Sometimes you just want to dance in your kitchen. Lately, we dance all the time. We push the island up against the counter to make space. Margot wiggles her compact little frame as soon as she hears music. Jude watches his reflection in the oven door. Violet MUST be picked up. I often refuse, wanting her to learn to dance her own dance (plus, I selfishly want to dance MY own dance, unencumbered by little bodies).
On this day, in 1918, a baby girl was born in Toronto, Ontario. She was the firstborn in her family, and was named Pearl Isabella. When World War One ended weeks later, "Victory" was tagged on to her name.
Today that little girl turned 92. We gathered in my mother's kitchen to celebrate this woman, my father's mother, my grandmother, known to our children as "GG". Jude laboured over a card, proud of having printed those two letters, and the drawings he made: of GG opening a gift, her bellybutton proudly on display (every person and creature in his drawings has a bellybutton). Above this cartoonish figure was a bubble filled with heart stamps. I asked Jude what this bubble was. "GG's wonderings" was his response.
We ate soup and sandwiches. Grandma's favourite sandwich is cucumber and onion, and in honour of her birthday I had one, too, on white bread with lots of mayonnaise, salt, and pepper. Delicious! When I was a little girl, I would occasionally walk to Grandma's house from school, just for the lunch hour. We always ate sandwiches: peanut butter and banana, or cucumber. Often, there was soup, and always a quick game of cards before I hurried back to school.
As her 16 grandchildren adored her (and still do!), our children adore her. She revels in their attention and hugs. This woman always wears earrings, a necklace, and lipstick to match her sweater. She always carries her purse and places it beside her, wherever she sits. She's becoming a bit forgetful, but loves to visit and eat and play cribbage (but not when she loses and owes my parents her spare change). She takes afternoon naps, forgets what she ate for breakfast, and gets fresh-baked coconut cream tarts from my sister almost weekly. She used to be able to recite the United States alphabetically when we were kids, and always felt that doing crosswords kept her mind sharp.
From her, I learned the value of writing thank-you notes. I learned to dip green onions in salt, and play Go Fish. I loved her pink bathroom. I wasn't allowed to chew gum in her livingroom. She used to make ice-cream sundaes for us when we'd come for dinner. She always laughed when my Grandpa teased her. She's been a widow for 22 years now, and Grandpa was the only man she ever loved. She raised four children, lost one, and is known locally as the life of the party. When I was single and in my 20s, I used to joke that she had a busier social life than I; when I'd try to book an afternoon visit with her, she'd always rebuff my offer in favour of lawn-bowling, a card party, or a trip somewhere.
When I feel miffed about those little lines that are appearing on my face, and those silver strands, I will remember this photo, and the woman who gave my dad curly hair, who passed it to me, who then passed it to Margot. What a blessing, to live long enough to have your life's experiences sketched on your face, and to see your youth over and over with the generations that descend from you.
Happy Birthday, Pearl Isabella Victory Conway Keon! May you live to see 100!
Every time the power goes out, we vow to be more prepared next time: stock up a box with canned goods, candles, batteries and flashlights, a jug of water, etc. We don't own a generator, but luckily, our woodstove saves us every time. I've cooked spaghetti, perogies and sausage, pancakes, popcorn, and eggs and bacon on it. When I do use it, I ask myself why I don't use it all winter, whether the power is out or not. I relish the simplicity of it all, and often have a twinge of regret when the Hydro One workers fix the problem and the lights flicker back on.
With payday 3 days away, our cupboards are getting bare, so it was canned baked beans on toast, popcorn, and carrot sticks for dinner. The kids loved it. We had a fairy guest for dinner who kept stealing Violet's juice when her head was turned, and tickling Jude's toes under the table. We had more fun than we've had in awhile at the dinner table.
Warming their post-bath-buns by the woodstove.
Jude and Margot were enthralled with the LCD lantern I bought to bring on my retreat.
Violet blew at the candle to make it look like "spiwits dancing".
Our beloved beeswax candles, sharing their clean, warm light.
...and Jude's expression when the power came back on.
Because the power flashed off and on all afternoon and evening, we had to adapt quickly; the older ones were in the bath when the lights flickered out, and it happened again during storytime. I spontaneously invited Jude and Violet outside to look at the stars without any residual light from nearby villages and houses. They oohed at the Milky Way, and we talked about constellations, satellites, planets, and stars.
It all kind of makes me want to declare one night a week "Off Grid Night". The quiet simplicity of it all is compelling. This marks our first (and certainly not last) power-outage of the Long Dark (fall-winter). Aside from the fact that our water doesn't work (pump is powered by electricity, of course) and the possiblity of food-spoilage if the outage lasts, I find myself kind of looking forward to more evenings like this one, where our energy is taken up by the most primitive of tasks: keeping warm, and feeding our family.
It feels like a retreat from the busy, noisy conveniences of modern life: we leave the dishes, sit close together near the woodstove, and make up silly stories and games. I can't help but imagine that these nights will be among my children's fondest memories.
The wind is fierce; I'd better post this now before my screen goes dark once again. Good night, all.
I spent my mid-to-late-twenties living alone in a one-room schoolhouse. It was like being at the cottage all the time: comfy, mismatched furniture, no television or computer, instruments and books for company, a deep bed, and most of all: peace and quiet. My life now is as far from that as I can imagine. Unless you have 2+ children, you cannot fathom the cacophony that is my daily life; the screams, laughter, demands, arguments, and constant chatter of children can be overwhelming. Add to that the seemingly endless string of tasks and responsibilities, and it's no wonder we barely recognise ourselves sometimes. Lately when I look in the mirror I find myself searching for that woman I was. She's still in there, surely. She used to have this poem taped to her bathroom mirror, smiling at the sense of recognition: Portrait By A Neighbour Edna St. Vincent-Millay Before she has her floor swept Or her dishes done, Any day you'll find her A-sunning in the sun! It's long after midnight Her key's in the lock, And you never see her chimney smoke Til past ten o'clock! She digs in her garden With a shovel and a spoon, She weeds her lazy lettuce By the light of the moon, She walks up the walk Like a woman in a dream, She forgets she borrowed butter And pays you back in cream! Her lawn looks like a meadow, And if she mows the place She leaves the clover standing And the Queen Anne's lace! I loved this self-indulgent woman dearly. She wandered in the woods in her rubber boots, collecting bits of nature to render in watercolour later in the day. She adopted stray cats and let them give birth on her bed, then found loving homes for their kittens. She existed on crackers and cheese and tea, and good books. She fed guests on antique silver and china. She stayed up late noodling on her mandolin, playing the piano, singing to shake the windows. She sat in dreamy silence a lot of the time. She had a few suitors, but preferred to be alone.
I miss her. Part of the aim of my retreat was to seek her out, ask her how she is, and if she'd like to visit me in any small capacity. I think I caught a glimpse of her late at night, in a candlelit mirror, but only when I didn't look directly. Look past the little lines of worry and joy, the softer places experience has wrought...do you see her there, in my eyes? Near the corner of my mouth? Now, if I can just figure out a way to coax her out more often...
I was astonished to see how many people said things like "I wish!", "I could never pull that off", "Lucky you!", and "I just can't get away from my job/husband/kids" when I mentioned I was retreating. I am not lucky, or rich, or selfish. I just decided I needed to do this, for my own well-being. How are women to replenish the well from which we draw the love, patience, faith, energy, endurance, and humor that mothering and marriage require of us, if we don't occasionally step out of it for a rest?
The word "retreat" implies a change in direction, a halt-and-withdraw military tactic. It implies giving up, a changing of our minds in the face of insurmountable conflict or challenge. Its more negative connotation is that it is a shirking of responsibilities or commitments at the last moment. I am reminded of the comment I received on Friday's post, where a reader said she could never do this, "especially leaving a sick child behind"...(for the record: Violet was on Day 3 of a gastro bug when I left and was feeling fine)...
Is it any wonder that mothers are burnt out...worn out, worn thin, barely hanging on by a thread? As Joan Anderson wrote in her book "A Weekend to Change Your Life", it is absolutely PITIFUL that we cannot find twenty-four hours for ourselves, in a year that contains eighty-seven HUNDRED hours!
It is precisely through caring so diligently for my children, my spouse, my home, and my career that I have arrived at a point in my life where it's do or die~ or maybe less dramatically, do or wilt and wither. Through the long postpartum months of caring for Margot, her subsequent surgery and recovery, my determined (then desperate) attempts to breastfeed her, never leaving her side, never taking a break, while also caring for two other young children, I depleted myself.
You don't need money. You don't need to go to a spa. You don't even need to go away for a weekend, although I highly recommend it. Ask around. Find out who has a cottage/cabin that they'd be willing to lend for a day/weekend. Do something in return, for rent: have the chimney cleaned, replenish the firewood, offer to cut their grass...be creative. This is something that will replenish you. Your only tasks should be:
feeding yourself simply
and just sitting quietly, uninterrupted, with your thoughts.
I dare you to look at your calendar right now and pick a weekend sometime in the next few months to go away, to rest and restore yourself. I double dare you.
Stay tuned for a week's worth of retreat-related reflections.
Today I am packing up my guitar, my knitting, my journal, a good book, some food, and my sleeping bag and heading to an off-grid cabin for the weekend. Can you imagine how excited I am? The only jobs I'll have to do are keeping the woodstove going and feeding myself. I'll post next week with the details.
As I pack, Violet is crying because she wants medicine (she's been coping with a gastro bug since Wednesday, and yes, I am still going on my retreat). Jude just got new hockey equipment (his first ever!) and once he got his little jock and cup on, he went up to Violet and said "Hit me in my tentacles, Violet!"
Margot is saying "sheep, sheep, sheep" over and over.
Will I miss them? Yes. Enough to not go? No. Bye, ya'll. Have a good one.
*Warning/Disclaimer: This blogpost contains photos of the chicken-killing process. If you are vegan/vegetarian, extra-sensitive about animals, or just easily grossed out, please stop now! If you still insist on reading on, you are welcome to do so, but consider yourself warned. My intent is not to inflame, but to inform and share about a matter-of-fact event in the lives of many rural people.
Back in August, we picked up 32 day-old chicks at the local feed store. 15 of them went to our friends at the Toadstool, and we kept 17. For 9 weeks, we have kept their coop clean, fed them high-quality organic chick "grower", and ensured that they always had fresh air and a generous supply of clean water to drink. They had freedom to wander outside, and a heat lamp to keep them warm at night.
White Plymouth Rocks at 9 weeks.
Today was Chicken Killing day at the Knitty Gritty Homestead. Now, to clarify, I was a very sensitive and picky eater as a child/teenager. One of my sisters, who shall remain unnamed, used to cluck quietly when we had chicken for dinner, and I would inevitably cry and push my plate away. I didn't want to think of the meat on my plate as an animal.
As an adult, my thinking has changed. With increased exposure of conditions in factory farms through books like "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and movies like "The Future of Food", "Food Inc.", "Fast Food Nation", etc., I decided I want to have more of a hand in how my food is raised. The image of "clean, healthy, organic" food that we get from those who market it is usually an illusion, and mass-produced animals are generally treated inhumanely.
For this reason, I have gotten over my squeamishness when it comes to meat. I was surprised to find that it wasn't all that hard to kill our chickens today. Of course, we weren't doing the killing ourselves; we called in the professionals! Ward and his staff are local guys who do most of the chicken processing in our area. They are quick, clean, and professional. They processed about 30 chickens in less than an hour.
Ward can carry 5 chickens in each hand!
I only managed one per hand.
First, the chickens were carried to the processing truck, and suspended by their feet. As strange as it sounds, this seemed to calm them; there was no squawking or flapping going on. .
One of Ward's men used an electrified knife to first electrocute the chicken, then pierce a hole in its neck; within seconds, the chickens were dead. They were then doused in boiling water to clean them and loosen their feathers.
The plucker is an amazing invention; it is a drum that rotates quickly, with rubber "fingers" on the inside that pluck chickens at astounding rates. It's that big contraption you see in the left of the above photo. Imagine what our pioneering foremothers would have thought of it! I've plucked a goose by hand and it is hard and messy work.
Ward uses pliers to remove any remaining feathers, then the rest of the processing is completed: removing the head and feet, and washing and gutting the chicken. Ward was impressed with how healthy our chickens looked, commenting on their beautiful skin. Chickens that are fed corn tend to be very yellow. If you intend to raise your own meat chickens, it is worth it to invest in the more costly, but better quality organic feed. We figured that if we were going to the work of raising our own meat, we should feed them the best food possible.
The chickens are then soaked in lightly salted ice water for a few hours, before being bagged and frozen.
How did I feel? Did I have even a twinge of sadness/regret? I'll be honest. I do love my laying hens. They range freely, and behave as chickens should: roosting up high at night, giving themselves dust baths to keep themselves cool and free of ticks, and laying their eggs in cozy little nest boxes.
Meat birds, on the other hand, have been bred to gain weight quickly. They eat (and therefore poop) almost constantly, and spend much of their time sitting on the ground. Yes, I know this is because they are too heavy to fly up to roost. You'll notice in one photo, the chicken's breasts were bare of feathers. This is because they sit around most of the time.
In the worst case scenario (i.e. factory farms) meat chickens are force-fed to the point that they have heart attacks, or their legs break under the unnatural weight of their breast, or they walk backwards because if they walk forwards they fall onto their breast. These are horror stories, and being aware of them, we took the precaution of killing our birds earlier than normal. If we'd gone another 4 weeks, we may have gotten much larger chickens, but at the cost of their health. So our chickens range between 5-8 pounds, processed. I don't mean to turn anyone off their gigantic Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey, but before you say "Ewww!" to this post, think about what it really costs to eat the biggest bird in the grocery store. Consider seeking out a local farmer who raises animals with respect. Here in the Valley, a local source of free-range turkeys, chickens, and pigs is Tickle Island Farm.
I whispered my gratitude to the chickens in their last moments, aware that in order for me to feed meat to my family, I must take the lives of other living things. I felt peaceful knowing that they'd been gently and humanely raised, enjoyed fresh air, warmth, sunlight, and the freedom to move around as they wished, and that, in the end, they were killed quickly and humanely.
The fruits of my labour (ahem), plus a wee knitted pear I made last week.
My dear friend Maureen and I launched our first series of craft classes yesterday at our local art gallery! A group of 9 wonderful women gathered to learn to make fabulous felt fruits and vegetables. The group represented a wide range of sewing abilities, but all went home with a start to their own collection of felt food. The excitement and pride everyone felt at creating handmade gifts for their children was palpable, and Maureen and I are very much looking forward to our next three sessions: felt crowns and barrettes, tree blocks, and a gnome/nativity set. Space is limited; for full details, more photos and links, or to sign up for future classes, visit Maureen at Twig and Toadstool!
We needle-felted green roving to fill this pod with peas!
I'm rather fond of this pear creation.
Can you spot the handmades? They're hard to distinguish from fresh!
Now is the time to start thinking about handmade gifts for Christmas. Some gifts we're planning to create here at the Homestead include this treehouse for Violet, and this marvellous set of Star Wars figures for Jude.We'll also be buying some handmades from other craftspeople, but I've declared this a no-Walmart-craptastic-present Christmas! Our kids are still at an age where just waking up to find a full stocking is enough to send them into near-paroxysms of delight, so we know whatever we pull off either with our own hands, or by supporting someone else's will thrill them.
We're not too strict with our families when it comes to the gifts they buy for our kids, but we do love when people ask us what they would like! Additions to our wooden train set, new books, costumes, art supplies, and outdoor activity-type gifts are always high on the list! Get creative when shopping for the little ones in your life this Christmas; don't resign yourself to buying cheap, easily-broken-and-hard-on-the-earth gifts just because you're not crafty. One of our favourite places to shop for beautiful gifts that will last a lifetime and beyond is Natural Pod, located in British Columbia. We also love the handmade wooden toys at The Wood Garden, located in Southern Ontario. As we work our way towards Christmas, I'll continue to post links to my favourite places!
Tell me, do you have any plans for handmade Christmas gifts this year?
When I was 14, my mom gave me a cookbook compiled by "the wives of Rotarians", called "Among Friends: An International Collection of 500 Delicious Recipes". What I treasure most about this book is the inscription mom wrote inside the cover:
To Stephanie Rose! May you have a lot of fun trying these recipes, and may all your young dreams come true! Happy Birthday, age 14, Feb/1988, Love Mommy. You may even be using this book for your husband and kids~ hope he likes the food!
Through the years, I've kept notes as I've cooked, and as I browsed through this cookbook this evening, I was delighted to read the little reminders of when and for whom I lovingly prepared food:
Tonight I made an old standby, "Hearty January Hamburger Soup". It's a favourite for cold, rainy evenings, and reminds me of the soup my Grandma used to make. She used stewing beef rather than ground beef, but the taste is the same. Even the most discerning (read: picky) palate in our house eats this with gusto!
1 tsp. butter
1 lb. ground beef
3 medium onions, chopped
14 oz. can tomatoes (use crushed or diced, doesn't matter!)
salt, pepper, and sweet basil to taste
1 bay leaf
6 cups beef stock
3 medium carrots, sliced
3 medium potatoes, sliced
3 celery stalks, sliced
1/4 cup small pasta (seashells, elbows...or just break up spaghetti like I did tonight!)
Worcestershire and Tabasco, to taste
Heat butter and brown ground beef. Add onions, tomatoes, seasonings, bay leaf, and stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer, covered, for 1 hour. Add remaining vegetables and cook 1 hour longer. Add pasta during the last 12-15 minutes of cooking. Correct seasonings, remove bay leaf, and serve hot!
*in order to post this, I had to go OUT of Blogger, then back in for every single photograph. After posting one, the browse button would not respond...help! Anyone? At this rate, I'll manage one post a week!
I admit, I generally curse like a pirate when miffed. But because this is a public space, I won't say what I WANT to say to Blogger for making it IMPOSSIBLE to load pictures. I had a lovely post written but know when it's time to give up. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. If you still don't succeed, give up~there's no sense in being a damn fool about it.
I'm off to greener pastures until Blogger sorts itself out, and will share that post sometime in the (hopefully) near future.
Many of you will recognise the following scene: A mother attempts to get her children ready to go on an exciting outing, planned especially for them. This is no mere trip to the grocery store, but an event that has been carefully orchestrated around naps and meals, taking in the social needs of each child. After laying out clothes for each of her children, and speaking in a cheerful voice about how "we need to get dressed so we can go see our friends!", things start to unravel.
45-minutes later, the mother starts uttering empty threats like "GET YOUR SHOES ON NOW OR I'M LEAVING YOU HERE!!" and "IF YOU DON'T PUT YOUR SHOES ON NOW I'M NEVER TAKING YOU ANYWHERE EVER AGAIN!!" Tears are shed by all, and any hope she had of arriving on time has dissipated like her patience.
Somehow, though, outings are still worth the pains of getting there, especially if they involve the outdoors, other kids, and other moms with whom to visit.
We visited Hugli's Blueberry Ranch with a bunch of local homeschooling families who graciously included us in their invitation. The tour was educational, well-organised and age-appropriate; it included a very bumpy wagon ride to various destinations: pumpkin patches, a small barnyard complete with sheep, a goat, a llama, an alpaca, a pig, and a miniature horse, a "pirate ship" play structure, and hay bale playgrounds.
The highlight for me was our travels through the 1-acre corn maze, guided by alphabetised clues.
Hugli's autumn activities include pick-your-own pumpkins, scary Halloween events (I'm dreaming of wandering that corn maze at night!), and pumpkins being fired from a cannon into the lake below (a highlight for Jude!). If you live locally, visit their website for more details...it was certainly worth the trip!
Lately I've been trying to have a traditional-ish Sunday dinner, with a tablecloth, candles, and some version of roasted meat. I like the idea of my kids remembering a once-weekly meal where we actually used table manners. There is no rapping of knuckles in our house, if the fork is not held properly, but I figure it's never too early to civilise your kids, to some extent. I tried to make Yorkshire pudding once, in honour of my husband's English homeland, but quickly decided that they're just stupid (because I didn't succeed in making them).
The IDEA is so far from the reality, however. The house is fragrant with, say, a roasted chicken and potatoes. I've prepared two additional veg dishes, steaming carrots before tossing them with a bit of butter and brown sugar, say, and maybe some bright broccoli. Beeswax candles cast a warm glow over the pretty place settings. I call my charming children to the table. I waltz gracefully to the table with a boat of perfectly smooth gravy...
And before I even sit down, some sort of hell breaks loose. Someone slaps someone, tempers flare, or someone refuses to sit and eat. My husband I start to chew with forced calm, which turns to irritation, which generally ends with someone getting a timeout. Things tend to spiral downwards from here. I'm not looking to train my kids to be perfectly behaved little automatons, saying please and thank you and placing a napkin on their lap. I don't pressure anyone to be flawless. I just want to eat what's on my plate without listening to screaming and fighting.
Lately I've caught myself taking these failures of my plans personally. The litany of every martyred mother's thoughts echoes through my mind: "WHY do I bother? I just thought we could have one NICE meal a week, but I guess I was wrong...Is it too much to ask for HARMONY in my home?" Apparently, yes...yes, it is too much to ask.
Thinking about that question a bit deeper leads me to remember that joy and harmony are not created through unreasonable expectations. And let's face it, having any kind of semi-civilised meal with three children under the age of 6 is unreasonable. The most peaceful meals in our house are the ones that I slap on the table, on each child's favourite coloured plate...no tablecloth and no candles. Often, cutlery is optional, or ends up on the floor. Optional, too, is clothing.
Leftover spaghetti washes off skin much easier than out of clothing.
The meal wouldn't be complete without at least one spill, intentional or otherwise.
Violet pouts while Margot tries dipping her plastic cucumber slices in spaghetti,
then cracks up at something her brother did.
The floor, and table, after a meal with my kids.
Consider this lesson learned. When my husband built a fire outside to burn some brush this morning and suggested hotdogs for dinner, I didn't hesitate to say a resounding, "Yes!" I did steam some broccoli to balance out the many-horrible-things-about-hotdogs. Finally, I found what I was seeking: peace and harmony at mealtime...because the kids ate outside by the fire and I ate inside by myself.
I am not a natural hostess; I would rather sit around with a glass of wine, entertaining guests with my guitar, than preparing and serving a meal. I just don't really like it. Stop by unexpectedly, and I'll pick up pizza and beer. I'm less interested in food, and more interested in the company. I am fully capable of making a turkey dinner, but just have never felt compelled to serve one.
However, since we moved to the Homestead, our home has become the family gathering place. There's lots of room for the kids to run around, a big, spacious kitchen, and that lovely rural autumn view that makes Thanksgiving in Canada a favourite holiday.
Luckily, I have a mother and two sisters who come to my rescue every year; I have become adept at delegating when it comes to big meals: you bring rolls and cabbage salad, you bring pies, you bring the turkey, and I'll do the veggies. It works out well. I know that someday my mom will have to pass the turkey torch to me, but for now, I'll continue to peel my spuds, sip my wine, and crank out a tune or two by the fire outside.
I don't know about your family, but ours is happily dysfunctional. I mean that in a loving way...we don't throw dishes or get slobbering drunk. Just the usual misunderstandings, careless comments, overreactions, hurt feelings, snarky comments, with a healthy side of passive aggression. It's part of our dynamic. We realise not all families are like this. We're not in denial. But it's gone on for so long, it almost makes me smile in its familiarity.
We also have lots of:
rustic, festive decor, inspired by what we find outside;
ill-fated attempts at nice family pictures (yes, that's my husband);
young hands to help the old;
and the requisite belly-/jazz-/hip hop-/salsa- dancefest after dinner.
Wishing all Canadians a joy-filled Thanksgiving, with all those special ingredients that make your family uniquely...yours!