Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Maria’s Chickens.

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I love my daily lunch-hour walks along the country road that leads to the Agency. It’s a sweet time of solitude, relaxation and physical activity. It’s also a walking meditation. For that reason alone, I do my best to incorporate these walks into my workday. And for a city girl, with a rural sedentary job, they are also a lifesaver.

There are many things that I have grown to love about these pastoral walks. Like the smell of fresh-cut hay. Or the magnificence of an eagle perched on the top branch of a Douglas fir. The admirable tenacity of the sheep and goats that feed non-stop in the meadows. The explicitness in the demanding calls of the ravens. The comic relief of the quails scurrying across the road in uniform perfection. The dear beautiful deer. The blackberry bushes that line the road and provide a sweet treat along the way. The two majestic horses always grazing in the buttercup field. The cuteness overload from the Cocker Spaniel rescue haven. The tranquil beauty of the horticulture center at the bend in the road. The canopied chip paths that lead into the dark woods. The fragrant smell in the air after a summer rain.

And then there are Maria’s hens. They are an absolutely fabulous flock of girls. They’re the Girl Warriors of Chickendom. I’ve gotten to know them (and their rooster) pretty well over the last 9 years. In reality they probably aren’t the original group I first met 9 years ago but to me, in my little fantasy world, they most certainly are. In my defense, I’ve read that well-raised chickens in backyard settings can live 8 to 10, even 20 years. So what the hell, they could be. Besides reality sucks anyway. And Maria’s chickens live an enviable idyllic blissful life. Things looks so good, I’ve even fantasized about hopping the fence and joining this little brood of sociable cluckers.

I adore these girls. Crazy admission perhaps. But I do. They’ve completely changed my perspective on this particular fowl. Although they have done nothing to improve my foul mouth, after 9 years I do have new and improved outlook, a birds-eye view perhaps. And I can say without hesitation that they are the highlight of my daily walks. They are an endless source of amusement, fascination, curiosity and delight. I am grateful for their unassuming presence along the road.

They are the reason I stopped eating chicken. This country walk, and a Paul McCartney concert in April, also inspired me to stop eating cows and pigs. I never have eaten lambs or goats or anything wild. But let me make something perfectly clear, I’m not a vegetarian or a vegan but I am heading towards that path. I get it. Plus, my love for animals is making it increasingly difficult to eat the flesh of another. I’m not saying it’s a better way, the right way; it’s just my way. Kind of like that Frank Sinatra song.

This week I’m especially thankful for the their eggs. Maria’s hens produce the best eggs along the road. Or so I’ve heard from the good folks who live along the road and have done taste tests. I have only eaten eggs from Maria’s girls. Why go elsewhere when you’ve already experienced perfection, I say.

Besides, I will not be disloyal to the Girl Warriors of Chickendom.

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Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: The Orange Swivel Rocking Chair by the Window.

Pregnant with Daughter Number One. Great expectations in the tweed version.

I like to stare out the window.  It’s a relaxing and meditative diversion.  Some people experience this by looking heavenward to the stars.  Or by sitting in front of an aquarium filled with exotic tropical fish.  Others like to watch the tides roll in.  But I’m a window gazer.  A peaceful tranquility washes over me whenever I sit in front of a window.  And look out.

Little back story.  In our house at 204 there was always a chair in front of the living room window.  Or at least from the time the house was renovated and a large picture window replaced the small wartime paned version.  This window cried out for a comfy chair and a place to watch the world outside.  With this in mind, Ma arranged the furniture so that there was always such a chair. And within arms reach, the treasured pedestal table with its sundry potted plants over the years, and always a coaster conveniently placed to support a cup of tea or coffee, glass of milk or Pepsi.

Daughter Number One liked to window gaze too.

It wasn’t exactly a big world to gaze upon. Not like looking up at the infinite sky on a clear August night.  But it was my world for many years.  This was the cherished spot where I honed my observational deftness.  Even long after I had flown the nest I loved to return to the chair by the window.  To daydream.  To reflect.  Or rest.  Often to recover from the battlefield of life.

Over the years, several different chairs occupied the space next to the window.  They all had a few things in common.  First and foremost, the color orange was represented in them somewhere.  Solid, tweed, plaid or striped.  Ma used to say that she loved color and she wasn’t kidding.  And when it came to decorating our living room, orange was undeniably her color of choice.  Something I never fully appreciated until I looked at Ma’s albums filled with scads of photos of family and friends taken on the various chairs.  Not only orange chairs.  But Curtains.  Lampshades.  And wall to wall carpet.  It was a dizzying sea of riotous color.   Autumn lived perpetually in our living room.

On the outside Ma was a quiet, soft-spoken demure woman.  But if a person’s color preference reveals anything about their true character, than Ma’s interior spaces were filled with fire, passion and fervency.  She was a courageous artist fearlessly expressing herself in the boldest of possible ways.  Orange.

The First Born having a snack in the striped version.

This common thread of orange aside, these chairs all rocked and swiveled.  This made them very practical because you could position them in any direction depending on the need.  They provided a 360 degree panorama of our downstairs.  Swivel slight to the left for television viewing.  To the centre back and you could watch all the kitchen activities, in particular Ma cooking up something spectacular.  To the right and you could engage in lively conversation with whomever was on the couch.  And centre front, there was the view of our street.

These chairs were also enormously fun.  Swivel and rock in a full circle. One way and then the other.  They turned us all into whirling dervishes.  Spinning tops.  Every bit as good as the old leather and chrome stools at the food counter in the basement restaurant at Eaton’s.  Giggles and glee.  Tee-hee!  Plus, they were all so comfortable you never wanted to leave.  No matter what was going on in my life, whenever I sat in the orange chair  by the window everything was right with the world.

In truth, there wasn’t a whole lot to see out of that window.  Mostly just the houses across the street.  The mauve lilac that grew on the edge of our lawn next to the lumpy sidewalk and the Manitoba Maple on the boulevard.  I watched it grow from a tiny sapling to a magnificent old sentry watching over our little wartime house.  In summer it shaded our front yard.  In fall it graced us with glorious red, orange and yellow leaves that danced and quivered in the wind.  In winter it held strong and steady while the snow collected on its barren branches.  In spring came the buds of hope and great expectations.

One summer the city added cement curbs and paved the street.  We were delighted to say goodbye to the pot holes and annual tarring of our road.  I have to admit though that the smell of tar triggers happy memories of childhood summers.   It’s right up there with the scent of Coppertone, freshly mowed lawns, wild roses and hot rubber hoses.

The First Born sharing the plaid version with The Old Man.

One of my fondest memories is from the winter.  I was home visiting over the Christmas holidays with my two older kids in tow.  It was a large blue sky afternoon.  The kind that only Northwestern Ontario can produce.  Nothing quite like it anywhere I’ve been.  On this particular afternoon Ma got a call from her sister Hazel to go over to the mall for the afternoon.  Ma rarely turned down an opportunity to go for an outing.  It didn’t really matter where.  I sat in the orange swivel rocking chair by the window and watched Ma as she stood in the driveway waiting for her sister to come pick her up.  The snow was crisp and clean. The snow banks were so high on either side of the window that they dwarfed Ma’s already small frame.  She was wearing her gray fake fur coat.  I don’t know what animal it was imitating.  Her purse was draped across her chest.  While she was waiting she traced the snow with the toe of her boot like a windshield wiper.  Back and forth.  Every now and then she would pause and look down the street for Auntie Hazel’s car.  Her cheeks were blushed red from the cold air and her dark eyes were so bright and alive.  I had to remind myself that she was in her seventies.  She looked like a young girl.  Full of life and eagerness.  I will always remember her that way.  And how the sight of her touched my heart with such tenderness.

Ma enjoying a moment of relaxation in the solid version.

In my room, the place where I write and dream, my computer sits in front of the window overlooking our beautifully imperfect garden, which is green and lush at the moment. Teeming with birds, squirrels and dragonflies, the occasional deer, raccoon, duck or heron.  When I window gaze here I also see another time and place.  I’m transported to an orange swivel rocking chair that sits by a picture window.  It hugs me.  It holds me when my heart is heavy.  It comforts me when I’m full of fear and lost all hope.  It rocks and swivels me to a place of peace.  I see the street where I grew up.  Played scrub ball.  Rode my bike. Scraped my knee.  Ran under the sprinkler.  Sat on the neighbors front step and shared a first kiss.  I see the place under the maple tree where I sat in the shade and drank Pepsi.  I see the tarry road and the dreams of other roads to travel.  I see The Old Man tending to his garden.  Raking leaves.  Shoveling snow.  Blowing his nose in a big white cotton hanky.  I see Ma waiting for Auntie Hazel.  I see God’s hand reaching out and touching all of it with wonder and grace.  I see love in the large blue sky.  I am cradled in my mother’s arms.

Diaries of the Breadman’s Daughter: Regrets, Do-overs and the Night My Dog Died.

Andy hated having to wear the dreaded “cone.”

I have regrets.  Probably more than I care to admit, or face.  I’m not one of those people who boldly declare, “I regret nothing.”  I don’t necessarily wallow in them like a drunk on the bar stool, but they do exist and suffice to say, are now part of my DNA.  I don’t judge but I do acknowledge.

One of my biggest regrets, and the author of my sadness, is that I wasn’t with my mother when she died.  I was there a few hours beforehand but not at the moment she left.  That was over a decade ago and I pined for a do-over, an opportunity to hold her hand, say one last good-bye and bear witness to her presence and her passing.  And until last September I thought this was just the wishful thinking of a heartbroken daughter.  But in a peculiar and unexpected way I got my do-over.

Little back story:  On those rare occasions when Ma went to her Dark Place she would refer to herself as a dog.  “I feel like a dog,” she’d say.  Ma wasn’t one to feel sorry for herself, but we all go there at times and she was no exception.  Although I heard her sorrowful dog Mantra and even took it to heart at times, I also dismissed it as crazy-talk, and never really gave it much energy nor validation.

Then I fell in love.  At first sight.  With Andy.  He was a dog.  Really.  Literally.  A long haired Jack Russell. Not since the dog of my childhood, Sugar Miettinen, had I loved a creature so.  He was heavenly.  Divine.  A wonder.  And I loved him. We got him the year after Ma died.  We responded to an ad in our little neighborhood weekly that said something like “male Jack Russell, 12 weeks old, last one of the litter.”  By the time my husband, daughter and I arrived at the farm where he had spent his first weeks of life, we had him named and our hearts were spilling over with dreams.  On the way home, I happily joked that it wouldn’t have mattered how much he cost, because I knew the minute I laid eyes on him, he was coming home with me.

Our daughter was nine at the time.  Years before, we had promised her that when we bought a house we would get her a puppy.  We were diehard renters and had cats because for some reason they were more “landlord-friendly,” which is, among other things, a testimony to the intelligence and cunning of the feline persuasion.  When Ma and The Old Man died, I inherited a small amount of money, enough for a down payment on our home.  A month after we moved in, so did Andy.

He took over the house and our hearts.  He was brilliant that way.  I expected him to be around for at least twenty years like Sugar Miettinen and Dee Dee, the country and western cat.  Both lived extraordinary wonderful lives.  I used to brag that my pets lived long. I had this naive notion that my love was the secret sauce, the reason for their inexplicable longevity. I was wrong.

At the beginning of September, while my husband was on the East Cost, thousands of miles away burying his father, Andy got sick.  At first I thought he had “the bloat.”  This was something I discovered on the internet after hours of research the night I noticed his stomach was swollen and he was having trouble breathing.  It was serious but not necessarily life threatening.  It was, however, enough to scare the bejesus out of my daughter and myself.  We wrapped a blanket around him and piled into my sister’s car.  I called her because I couldn’t think straight, much less drive.  My brain was consumed by “the bloat.”  By now it was well after ten o’clock so our only recourse was to take him to an emergency Vet clinic across town.  The Vet examined him, then took X-rays.  And then he delivered the news that Andy did not have “the bloat” but in fact, he had congestive heart failure.  His little heart was surrounded by water.  Mine was surrounded by pain.  The Vet, who was very nice, but due to all the surrounding circumstances, and him being the bearer of bad news, I took an instant dislike for him.  Basically he gave us two options: he could euthanize him right then or we could take him home and Andy would continue to have “episodes” and eventually he would have one final heart attack and die.  Needless to say, the floodgates opened and neither my daughter nor I could control the tears.  Not that we wanted to anyway.

I learned a couple of things about myself and my daughter in those moments after hearing Andy’s death sentence.  We don’t take bad news well, perhaps we don’t take it at all.  We’re full of hope, even when it’s clearly hopeless.  And we’re either incredibly optimistic people or we live in chasm of denial.  Regardless, just like that day nine years earlier when I knew I wasn’t leaving the farm without him, I scooped Andy up in my arms and brought him home.  I had no game plan.  I had no idea what I was doing.  I only knew that he had been sick a total of 24 hours and I couldn’t let this be the end.

Andy lasted a week.  My daughter and I tried everything we could to save him starting with a second opinion.  Two days later we took him to our own Vet and she offered us the hope we so desperately sought.  She gave us medication and prescribed a heart healthy dog food.  But by this point, Andy wasn’t interested in food and getting the pills down his throat was next to impossible.  It was tantamount to wrestling an alligator.

Thursday, September 8 was Ma’s birthday.  It was also the day Andy died.

All that day, at the back of my mind I thought “this is the day.” Ma died from congestive heart failure.  So did Andy.  Not all that unusual I suppose, perhaps a little coincidental at best, except for this.  One of the reasons I knew I would never leave the farm without Andy was because of his eyes.  They were dark and sweet like the finest rich chocolate.  When I looked into those dark sweet eyes I saw my mother’s eyes looking back at me. There was an ancient connection.  I knew him.  I shared this “knowing” with my husband and daughter.  I’m not sure they really understood but they never ever, not even once in nine years, denied my conviction that in some cosmic kooky way my mother was with me through Andy.  I always called him my “healing dog,” the one who helped ease the pain of relentless grief, and recover from the rawness of loss.

On the night Andy died I got my do-over.  I was sitting in my office waiting for my bedtime cup of milk to heat in the microwave.  It takes 220 seconds to do so.  I heard the sound of a dog’s toes tapping along the wooden floors of the hallway leading to my office.  I assumed it was our other dog Coco, who we had rescued a few years earlier from a life not worth living, coming to visit me.  Andy hadn’t been able to make the climb up the stairs for a few days so I was surprised to see him walk through the door to where I was sitting in the dark.  I greeted him, gave him a gentle pat behind the ear, told him how lovely it was to see him.  He laid down on the floor facing me.  I thought this was some sign from God that he was having a miraculous recovery and that he was healed. Hallelujah. Before the microwave could beep, Andy got up and headed towards our bedroom.  Instinctively I followed him.  He got next to the bed and started to heave and gag.  I knelt down with him, massaged his throat to help him breathe – we had been doing this all week during his episodes – and told him it would be okay.  Everything would be all right little buddy.  He let out two deep grunts, stiffened and collapsed.

That was it.  I got my do-over.  What a privilege to have been with him in his final moments, to have been the last one to touch him.  What a gift that he chose me.

I didn’t really have a game plan for how I was going to care for Andy after we left the Vet’s but I did start to think about what I would do should he die at home with just my daughter and I alone to manage on our own. I was terrified. I also knew I wanted him buried in our garden, the place where he chased sticks, laid under the Garry Oak trees, drank from the pond, sat with my husband and watched the fish, the place where he barked incessantly at every passer-by, where he stood on the rocks keeping guard over his family, the place where he pooped.  That’s where I wanted him to be.  Close.  Forever near. I knew I couldn’t dig a hole, at least not one that Andy would be placed in.  But I knew someone who could.  While my daughter held vigil, I threw on my jacket and went next door to our neighbor, who is young enough to be my son, strong from years of working as a garden designer, and who on that night, brought truth to the meaning of “good neighbor.”

In the quiet darkness, on September 8th, Christian dug a hole, and while doing so we talked in hushed tones about our mother’s deaths, about our connection to the earth, the trees and plants we both salvaged from their gardens, and most importantly, how connected we were to them. Something beyond words happened that night.  Something far greater than the death of my beloved pet.  I learned about the unwavering kindness of human beings, and their generosity and willingness to help with things that are often incomprehensibly difficult.

I am forever grateful to Christian.  He knows this.  The following evening he contacted me to see how I was.  He shared something with me, something so profound it took my breath away.  As grateful as I was to have had him participate – however unintentional on his part – in this sacred ritual, he too was grateful.  It touched him deeply.  All that day he told me he “felt so alive.”  Is this what true, unselfish acts of kindness do for us?  Even in the face of death, in the middle of the night, in the shroud of darkness, if we reach out, feel our connectedness, we get a glimpse of the Divine.

And then, we know for sure that we are alive.

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