same farmhouses, judging by the names on the  mailboxes at the edges of the road. Across from where the schoolhouse stood, there’s still a hall where our entire school, all 8 rows of us, put on a Christmas concert for our families. Our friends’ farmhouse is still there, if looking a bit creaky.

After taking lots of pictures, we continued onward to the junction with the road to Thessalon, where we turned right to go to Cumming Lake, the chilly source of our summer swimming adventures, and I was able to find the exact same spot where we used to hike in from the road, although the sandy beach has since been inundated; it was already receding when we lived there. I dipped my fingers in the water and remembered happy times paddling around on old inner tubes.

View up the hill from our farmhouse - photo by E Jurus
View up the hill from our farmhouse – photo by E Jurus

They say you can’t go back, but I did, and because I had no expectations of finding much of anything the same, what I did find was an absolute delight. It was a wonderful trip down memory lane, and made me recall just why I missed the area so much after we moved. Not sure I could do the long winters again, though, so I’ll just have my photos and memories to enjoy, along with any further trips back in the future.