Stand by me

My Catholic elementary school was populated by a number of ethnic groups, situated in a working class neighbourhood on the east side of London, Ontario. St. Roberts had a history of being rough and it was not uncommon for fights to break out in the school yard amongst fellow students or with the rival protestant school or with those from the Christian Reform who dared cross our playground.

Naturally, St. Roberts had its share of bullies who marauded unchallenged during the lunch hour, terrorizing others at will. I managed to avoid these confrontations largely because I was buttressed by two of my brothers, one of whom was particularly deft with the fisticuffs, not reluctant to use them for self defense or in the cause of others. One incident, however, in Grade 6, continues to conjure vivid pictures and a lasting impression.

Sean Murphy, a fiery red head with a temper to match, stood a head taller than me and possessed man-size fists. He was surrounded by a cadre of smaller sycophants who succumbed to Sean’s malicious will as a form of self-preservation and protection. On this spring day, Sean had made it his business to torment Kendal Bonner, a fellow classmate although not part of my close friends. Sean had pulled Kendal’s arm behind his back, extracting painful cries of agony, yanking ever harder, pressing for a complete surrender. I was shooting hoops nearby, suddenly aware, realizing no one was attempting to intervene, when I heaved the basketball directly at Sean, hitting him squarely in the back.

Sean released Kendal immediately then whirled his head towards me, eyes ablaze with anger. I stood my ground as Sean took several steps before pummeling me with three hard punches to the head. It was over; I was beaten and everyone scattered. By the end of recess, my left cheek had swelled, the eye was red with bloodshot, matching an egg shaped purple welt. I sat at my desk, crying from the pain, abiding by the school yard code of not snitching. Eventually Mrs. Turner noticed, extracted the story and likely administered some form of punishment to the perpetrator.

I don’t know why Sean was abusing Kendal. It didn’t matter. I don’t recall what was going through my head when I decided to intervene and tackle someone who completely outmatched me. All I know is that a fellow classmate needed help, and I utilized what limited resources were in my possession to stop a bully.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

The last words from the Snake Island 13 who refused to surrender in defense of their country.

Let it snow

“You don’t have to shovel rain.”

I was reminded again this past weekend of my father’s saying after three hours of clearing the accumulated snow fall at the cottage. Some work was self-imposed, shoveling my way to the ice beneath in an annual effort to make a skating rink on the lake. Fortunately, the 200 foot lane is plowed by the neighbour saving one prohibitive task. Carving a pathway to the lake and clearing the stairs to the basement, however, continually tests my aging body. I can see some of your eyes rolling while muttering, “talk to me about a real problem”, to which I produce exhibit A from three weeks earlier at our home.

The worst part is the end of the driveway where the snow plow dumps an almost impassable pile.

Toronto received what felt to be a full winter’s equivalent of snow in one day. Add the pile from the sidewalk plow and the road tractors and you have a morning and an afternoon of pushing, lifting and throwing hip’s deep snow piled ever higher. Our dog, Odin, accompanies me on these ventures. He gets his own shovel although he still has not grasped the concept, preferring to gnaw on the handle rather than endure the strain of dragging a load to the side.

Growing up in Southwestern Ontario, I was very familiar with the demands of living within the snowbelt. Shoveling the driveway was an expectation for everyone in the family, starting at a very young age, no slackers allowed.

Our Dad began the day shift at 7:00 am which meant leaving the house at 6:30. If it snowed heavy overnight, Mom would get everyone out of their bed and out onto the driveway at 6:00 am to ensure the car could leave. Then we had to follow the vehicle up the unplowed dead end street, providing the extra push where needed and ensuring the car was able to ram through the tsunami wave of snow onto the highway. The plow eventually cleared the street leaving enough to cover the gravel road, all ready for us road hockey warriors.

We spent hours on the street with a hard orange ball or a puck, using chunks of ice for goal posts.

I don’t recall being hindered by the snow. The cost of downhill skiing and organized hockey eliminated our participation. We found other avenues: tobogganing, forts for snowball fights, backyard ice rinks, or trudging to the frozen creek. The latter two activities meant work in preparation, warming us up for the fun itself.

“There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing” or simply relying on the advantages of youth to ward off the cold. We aren’t young anymore so attitude and a warm attire have become our saviours. Olga and I woke to -27 C yesterday morning and proceeded to don our snow pants and assorted seasonal accoutrements to embark on Odin’s daily constitutional. The air was clean and fresh, the sun was shining. It was glorious. Last night was peaceful and calm as Olga and I followed the cottage road without a flashlight, led only by the brightness of a full moon on the white snow, kept company by the crunching beneath our feet. At one point we stopped and drank in the silence, gazing at the constellations. Today I skated on my ice rink, stick handling around Odin, raising my arms in jubilation after an imagined goal. We ended the day relaxed on the bench, quietly breathing in the beauty of the lake.

Forecast for Thursday: plus 6 and rain.

Just don’t call me late for dinner

My name is Henricus Gerardus Decock, at least according to my birth certificate. Those who know me are raising an eyebrow; those reading the “About” page are confused, understandably. I seldom refer to myself in that manner. According to the website, behindthename.com , “Henricus is the Latinized form of Heinrich. As a Dutch name, it is used on birth certificates though a vernacular form such as [Henry] is typically used in daily life.” Try explaining the distinction to an officious organization like the World Bank or an American border guard at the airport. Neither were amused with my usual quip, “only my wife calls me Henricus, and only when she is angry”. The joke did not engender even the slightest smile.

I am named after my two grandfathers: Henricus on my mother’s side, Gerardus on my father’s. Not a surprising choice but also very unimaginative. My birth occurred 360 days after my older brother, Gerardus Henricus. We are Catholic twins with reversible names. Peter Cornelis (spelt incorrectly) came into the world thirteen months later burdening my mother with three kids under the age of three.

Photo of the three amigos, probably in the fall of 1961. I am the cute one on the left.

Peter was named after our father although I don’t recall anyone referring to him as junior; certainly the moniker did not stick. He might have qualified as the third of a triplet except there are two issues with his birth certificate. First, his given name needed to be Petrus to be consistent with the Latin versions of myself and Gerardus; and most importantly, his surname is different: De Cock instead of Decock.

We have developed our own theory on this curiosity. Our mother was the parent who completed the birth registration for Gary and myself. In her attempt to assimilate, she anglicized the spelling. Our father, for some unknown reason, was responsible for Peter’s documentation and simply kept everything status quo. Mom would always sign her surname Decock while Dad consistently wrote De Cock. I employ what is written on my birth certificate as does Peter.

Michael came along four years later and was named after… no one. Breaking with tradition, my parents decided to select a name they both liked. The rest of us might have questioned his relationship to the family except his middle name is after the oldest living brother of my mother, Herman; and there are pictures of him as a baby.

Not definitive proof the baby is Michael, but as good as it gets.

When Gary was young, he had difficulty pronouncing Henry. His effort resulted in Hi-yo (phonetic spelling) which he said with such frequency all the other children in the neighbourhood did the same. Their parents would talk to my mother, asking about Gary, Hi-yo and Peter. Eventually Henry became the norm.

I have had people preferring the French version, Henri, and I can count on one hand the people who call me Hank. The first was our mechanic in London, the man with no front teeth and an infectious laugh. Then there was Ann and Carol both in the registration office at work, each of the rough and tumble kind. And finally there is my best friend, Ron, from whom I hear Hammerin’ Hank from time to time, reflecting our love of baseball.

Regardless, all my credit cards, employment records, school records, email accounts, and virtually everything else identifies me as Henry Decock, which brings us back to the beginning of this post.

Shortly after 9-11, I was travelling to the United States for a conference. The airline ticket was purchased bearing the name Henry Decock. Passing through customs the ever serious American border guard looked at the ticket, then at my passport, up at me, then back to the passport before saying, “The names don’t match.” I proceeded to explain while he pecked away on the computer, sideways glancing every fifteen seconds. I had never had an issue before. The ongoing delay was making me nervous until he finally stamped my passport and waved me along. Welcome to America. Forthwith all my airline tickets are bought for Henricus Gerardus Decock.

Most recently, I have been in a vigorous tug-of-war with the IT people at the World Bank. I began working for the organization as a higher education consultant which required my passport as identification. So, I am Henricus Gerardus in their system. In order to get paid, I submitted a voided cheque and instructions on how to transfer the funds to my bank account to the IT department. All good except, “The names don’t match.” I wrote a lengthy email explaining how the bank uses my passport and drivers licence as proof of my identity for an account in the name of Henry Decock. The issue was passed up to HR with whom I went further showing how every card, ownership, email, work record and pension are all issued to a Henry Decock. HR referred the matter back to IT who responded, “The names don’t match.” I escalated the problem to my immediate supervisor who was sympathetic, apologized for the bureaucracy, admitted my particular case was unusual, and suggested I petition the bank to verify my identity. Back to the bank who would not guarantee any external funds bearing Henricus Gerardus would be accepted into the account for Henry Decock for fear of money laundering. I cried Uncle, relented and allowed to have my account name changed, over the phone. I notified IT. Hopefully I will get paid now.

Henricus, Henry, Henri, Hank, or Hi-yo are all fine with me, as long as the cheque doesn’t bounce.

Pics or it didn’t happen

The ubiquity of digital and cell phone photography has translated into the accumulation of thousands of photographs by individual people, many shared through some form of social media, the bulk stored on the devices themselves or on terabyte size hard drives. There is no risk in continually pressing the button. Mistakes, blurriness and bad angles are easily deleted. The special moments, the everyday, the mundane; nothing goes unrecorded, such that proof of the event or activity or the person attending and participating is demanded for verification: pics or it didn’t happen.

Those of us from a particular vintage recall the days of film with a very limited set of pictures, 24 or 36 image rolls, curled up inside a camera where a little motor purrs automatically to advance to the next frame, or you would manually drag the lever across the back with your thumb to prepare for another shot. Without a preview, and no opportunity to redo, you spent time framing and focusing, holding your hands steady, ready to depress the button at the precise moment, hoping the resulting photograph was usable. After picking up the developed role from specialized shops, you flipped through the prints, disappointed in half, surprised at the rest.

Many fuzzy pictures were saved, occupying a space in the photo binders stacked on the shelves, kept in spite of the quality. Photographs were treasured, retained regardless of condition, folded or damaged, because it was the last one of a relative, or a scene, or a memory. They were carried in breast pockets, close to the heart; wallet sized copies were produced to be ported and shared in company – “let me show you a picture of my wife, my kids, my boyfriend, my family”. Albums were to be gifted in preservation of the family history.

I was reminded of the change in photography practice recently while reviewing our expansive digital collection in an attempt to corral its proliferation of disparate files scattered across iphones and androids, old and new laptops, usb sticks and portable hard drives, copies and originals and retouched versions. Amongst the morass was our 2007 visit to the Netherlands accompanied by Dad for his first return back since my mother died two years earlier. We made a short trip into Belgium to visit Bruges and Ghent and various World War I memorials including Vimy Ridge. Dad’s primary reason, however, was to visit family, his own and Mom’s, those who still remained. One important stop was an afternoon with Dad’s endearing, older sister, my aunt, Tante Toos.

Tante Toos opening the tabernacle to offer a drink, including her favourite: sherry.

A lively conversation ensued, conducted in Dutch because Tante Toos and Oom Gert (who chauffeured us to her home in the community care facility) possessed very little grasp of English. I understand colloquial Dutch but dared not speak it; Olga knew only a word or two (definitely more than my Ukrainian). I simultaneously translated the banter, whispering my understanding to her; Dad conveyed our contribution to his siblings. Hand gestures, pantomime, smiles and laughter completed the rest. Eventually their thoughts shifted to the family tree.

“Even eens wacht jonges. Ik wil wat foto’s laten zien.”

Tante Toos sifting through her archive of family photographs.

From inside the book cabinet, top shelf, Tante Toos pulled out a cardboard box. She slowly lowered herself back onto the chair, settled the container on her lap. Hunched over the makeshift vault, my aunt carefully removed the lid and began digging into the archives. With deliberate motion, she lifted one photo at a time, selecting special ones with the other hand before splaying them on the coffee table.

“Ah Piet, onthoud deze. Het was op de bruiloft van Jo en Kees. Je moet het bewaren.”

It was a picture of Tante Toos and Dad, as young adults, smiling proudly, brother and sister standing side by side, having just witnessed the marriage of another sibling, Tante Jo.

“Kijk naar deze. Mijn grootouders, jullie overgrootouders.”

Tante Toos handed over several photos, worn at the edges, slightly yellowed. Small squares of thick paper, portraits of my great grandparents, photos I had never seen before. She dug deeper, contemplating each new revelation, removing one more for her audience.

“Hier is er een met je vader op de schoot van zijn grootvader.”

Another black and white, evidence of a corner fold, spotted lightly, taken in the back of the rowhouse in Tilburg. Dad was a child, approximately two, dirty, perched on the lap of his grandfather, his own father standing behind, smiling at the scene. It was the only copy still in existence.

Tante Toos then recalled stumbling upon old photos of people and families in flea markets, sold as antiques and decoration. She feared ending up on some dusty table, sold to passing customers. Better to be rid of all the pictures than to be scattered to the walls of strangers as some form of curiosity. She wanted to be spared that indignity.

Tante Toos gathered up the photographs and the box was closed. We posed for a few pictures and hugged our goodbyes for the last time. It was a precious moment, captured digitally, resurfaced for this post, stored in my memory bank until age erodes the story.

The last photo with Tante Toos, August 2007.

Tante Toos passed away in 2009. She instructed the executor of her will to destroy all her pictures. They disappeared, as if their subject matter never happened. I cannot imagine what she would think of her pictures displayed here, on the internet, potentially to live on forever in some file, her pixels possibly sold and monetized, floating in a cloud until it bursts.

I understand Oom Gert hung on to a handful of photos but abided by her wishes and discarded the bulk of them. I hope one day to search through what he deemed necessary to retain, maybe copying them for myself. I think about what will become of them when Oom Gert passes on and if this chain of family history will be buried forever.

We have pictures of Tante Toos in our possession, mostly when she visited Canada, stored in binders of my parents. There is an album of photos when she visited Uncle Kees in Uganda, the two perpetually connected. Many have found a new home in another box, tucked in the corner of the basement. We cherish our own pictures of her, captured digitally, uncovered on occasion. None, however, bear witness to the essence of Tante Toos’s life, her service to others. No pictures of living at home with aging parents after the rest of the family moved on. No pictures of nursing my grandmother paralyzed by a stroke. No pictures of working in a home for mentally challenged youth so they have some semblance of independence. The loving sibling, the doting aunt, the devoted daughter, giving and sharing with the extended de Cock family happened even if many of the pics no longer exist.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

December 2021 has come to an end, finishing with my monthly review of books read. The year began in a flurry, ending with a mere trickle in the remaining three months.

The last book for the year was a memoir, recommended by the instructor for the writing course. For the same reasons my reading petered out, I wasn’t able to keep pace with the weekly exercises. Fortunately, the material remains accessible for life allowing me to return to them whenever I have the opportunity.

Hidden Lives by Margaret Forster was suggested as an example on how to write about “a parent or grandparent and trying to conjure people or a period of time they did not live themselves”. The title and the subject matter attracted me, thinking about documenting the life of my Uncle Kees as a missionary in Uganda, a history I am attempting to piece together; so, I ordered a used paperback copy.

Penguin Books, 1996. 309 pages.

“Margaret Forster (25 May 1938 – 8 February 2016) was an English novelist, biographer, memoirist, historian and critic, best known for the 1965 novel Georgy Girl, made into a successful film of the same name, which inspired a hit song by The Seekers. Other successes were a 2003 novel, Diary of an Ordinary Woman, biographies of Daphne du Maurier and Elizasbeth Barret Browning, and her memoirs Hidden Lives and Precious Lives.” (Wikipedia) Hidden Lives begins with a funeral after which a woman approaches the three sisters (the author’s mother included) about the will, and whether she was included. The sisters were completely unaware of this person’s identity, discovered later to be the illegitimate child of their mother, Margaret’s grandmother, who managed to keep secret the first 23 years of her life. Margaret researches official records from city offices and churches, unable to uncover much detail or information, remaining a mystery forever. The essence of the memoir, however, is about the circumstances of ordinary, working class women in late 19th and early 20th century England. The strength of this memoir is the evocation of that experience and the impact on their lives, hidden from the standard texts of our times.

Wikipedia

Hidden Lives is written in the third person up until page 132 when the author, Margaret, turns five and her “own real memory begins, real in the sense that I can not only recall actual events but can propel myself back to them, be there again”. With a grandmother of the same name, I found the depiction confusing, unclear as to who was conveying the story. The switch to first person was abrupt and suddenly everything made more sense.

Aside from this quirk in style, Margaret Foster’s description of her mother’s life, and her life with her mother strikes me as reflective of every working class family with the daily struggles of maintaining a home and growing up. Their world is bereft of sensational events or family crisis or sexual improprieties or awakened identities. The father is part of the picture, but the focus is on Lilian, the mother, and on Margaret, the eldest child. There are numerous moments when I could envision substituting the characters with my mother or our family situation as a child. I think particularly of the description of how Lilian had given up her respected job and potential career in order to marry and become a mother, fulfilling the role for woman of her time and class. My mother had forsaken a career in nursing.

Margaret Forster best describes the purpose of the book for the reader and for herself:

It gives me such satisfaction to prove, to myself at least, that what I hoped was true is true – my chances, my lot, my expectations, born as I was into working-class family in which women had always served rather than led, were always hundreds of times better than my grandmother’s or mother’s. All of us, all three representatives of different generations, always have put family first but in my case, in the case of my generation, it has not been at ruinous cost. (p.306)…..Everything, for a woman, is better now, even if it is still not as good as it could be. To forget or deny that is an insult to the women who have gone before, women like my grandmother and mother. (p.307)

Looking back at the very first post about my parents, entitled All I’ve Got is a Photograph, the appeal of this memoir was evident: “My parents lives and that of their immediate families are those of the ordinary people seldom discussed in the history books or eulogized in documentaries or glamorized in the movies” ; and in the obituary for my Uncle Kees, as recorded in the post, Server to Everyone, which read in part: “A legendary figure? No one with such recognition would laugh harder than Kees himself. He was true, and truly an ordinary man”. Their life is a story rarely told.

Looking forward, Hidden Lives provides encouragement to continue with my posts as markers of these lives; that the descriptions are of interest to those with similar backgrounds; that the stories are a memory to other members of the family; that they serve as a history for the next generation; and as importantly, that in writing, I learn more about myself and the impact of these lives on who I have become.

For 2022, I will continue to blog about the books I am reading as an occasional post, when they are completed, just not necessarily at the end of each month. I wish everyone much happiness in the upcoming year, and, of course, happy reading.

Christmas Present

I remember my first Ukrainian Christmas. Olga and I were not married yet. Although I had met her parents earlier in the summer, visiting Toronto for a weekend, the occasion would be my initial introduction to Olga’s brother, Bohdan. For those unaware, Ukrainian Catholicism follows the Julian calendar meaning Christmas Eve is January 6 and Easter occurs on the same day as the “English” version only every few years. The difference has a distinct advantage for mixed couples – you don’t need to split the holiday between parents.

That first Christmas was an important early lesson in the Ukrainian language. Bohdan took me aside to teach me a critical word: veen (my phonetic spelling). It translates as “him”. He explained that when you hear it spoken among the guests who have arrived, you know they are talking about you. I have kept my ear open ever since.

Christmas Eve was also my introduction to the Ukrainian Church. The Kordan family was enjoying the evening, listening to a special broadcast, entirely in Ukrainian, words and songs, all Greek to my ears, as Olga’s Mom was preparing to attend midnight mass. It was apparent no one would be joining her and I was told she would get there by public transit. I found it odd she would go alone, and given my car habits considered the subway/bus alternative as particularly onerous; so I volunteered to accompany her, driving my vehicle. (Or maybe I was subconsciously attempting to endear myself to Olga’s parents?) Everyone else looked at me with puzzlement, shrugged their shoulders and away we went.

I was clueless, with no idea what would happen next. There were no seats available at the church, so we stood in the balcony for the two hour service, entirely in Ukrainian, with vaguely familiar elements, parishioners constantly making the sign of the cross, always in threes, from beginning to end, until the final “Ameen” which concluded the service. I have not participated in the Ukrainian Christmas Eve mass since.

That Christmas would be the first gift exchange between Olga and myself. My present was a wooden candle holder, capped with hurricane glass, which, somewhat coincidentally, resembled the CN Tower. The piece was retained for several years before it found its way to Value Village. Olga, on the other hand, decided to learn the art of knitting and spent numerous weeks creating a beautiful scarf for me. It is a three feet long, six inch wide, variegated pattern of brown, white and grey thick yarn, making it the warmest wrapping in the closet for my neck. It remains one of my most memorable gifts and the first choice for those cold winter days.

I remember our first “English” Christmas as a married couple, housed in our tiny apartment on Victoria Street in London, Ontario. The elfish tree was bought for five dollars from the A&P parking lot immediately behind our three story walk up, in direct view of our balcony. The only purchased decoration was the lighted circle of poinsettias serving as our topping; the small string of lights were a gift from my parents, and the decorations were hand made, teddy bears with cute red ribbon ties. Olga and I began our tradition of baking cookies by inviting my parents and brothers, Gary and Michael (Peter was not yet in London for the holidays) for a hilarious evening of dough and icing and beer.

Money was tight so we decided to limit our gift budget for each other to $10, not including tax. Even in 1983, the amount was a challenge if your desire was to purchase something of quality with lasting value. Olga appreciated antiques, be it furniture or pottery or jewelry. We had spent Sundays in Toronto at the antique market at Harbourfront and perused stores in London for bargains. I thought to find a treasure within the price range when I stumbled upon a delicate, eggshell, hand-painted tea cup and saucer. It was perfect, ringing in at $10.70 (seven percent sales tax).

I was proud of myself as Olga unwrapped the box, thrilled by the gift. It quickly found a place on the shelf of our antique wooden bookcase with the glass door and remains in our collection of fine pottery and dishware. Olga’s gift for me was a pair of vice grips; exactly what every practical guy needs. The memory will forever remain, unlike the tool which disappeared many years ago.

I remember the first Chirstmas without family gathered around the tree, last December, the year the Grinch made his attempt to spoil the season. The province had imposed strict limits for any kind of gathering making celebrating together, in person, both unadvisable and technically illegal. COVID was surging so the prudent decision was to celebrate virtually with family. Olga and I, however, wanted to add a little twist, try to include some fun, make the most of the situation. We purchased matching festive suits and visited our children’s homes as Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus on December 24.

We met the two couples, Nicholas & Chiu, then Olena & Daniel, outdoors, at their respective homes and sang Christmas carols, identifying four in advance, requiring them to make a request for two more. We drank hot chocolate on the front porch of the first stop, vehicles driving past, honking their horns, and neighbours walking their dogs wishing us a Merry Christmas. At the next, we were treated to homemade snacks and baked goods on the back porch but not before singing a carol to the neighbours and handing out candy canes to the children.

The trip was also to deliver their present: a COVID survival box containing books, booze, puzzles, fake snowballs, a cowbell, his and her underwear (ooh la la!), a warm blanket and a waffle maker. We opened the respective boxes together while video conferencing Christmas morning, in our housecoats and pyjamas, with laughter and love. The items were ephemeral; the memories are forever.

I don’t know what I will remember from this Christmas, the circumstances are changing constantly. What was anticipated as a day approaching “normal” has evaporated with the exploding case count and concomitant announcements of restrictive measures to tackle the onslaught of omicron. As I write, the beautiful, dulcet voice of Harry Belafonte sings in the background, part of a lengthy play list of our favourite festive songs, secular and sacred. They are a reminder of the best of the season, a feeling that never grows old, a joyous spirit celebrated with the people you love, regardless of the Christmas present.

Here is wishing you a Merry Christmas, filled with friends and family in whatever manner possible; and may the day bring renewed happiness and memories to share and cherish this time again next year.

You’ve Got Mail

Another Christmas card arrived in the mail today, a welcome alternative to the flyers and bills and requests for money which clutter the box in December. The number of cards sent and received is shrinking but it is a tradition which marks the holiday season in the same manner as purchasing a real tree.

Christmas cards were more common growing up, with the bulk arriving at our home from the Netherlands. My mother was challenged to find new and inventive ways to display them. There were not enough shelves or window sills in the house so an alternative became necessary. I remember one year when a string stretched across the diagonal of the front room, hung from one corner to the other, filled with cards accumulated in the weeks preceding December 25.

The cards represented family, a neighbour, a friend, or a connection, not to be forgotten; and if you received one from an unexpected person, then you would rush out for another stamp to send a return card hoping it would arrive by Christmas. Similarly, if repeated mailings were not reciprocated, the address was scrapped from the list for next time. I don’t recall my mother retaining any after the New Year so I suspect they were discarded to clear room for another batch to commemorate the next occasion.

Olga and I save a number of cards we have received through the years, stored with our tree decorations. Each Christmas we uncover the bundle and reminisce, sifting through them, thinking back to the people or the time and the reason this particular one is treasured. Some of them are placed among the new because of their beauty. A couple cards from Tante (Aunt) Toos get displayed every Christmas.

The cards themselves are small, 4 X 6 inches, plain, blank inside where she would sign her name and include the Dutch version of cheer for the season. They are a keepsake because the decorative centre piece is cross stitched by her, special for Christmas. The scanned photos do not fully display the intricate needlework of these wonderful handmade crafts. I am unaware who else would have been sent these delicate cards and hope the people cherished them in a similar manner. It is difficult to imagine simply tossing them into the garbage at the end of the holidays.

Sometimes a card is kept for the message and for the sender. We received a greeting every year from my parents, always on time, completed in my mother’s handwriting, signing for the both of them.

On this particular message, the year was not necessary as the question mark clearly situates this card in the days leading up to Christmas in 1987. It would be the first year we had not travelled to London to celebrate with them. The baby was due around the 25th and Olga was much too pregnant to travel. We spent Christmas Eve listening to the radio in our near empty living room in anticipation of labour pains. Those began two days later as our world was blessed again with Olena on December 27 to complete the blank spot in all subsequent cards.

Dad continued to send them even when he became incapable of writing. He would turn to others to purchase, sign and mail to our home address. We have hung on to a couple of these as well, as a marker of the change.

One of the joys of parenthood is to open a card from your grown children after they have moved away, at first on their own and later with a partner. It is heartwarming how they have taken care in the selection and hand written inscription.

We are looking forward to spending Christmas Eve and the holiday season with you! We’re the cute little kittens at the door with the red bows on our necks saying “Let me in! We want to be with you this Christmas!” Love you guys a lot, Nicholas & Chiu

To Mom & Dad – famous world travelers. May your home be filled with the sights, smells, wonder and magic of Christmas! With lots of love, Two silly monkeys, Olena & Daniel.

We have retained several cards from Nicholas/Chiu and Olena/Daniel, all with messages of love and a touch of humour.

The unspoken can be as endearing, meriting the card as a keeper, like the one where Christian signs his own name beside his parents for the very first time. Another from Olga’s Mom whose written English was never developed and so began relying on one of the grand children to select and include the correct salutations while she wrote a message in Ukrainian in her rudimentary penmanship. Then there are those from relatives in the Netherlands whose English is poor or none existent yet manage to transcribe “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” special for us.

We look forward to the families of friends and relatives who produce cards with photographs. Olga and I have retained each one, placing them in order of years and marveling how the children have grown as everyone matures. Finally there are the ones too beautiful to discard, pictures or works of art or magical scenes, finding their way back onto the mantle in subsequent years.

The tactile experience of cards, gazing at the images, feeling the embossed figures, smiling at the messages, cannot be replaced. They represent the joy of giving and receiving in the simplest exchange of love and friendship.

The number of cards have dwindled with the passing of many older relatives and the prevalence of other forms of communication. New addresses have not kept up with the ones no longer applicable. We await the mail every day anticipating the next one or two to add to our collection as it grows incrementally.

Remembering our family and friends close to home and far away….

Remembering people with whom we have lost touch…

Remembering people who we have lost….

Remembering people.

Novememoir

If one is intending to write a memoir, reading other people’s version would be a logical way to improve and learn. My goal for enrolling in the memoir writing course was to enhance my writing skills. The work published in my blog seemed to me to lend themselves more to history; yet, after a few weeks into the course, I understood how they could be transformed. The resource section includes a recommended reading list with examples of various writing styles. Reading several might help steer an aspiring writer into a format indicative of his/her style and voice.

Viking Canada, 2021. 302 pages

With that intention, I stumbled on this new release perusing the shelves at the bookstore. Pluck: A Memoir of a Newfoundland Childhood and the Raucous, Terrible, Amazing Journey to Becoming a Novelist appealed to my curiosity for the title alone. I recognized the author, Donna Morrissey, having several of her novels on my shelf. I purchased her debut novel, Kit’s Law, in 1999 during my first and only trip to St. John’s Newfoundland. (Spoiler alert: it is the book Donna Morrissey publishes at the end of the memoir – although you probably figured it out based on the timelines.) She went to publish five more novels, a few nominated for some major awards and winning a few for Eastern Canada authors. I have been collecting her work since but must confess, have yet to read any of them. The completion of Pluck has whetted my appetite for delving into her novels in the future.

The book opens with an eight year old Donna returning home from a day exploring the shores of White Bay harbouring the family’s fishing village, The Beaches, in 1964. She is met outside by Aunt Rose who broke the news of the death of Baby Paul even though Donna could not comprehend the meaning. It wasn’t until she approached the casket whilst the adults were still asleep when Donna discovered the meaning: The white box was on the table, the cover was off. Baby Paul was still and silent as stone. The little bump of his nose was the only curve on his tiny white face. I crept closer. The smell of soap from yesterday became stronger. I lifted my hand as my mother had done. I touched it to his forehead and leapt back with a cry of fright. His skin was cold, as cold as sea ice. I knew then what death was. The scene set the tone for the immediate fallout and for another death many years later which would have a dramatic effect on Donna and the entire family.

There are events which seem particular to the East Coast, especially to the fishing villages or small towns of Newfoundland. The prose is scattered with local humour, my favourite being, “Normal. I was as normal as a rubber boot in a microwave oven.”

Donna Morrissey stresses the value of fortitude as she witnessed in her parents, and which served her well in completing her first work of fiction. “I was daunted by [my mother’s] fortitude, and by my father’s later that spring…..Fortitude. Without it, I was to learn, all other virtues wither on the vine.” And then a couple chapters later, “And it was there, on that dark and loneliest of roads, that I’d be granted yet another grace: that of fortitude. And through it bump up against the immensity of God.”

There are similar statements about the impact of God scattered throughout the memoir without an explanation until the very end, in the Epilogue: “I did not go looking for God, the Keeper of light and the Giver of gifts. I found God through tragedy, horror, and grief, and within the gifts of grace, of joy, and of love.” There is no sense of religiosity or spirituality in the retelling of hers and her family’s story. It would appear the process itself, the deep examination and thoughtful reflection of their lives, which enlightened her to a renewed perspective.

The level of recall detail here and in other works have always intimidated my own writing, having difficulty remembering every moment of important events in my own life. Donna Morrissey addresses this question at the end in the author’s notes. She explains the efforts to confirm and check with others involved, some of whom had another perception of the story; nevertheless, “the events I describe are wholly true and recounted in good faith”, consistent with the message of other writers and that of the memoir writing course. The lesson is one which will serve me well attempting to fill in my own gaps.

Scribner, 2017. 217 pages.

Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation by Kyo Maclear is one of the recommended memoirs for students of the course. It won the Trillium book award in 2018. I had already owned a copy along with her second adult novel, Stray Love. Kyo Maclear is more commonly known for her illustrated children’s literature, having produced seven so far, and counting. Her father is the journalist and documentary filmmaker Michael Maclear, which is relevant only in that his travels and workaholic lifestyle had an impact on their relationship, as one might imagine.

The memoir writing course includes an excerpt from Birds Art Life which is a description of Kyo spending time with her dying father, in the hospital: “My work now came with a recognition that my father, the person who had instilled in me a love of language, who had led me to the writing life, was losing words rapidly. ” The section was selected because it encapsulated the lessons of the chapter: use all five senses; show, don’t tell; avoid cliches; write good sentences; and eliminate sloppy grammatical errors.

As the title states, the book is a year when Kyo Maclear takes up birding with the accompaniment of a fellow amateur birder known only as the musician. They explore the birds of Toronto throughout the four seasons while Kyo reflects on her own life with a growing family, aging parents, and a dying father. The reader is presented with extremely well written observations on birds, art, and life.

The instinct for liberty may be deeply ingrained, but we are all captive in some way to something. We may be held in place by the confinement of tradition or trapped in relationships (family, marital, professional) that grow to feel like cupboards – comfortable, well appointed but cupboards nonetheless. Or we may be stalled by our fear of immensities and the free fall of the unknown. We may be captive when we choose financial stability over artistic freedom, when we live our lives like agoraphobics, confusing the safety of a locked house with security. The cage of habit. The cage of ego. The cage of ambition. The cage of materialism. The line between freedom from fear and freedom from danger is not always easy to discern.

This paragraph displays her predilection for repetition of words or phrases or sentence structure. There are numerous examples: every sentence beginning with “we”; two pages of “I remember”; a series of “stones for”; another paragraph of “I regret”. However noticeable, the style is effective in pressing a point, emphasizing an impression, rather than being overused. Although I cannot imagine employing the strategy with the same frequency, her utilization provides confidence to write in a similar manner whenever the situation warrants. The structure of the book itself is informative as well. The narrative of birding during this particular year is surrounded by issues of her history of immigration and family accompanied by her concomitant evolving emotions.

I will finish with one more profound quote: “if you watch life through binoculars, your vision is naturally blinkered”.

Palimpsest Press, 2020. 147 pages

My last read for November was the 2021 winner of the Governor General Prize for non-fiction, alfabet/alphabet: a memoir of a first language by Sadiqa de Meijer. Her debut poetry collection was shortlisted for the GG prize in 2014 and  her poem “Great Aunt Unmarried” won the CBC Canada Writes award for poetry in 2012. Sadiqa was born in Amsterdam to parents of mixed heritage and moved with the family to Canada at the age of 12. I was hooked into purchasing and reading because the back cover describes the book as “the record of Sadiqa de Meijer’s transition from speaking Dutch to English.” The description had me thinking it could inform an understanding of my parents’ experience. At only 147 pages, I would be able to finish by end of the month and cap off Novememoir. Completing it took longer than expected largely because of it’s unusual format and in part, the subject matter was not always rivetting.

The chapters tend to alternate between a lesson in linguistics and a reflection of growing up, the latter most interesting, the former sometimes very dull. The chapter entitled “stilte/silence” is the most egregious. It begins with a column of English words parallel to a column of the same word in Dutch. The first paragraph then begins “In English, the words on this list are pronounced as trochees, with weight placed on the first syllable, while in Dutch they are iambs,” etc. The rest of the chapter is a discussion of the various translations of a poem, seemingly at odds with the rest of the book.

Yet at times the description of her experience is poetic and reflects the title:

The countryside is linear and disciplined; nature in the governance of engineers. As a child on road trips, I would sometimes experience an illusion of scale; the sense that I was large enough to reach out my gigantic hand an tenderly stroke the landscape as it passed. Now, from the train, it’s almost as if language rises like a vapour, an early morning fog that fills the drainage creeks and blankets the tilled soil, and might drift to reveal the otherworldly dance of a stork, that clicking bird whose name is all long vowels and soft consonants, ooievaar. Then English suddenly feels awkward and contrived; a dream I’ve had in which my tongue didn’t work quite right.

I was amused by the discussion of Dutch words and their similarity with English; Sadiqa’s experience of living in the Netherlands as a child of mixed heritage is also revealing. The frequency of the lessons in language, however, detracts and makes me wonder what the judges saw to award it the prize for non-fiction.

Next month will be a continuation of reading more memoirs, but not necessarily Canadian.

Until then, happy reading.

Return to Sender

Today would have been Dad’s 89th birthday. Petrus Gerardus Cornelius Aloysius de Cock was born on this day, November 27, 1932 in Tilburg, the Netherlands. Return to Sender is a story about my writing to him up until his death at a long term care home in Wallaceburg, April 2, 2019.

The notes began when the phone calls ended.

Dad would telephone us every weekend as part of his Sunday ritual. The practice began when Olga and I moved from London to Toronto 37 years earlier. Mom initiated these conversations, checking in each week, asking about everything and nothing in particular. When she passed away, Dad continued the phone calls. Hearing our voices helped fill the silence and loneliness Dad felt after losing his partner of almost fifty years. Olga and I would schedule our breakfast in anticipation of the inevitable ringing; on occasion, when we were not going to be home, we would make the call ourselves. 

The number of phone calls increased when we were planning an international vacation, or I was headed abroad for a work-related trip. They began in the weeks leading to the eventual departure, culminating in a farewell send-off the morning of: “I wanted to wish you a safe trip. Call me when you come back.” When we travelled to Dad’s homeland, the Netherlands, we stayed with his brother, whom he would call every single day asking about our whereabouts, what had we seen, what site would be next.  When I travelled abroad, alone, for work, I wrote daily emails in hopes someone would relay the letters to Dad so he could enjoy adventures in countries he would never have the chance to visit himself.   

Selfie with Dad in February, 2019

After he moved into a retirement home in Wallaceburg several years ago, Dad was diagnosed with normal pressure hydrocephalus, commonly known as water on the brain. Easily mistaken for Alzheimer’s disease, the symptoms include loss of gait, falling over, cognitive impairment and dementia. A stint implantation in the back of his head showed promise for improved mobility but after six months he had reverted to his previous deteriorating condition. When Dad could no longer manage to remember our number, we would call him at approximately the same time each Sunday. It was now our turn to initiate the weekly connection. Dad had increasing difficulty balancing the phone to his ear especially after stumbling across the small apartment to pick up the receiver. The conversations became challenging as well; “I know I’m not all there” was a common refrain as we attempted to explain or elaborate or repeat a message. After only a couple years, when his physical needs exceeded the capacity of the staff, Dad was moved into a long-term care facility. By then he had lost his ability to speak.

The telephone went silent; our connection was lost.

A spontaneous purchase of a couple postcards during a work trip to Prince Edward Island was the beginning of my attempt to bridge the chasm. Shortly afterwards, I again mailed several postcards during a two-week stint at our cottage. At that point I took to writing a note to him on a card every week for the next eight months and sending a postcard from each destination of my personal and professional travels. The subject matter was not profound. It reflected the content of our weekly telephone exchanges, addressing questions he would have asked: how was the weather? How was work? What are the kids up to? Did you see the Leafs game last night?

Dear Dad,

Well, the hockey season has begun, and your beloved Maple Leafs have started their march to the Stanley Cup! I don’t know if that will happen, but it certainly will provide a season of excitement and ongoing conjecture.

Cannot recall if we mentioned that Olena and Daniel are in Colombia for two weeks vacation. She has sent along pictures and looks to be having a wonderful time. Colombia was not high on our list of places to visit but Olena is loving the place.

Nicholas is starting to interview for jobs next summer. The idea of selection eight months in advance appears unusual but clearly normal in the field of law. He is excited about the possibilities.

Love, Henry and Olga

I was never sure when or how the cards were received. Frank, husband of another resident, explained that Dad would sit at his table in the central activity area with several cards spread out in front of him. The local priest would stop by, engage in some questions about the day; then Dad would push a twisted hand in the direction of the card, slowly tilt his cowering head toward the priest, prompting him to begin reading.

On the other days Frank himself would meander over to Dad’s spot, the same set of cards still splayed out on the table. “Do you have a new card, Peter? Would you like me to read them?” Dad would tilt his head, open his eyes a little wider and listen to Frank’s Scottish drawl. Later in the afternoon my brother would pop in on his way home from work. The cards still there, Michael would read them as if for the first time, having gone through the same routine, with the same cards, two days earlier.

Dear Dad,

Today was the first full day of the conference and I presented at the second session. It went very well except technical glitches with the projector. Like a stand-up comedian I just kept talking while the hotel technical staff fixed the problem.

The afternoon speaker was a musical therapist who spoke of her work which had nothing to do with the conference. It was sheer delight. She spoke of essential songs or ones to which we identify.

On a walk in the sun, after the session, I thought of you and the The Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash. For Mom, I thought of Leaving on a Jet Plane by Peter, Paul and Mary. “Leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again”. “One more time let me kiss you, then close your eyes and I’ll be on my way”.

Maybe someone can sing it for you.

Love, Henry

Olga connecting Dad with the one of the kids using the iphone.

The trip from our home in Toronto to Wallaceburg is a full three hours, 300 km. of mostly highway driving. The visits would be an hour, maybe an hour and a half, of comments and familial news, trying to solicit a nod, or a smile, or the raising of an eyebrow. The one-sided conversation evaporated quickly. If the weather was warm, we would push the wheelchair into the garden to luxuriate in the sunshine, where the topic would be about gardens, remembering the ones from his home. Dad would close his eyes, raise his head in the direction of the sun, letting the rays engulf his body, reminiscent of the afternoons in his own backyard watching the grass grow. Olga would rub Dad’s curling and stiffening hands, dexterity long lost, their only use reduced to chin scratching.

Dear Dad,

It was another glorious day here in Calgary. The temperature was a brisk 0 degrees in the morning, but it slowly warmed with the sun to become wonderful walking weather. The city has created a well maintained, carefully constructed trail around the river. I walked it at length.

Trips like these also give me the opportunity to read. And on this one I have been reading a book entitled, “All Things Consoled”, a daughter’s memoir about taking care of her aging parents. I thought of the book throughout my stroll today as I also heard an accordion playing “my beautiful Sunday, say that you love me, my my my it’s a beautiful day”.

It reminded me of a passage from the book when the daughter asked about why the mother wanted to continue. The mother said, “because it is so beautiful outside”.

Till next time.

Love, Henry

We were never quite sure how much Dad understood. If we arrived to find him sleeping, fifteen or more minutes would pass before his brain engaged. When his eyes opened wide and bright, we knew he recognized us and he began to be cognizant of our attempts at communication. I started to read to him as an alternative form of stimulation beyond the regular monologue. I began with a book about the occupation of the Netherlands in World War II, knowing he could relate to the content and maybe conjure up some memories. His shortened attention span prevented him from grasping the content; Dad eventually withdrew, closed his eyes and fell asleep.  

Dear Dad,

Today was the 100th anniversary of Remembrance Day. I hope you were able to watch the ceremonies on the television and observed the two minutes of silence. I remember the stories from you and Mom about life during the Second World War and many of the everyday necessities of your families in order to survive.

I worked in the garden today, wrapping up the yard for the winter, and listened to CBC radio broadcasting from Ottawa. I stood, cap off, for the moment of silence, hearing the bells of Parliament Hill sound the eleventh hour. Bag pipes ended it which was punctuated by fighter jets overhead; then, the remainder of the Last Post was played. Olga was at a workshop for yoga today and they also paused to remember. I can’t say the same for some neighbour who fouled the air blowing leaves the whole time. You used to talk of the whole country stopping everything for those two minutes. Wish we could do the same here.

We also understand the home is celebrating your birthday this week. We wish we were able to be there. Hope it was fun.

Lest we forget.

Love, Henry and Olga

One of the last photos of Dad, taken a month before his passing on April 2, 2019.

In my last visit, I was alone but facetimed-in Olga who spoke to Dad, asking questions, providing words of encouragement. This time his eyes were pleading. He was saying goodbye. Dad had stopped eating and began refusing the medication by pushing them out of his mouth every time a nurse snuck some past his lips. He did not want to live anymore, not in this manner. It was time to join Mom, to be together with her again. On that Sunday evening, when I returned home, I wrote another card knowing the end of his life was close.

Dear Dad,

Mother Nature played an early joke on us with a downfall of snow over the weekend just as the last of the icebergs around the house had disappeared. This morning the skies and the grounds are clear and once again, the weatherman is promising better temperatures this week.

The real promise, however, is the sound of birds in the trees, singing the music of warmer days. Signs of hope are popping through the garden soil, with spots of green sprouting where flowers will soon appear. On one hand, spring is the ugliest time with brown dirt and unkempt grasses and filth uncovered.

But it is the budding trees, the peeking perennial plants telling us not to worry, all will be better, and we will be with the beauty of summer soon.

Love, Henry and Olga

Dad died a few days later.  His room had been emptied by the time my card arrived. The long-term care staff stuck it back in the mail, bouncing to my home a week after the funeral. Someone had unceremoniously scratched through the address and printed neatly, “Return to Sender”. The post office list for potential reasons was checked off beside “moved/unknown”, the next best option to passed away, a euphemism for a euphemism.

The writing of notes and postcards stopped.

I managed to recover all of them; and in rereading, I realize how they form a memoir of sorts, a marking of the events of my world – some profound, some mundane, some needing to be read out loud, others to be savored privately. I miss both my parents. I miss sending the notes. Now, the emptiness is filled by memories resurrected through photographs of their life in Canada; and, through my writing.

Training 101

On October 8, Olga and I purchased a Samoyed from a breeder near Peterborough, Ont. He came with the name, Smirnoff, which we were quick to replace with Odin. This 9 month old puppy was certainly bigger than we anticipated (61 pounds according to our vet) and younger; we had our name on a list for a two year old. The breeder offered a younger one and we accepted, not wanting to miss out.

Cats had always been the pet of choice in our household. Olga had been harboring felines as a child and she had adopted Heidi prior to our marriage. When we eventually had to put down Heidi, Nicholas and Olena were very young; it was our intention to acquire another animal. Olga and I believed a pet would help in their emotional development, particularly their sense of empathy. We had considered a dog but realistically believed a cat (or two) would be easier to manage specifically because we both worked fulltime. A dog would require more daytime attention, something we could not provide given the circumstances; so, we adopted two kittens, brothers, Milo and Otis. Skip forward to 2016, Milo had reached his end and our household has been without a pet since.

Our home was missing a presence especially now that our excursions were few given the limitations of COVID-19. We thought about the long-term benefits of the company a pet would bring along with routines and expectations to provide some structure to the days ahead. Adopting a cat proved problematic (stories for another day) and Olga’s research suggested the temperament of a Samoyed would suit our sensibilities. A chance meeting on the street with a couple walking a female version of the breed cemented the decision to pursue one.

The first few days were bliss. Odin was crate trained and house trained; he was quiet and docile on our first walks, oblivious to other dogs and squirrels; he slept through the night and was completely compliant on our ride to the cottage. We had scored. Issues began to arise during the five days at the lake as walks became increasingly difficult and Odin played rough, nipping and grabbing as if we were his toys. The overstimulation of the environment appeared to have obliterated whatever lessons were learned; bad habits were emerging. Odin needed to be trained systematically in order to get back to square one.

Samoyeds are reported to be smart and willful, with a reputation of being difficult to train. YouTube displays numerous training procedures, all professing the technique to teach even the most irascible canine. The best ones focus on a form of operant conditioning, rewarding the desired behaviour with an endless supply of treats, the most tasty saved for the unusually difficult tasks. The dogs in the videos all respond immediately; success is achieved in a manner never matched by our own efforts. Patience in these matters has never been my strong suit. On one evening Odin had been barking incessantly, something new, eventually defecating on the floor, in two spots, one pile squishing beneath my slippered feet. I lost it. The clean up was a scene of huffing and yelling and fury, a display of temper akin to a pipe bursting under pressure; an embarrassment, really.

The next day, at approximately the same time, just as Olga was preparing supper, Odin’s barking began again; surely a sign of needing to relieve himself so I put on the leash and led him to the backyard. Nothing happened. Odin was only interested in playing, chasing birds and squirrels, finding sticks to carry, frolicking. The events of the previous day girded my resolve to wait him out, my will versus his stubbornness, my insistence of showing who is boss. As I waited Odin kept finding different ways to annoy me. Darkness was setting in, supper was waiting yet all he wanted was to dig up the grass here, there, there and back here. I grew angrier and yanked harder with each new annoyance until the last one when my eyes widened, my teeth gritted, my heart raced and suddenly I saw my Dad, a visceral recollection of him attempting to “train” Duke.

I scared myself.

We had two dogs when I was growing up as a teenager, both named Duke. The first didn’t last, a stray which ran went for a romp in the neighbouring field and never returned. I don’t recall the number of years, five or six, when we had Duke, the second one. And as much as Duke was a fixture, pictures of him are rare. This one was from the summer of 1980 on the front lawn of our Kostis Avenue home, my mother in the background.

Duke was picked up at the Aylmer Sales Arena by Mr. Gooyers who bought and sold pigs there weekly where someone was giving away a litter of pups. Duke’s features suggested he was a cross between a German Sheppard and a St. Bernard. He was a big dog who could easily put his front paws on my shoulders.

I don’t recall precisely all the details of his upbringing except that I was not directly involved; my parents assumed those responsibilities. I have visions of my Dad being the disciplinarian, the one to direct Duke into the correct behaviour utilizing corporal punishment when required. His was also a form of operant conditioning, inflicting some form of physical inducement to modify Duke’s actions. Dad was not cruel; he was administering the lessons as learned through his upbringing, influenced by the acceptable understanding of the time. Pets are not people; they belong outside and your job was to demonstrate yourself as the master. Both my parents would have laughed at the current practice of a treat to reward a positive act; when you wanted the dog to leave something, you tamped on the snout, you spoke angrily, you did not provide a delicious snack to recognize the dog’s restraint. And if the dog did not move, you did not coax him with food; rather, you yanked on the collar and pulled him with the chain until the dog finally got the message. Those are the images which spooked me on that pivotal evening two weeks ago.

Duke was a very good dog for the family. Us four boys rough-housed with him, mimicking our own style of play with each other. Duke enjoyed our company and we his. I remember vigorously ruffling his fur, putting my whole fist in his mouth, feeding him coffee beans to laugh at his attempt to eat them. My Mother grew increasingly attached to Duke, especially for company when she was home alone, letting him stay indoors when Dad worked the night shift.

Duke was also very protective of everyone in the family, a trait which eventually led to his downfall. I remember a close friend stepping into our home, coming to pick me up for a night out. Charlie put his hand on my shoulder to say hello whereby Duke reared up to grab his arm and pull it down, sitting to guard me until we left. Duke flashed a mean streak on occasion, growling if you came too close while he was eating, or snapping from his house where he ensconced himself to ward off discipline for some transgression. The final straw was breaking his chain to lunge at the delivery man for handing mail to my mother. Duke could no longer be trusted with other people so he had to be put down.

Duke’s reaction was the consequence of his “training”; he responded in kind during moments of perceived stress. My difficult evening with Odin conjured up those memories. I wanted my actions with him to be the foundation for a mutual, respectful understanding of each other’s needs. I needed to train myself as much as Odin needed to be trained, properly, with consistency and gentle firmness and love.

Olga is a much more patient person and has spent hours sifting through training videos, seeking advice from on-line Samoyed owner Facebook pages, attempting the different methods to arrive at the most effective approach. She brings the wisdom and affection of a mother along with the knowledge of toddler development. I am endeavouring to train in the same manner and keep myself in check. Odin has responded daily, modifying his behaviour with each repeated lesson as we learn about the most advantageous approach for him and ourselves. Odin’s endearing character shines more frequently as he plays tug with the chew toys, gazes up at you with those puppy eyes, rolls onto his back with feet splayed so we can rub his belly, falls asleep on the ground beside you with his head in our lap, walks proudly alongside you, instep, around the neighbourhood, and greets new people with nose prodding, tail wagging enthusiasm. Odin is our huggable, little polar bear. There are still moments of frustration to which we attempt to address with ideas on what we need to do differently; training 101.

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