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Category Archives: Places & Experiences

Something’s not right – this is too easy.

It’s not about the hours in preparing lessons for ten different subjects, crafting new interactive assignments on paper and in my mind. Not about grading piles of papers, or the challenge of appropriately customizing assignments for those that need that. Not about calling parents or attending meetings, dealing with a down WiFi network or stuffy, windowless classroom with too few electrical outlets. That sort of thing would be a given no matter where I’d teach.

What’s not quite right is that these students make me feel like I’m good at this, when really, it’s just that they are extraordinarily non-diverse and conformist, unusually trusting, loved, and supported by their families and community. So all I have to do is be reasonably creative, cheerful, energetic and organized, and things come off pretty much without a hitch. What a good teacher I am. They even give me birthday cards and presents, and a giant teacher appreciation poster at the end of the year. At the close of each class, at least two students say thank you. The principal leaves little treats in our mailboxes and brings muffins and fruit to staff meetings, and parents believe what I tell them about their kids and thank me for all my efforts.

It’s not natural.

After my year at the alternative school (having survived to want to fight on), I was exhausted, but also fired up to get out there and use what I’d learned. I wanted to get out there and make a difference, share the incredible burden teachers take on of trying to meet the educational needs of a diverse, broken culture whose youth are experiencing loss, racism, abuse, the reverberations of childhood trauma, culture shock, mental health issues, and family dysfunction. AN in addition to all that, the worst thing of all, a sense of not being visible or valued. I

All the staff and most of the parents at my school are nice Christian people. Even the guy who I would say isn’t part of that culture must have mentioned God eight times in the graduation speech, because he knew that was how to relate best to these grads and their families. There was also a giant “Jesus” sign behind him only partially hidden by green and gold balloons. A prop of the congregation whose building we rent, but at any other school, it would have been covered up in case anyone complained that one religion was being emphasized in a school event. In this town, it’s covering it up that would cause problems.

Other than three Latino kids, who are adopted, one or two of slight Asian lineage, and a good number of (white, Christian) Russian families, the students are pretty much Dutch Reform Evangelical stock. Two of the female staff do have husbands of color, most likely they got aquainted out of town. Which just goes to show, one can’t make a lot of assumptions about viewpoints, only about demographics and related cultural norms.

I like an easy job as much as the next person, don’t long to be in an uphill battle all the time, but I want to have the wind in my face sometimes, to have someone to stick up for, and against, to feel useful in a bigger way. I gravitate toward the students who struggle, who irritate others, who resist, don’t fit in, need something more.

I told myself, and my family, I’d give it three years. By that time I’ll have set down some good routines and organizational strategies, become more efficient with my time and energy, and accumulated some good lesson and project plans in three levels of math and at least three sciences, as well as teaching experience from elementary up to twelfth grade. Then we’ll see. I’ll probably run out of room for the cute little presents that will come my way all that time. I just hope I haven’t got stuck in my groove, and forgotten why I’m in this profession.

 

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2017 in Education, Places & Experiences

 

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Teach me to live in a biosphere, which is real, not a global economy, which is not.

Sat on the chaise lounge and watched the bumblebees work over the raspberry blossoms in a sea of green. After three days of warm, sunny weather I felt confident in my decision to put away all winter coats, turn off the pilot light to the gas fireplace insert and switch off the main furnace. I’d seeded another round of four inch pots in lettuces, peas, onions,herbs, and a few flowers, and sowed beans and chard in the new garden plot off the patio, reclaimed from another corner of lawn. The air was turning cool, with rain expected–perfect for the seeds, though the tomatoes would slow down a bit. Almost time to put a bird net over the cherry trees, and the gangly limbs of the apple trees definitely needed some training and support–they were loaded with baby fruit.

I was thinking about the ways in which some of my students, maybe even a decent body, had been brought to understand something of the laws of nature–the ones that we humans ought to stop trying to ignore–such as there being finite resources on Earth that needed to be continuously recycled, that evolution is a constant and inevitable process, whatever religion says, and that there are fascinating miracles to explore at every turn, as well as inexorable forces we must reckon with, organism among organisms as we are, perched on this spinning rock blasted with radiation more powerful than thousands of nuclear bombs.

I have a mental space full of faces, ever expanding as I go through these years of teaching. Names may fade, but I will never un-know these young people, the 35-odd students I taught last year, the around eighty this year, counting middle, high and third graders. For once I get to teach at the same school–another novelty I look forward to. Ninth graders I’ll see in Physics and Algebra 1 next year, this year’s group will move on to the next math and show up for physics, too. Could be teaching some of the younger ones, though mostly high school. All the same colleagues with the addition of a new teacher–I hope I like her, bet I will.

Dan O’Neill, writer I sublet my summer office space from gave me his book, The Firecracker Boys, to give to my father, and since he’s all the way across the continent, I’m reading it before I send it there along with my son when he goes to college. It tells the story of how the Atomic Energy Commission started a group that was eager to test “peacetime uses” of nuclear power, and their first project was to be blasting a new harbor into the coast of Alaska. Their ignorance about the systems of the Earth and the disastrous effects that would result from their plan is astounding, and even though I know how the story ends, with the killing of the project and all similar ones due to the newly birthed environmental movement that arose there, I feel sick just thinking about how it might have been.

In environmental science we discussed why humans can have, want to have, even, such an outsized effect on the Earth’s systems, and yet do not seem essential to any of them in comparison to other organisms, such as, say, ants or eelgrass. The students were in agreement that if all humans suddenly vaporized, nothing would fall apart. We also explored the question of why humans, of all organisms, deliberately flout ecological principles, and what effect that might have, long term, on our species, on society. And, could there be a way to reconcile our ambitions to discover, build, and create, with the limitations that scientists are discovering that we must live within? Not to overly credit scientists–it took them hundreds of years, two steps forward, one step back (or vice versa) to catch up to some of that instinctive body-knowledge, that innate genetic wisdom, of our pre-historic ancestors.

The Fall–when and how did it happen? Was it the dawn of agriculture, or just agricultural commerce? Did it derive from the spread of the expression of new genes of cognition and self awareness? Was it accelerated by symbolic language and institutionalized ancient religions? Or was all that, really, progress?

Nowadays, just like the real estate bubble, we are talking again, in education circles, economics, science and technology, as if trends, what is happening, are the same as vision. “It’s a global economy–it’s an information age, so let’s get with it.” As I asked a mom I confide in periodically about my doubts about the value of schools systems, “Who’s driving this train and why should I get on–just because it’s going somewhere?”

My younger daughter shared with me how stressed she was about school–with the drive to maintain good grades, the pace, the hours, the lack of joy, the social pressure. By all appearances, she’s a successful student, but here she was in tears, wondering what the purpose of it all was. Her teachers were part of the problem, just because they had bought in. Their success wrapped up in rigor and performance-based assessment, not impact, enlightenment, and empowerment. I thought about the pressure I put on my Monday/Wednesday high school students, how as the test approached, I accelerated the pace of content exposure, started giving them testing tips and practice (while advising them, as the testing websites claimed, that success did not come from “test practice”  or extra study.

Friday classes were different, with only “delight-directed” activities (such as we could manage), no grades, no homework. That too appears to be about to be corrupted by the managers of the system, with a drive toward more “accountability” and record keeping. Hearing this fact at the staff meeting, I expressed my displeasure, tried to voice how dear are the values, to many homeschool families, of freedom and flexibility, as they are to teachers and students. Yes, it would drive away some families, it was acknowledged, this change, but it was what the state needed for financial accountability. Yes, families should drop out–they should save themselves, I thought. Funny how this whole parent partnership started to rope back in some of those opted out families with our flexible.part time program, and now that they’re hooked on the funding and free curriculum, we change the rules.

I sanctioned some respite for my daughter, called in and excused some skipped classes without giving clear reasons to the voice mail recorder, ignored the alarming-sounding letters citing the Becca Bill and mentioning court. She explained why she was skipping–the others were doing standardized testing she didn’t have to do and there was a sub; she’d already done the work and they weren’t learning anything new; they were playing soccer instead of having a lesson; she wanted to spend a few hours on her ceramics project. The ceramics studio, and its teacher, being the sanctuary so many students needed, a kind, blind eye turned and no questions asked. Refreshing subversion.

School is definitely part of the problem. We only need school because we’re a modern industrial society on a crash course with our destiny of ecological disaster, and it takes a lot of rigor to learn all the techniques that have got us into this mess, let alone the ones that maybe could get us out without sacrificing any modern luxuries–the ones we need at the end of our twelve hour labors. The future is coming. Let’s get there first.

Or, we could learn contextually everything we really need to know, like a cub from momma lion–how to get food and water, defend oneself without unnecessary energy expenditure or excessive harm to anyone else’s system, key social norms and boundaries (with the option of challenging them), how to play a musical instrument, and never to poop  in the water hole.

 

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Earth mama is getting wired

I eat granola I made myself with yogurt (I made myself). I make my own juice from berries I grew (myself), and the other day, I used up the last of my 2016 potatoes (with some of my frozen red peppers and herbs I dried and hung from my kitchen light fixtures), then went out and planted some more in my hand-cultivated beds, making room by pulling up some overwintered kale for this week’s salads.

As I casually mentioned today to the piano teacher after serving him some of my dried mint tea –rain water brewed–in the mug I threw and baked in a kiln I built, it was difficult to have to kill a rabbit I’d snared as a teen, but I’d got it done. The fact that I never ate them (Dad did, being raised in subsistence, partly), and that I then quit snaring, I regarded as an inconsistency, a weakness.

Did I mention I can sew, knit, and do macrame? Macrame is useful for hanging planters, and all you have to do to get a plant is pinch off and root a spider plant section, keeping it wet long enough. The more you stress a spider plant, the more likely it is to bud offspring, hopeful for a new life for its genes. This explains the declining birth rate in Western nations, and makes it likely that evolutionary favors the offspring of the resource-poor, stressed, and fundamentalists.

I can’t shoot a gun, though I have thought of taking lessons. Bow hunting would be better, as I think I could get away with bagging a few of the urban deer, if I kept quiet, and in theory, I could build my own hunting gear that way. I’m not into defending my property so much, or shooting migrants–they have as much right to survival as I do. I hope we can all work it out peacefully. They’re all the more likely to add some traditional skills back into our community, so hooked on tech. I bet a lot of them just want to pull out their seeds and plant a garden, just like me.

Sounds like the last, loud wail, death cry of the seed of culture I carried all this way. I am desperate, like the stressed spider plant, to pass on my memes. I have tried to root them,  but all my children are interested in careers in tech, because human services doesn’t pay. If I teach for my remaining few decades, I don’t know if anything will stick, and I am getting tired.

I watch Netflix now, relaxing into my (writing) chair after work, door closed on my family members, who want to watch something else. I log in, click, and let my mind drift, and consume. I thought I was strong, since I used to be little tempted to binge watch, or web surf, or download the usual apps (after reading the privacy policies). Nover even cared to master the art of the remote control, of which we have three. I thought I was an informed, enlightened user, selectively online for the information, the music and art, inspiration for my own creativity, and a little remote banking routine I started while overseas. I scoffed at those who scoffed at me for not upteching, (inconveniencing them in the process), thinking, someone has to be the remnant–I want to stay in the real world, be a producer, not just a consumer.

 

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2017 in Places & Experiences, Technology

 

The manner of her departure

Small pods of cells, tested, were interpreted as being out of line. Blood tests revealed showed hints of future troubles. And she wondered why she had become so lax, no longer stepping out in the cool of the evening to catch the rising scent of mown grass and crushed moss, or at rosy dawn to hear the chorus of birds. Why not travel, finally, to Alaska by boat this summer. Not even to take pictures, or write about it, but just to be in every moment she had left. Probably a long time, really–there was nothing to say otherwise–only the usual matters that arise in one’s sixth decade of life. She had been fortunate it had taken so long. “Really? No medications? None at all?” the nurse had repeated, incredulous.

She saw also in her alum magazine that it was that time, that death in her generation was no longer a tragic anomolgy, but a trend. Some had perished by fire and flood, but most were merely managing in bodies shutting down, or experiencing runaway biochemical processes that could not be stopped, only alleviated. Each name read opened up a porthole in her memory out of which flooded images, words, songs, various times of day and feelings. Each one a thread leading out of the rend between life and death, at least for a time. Each one who knows another bears a few such threads. Are they strengthened by writing it all down, or is that meaningless except to the writer. No, I think not.

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2017 in Places & Experiences

 

Longing for a tubal ligation

Finding myself escaping from my house a little too often, especially on the weekends and holidays, when all six of the family are parked there. Like a wolf pack at the point where there has to be a split of leadership, it feels like, and meanwhile there’s lots of noise and scuffling of claws, and the wood floor I refinished last summer is all scraped up. There are numerous “strong personalities” in the household, and in that popular personality type classification, there ain’t no golden retrievers around here (except during the welcome visits of my mother-in-law), nor much channeling of cheerful, fun-loving otter at times like those.

My husband is an early riser and is already up when I arrive in the kitchen for breakfast and chores. He’s researching some Black Friday sales and keeping an eye on the football game. Ive never really adjusted to the t.v. dominating any part of my life, and even though I value good film and even enjoy an occasional light screen diversion, I feel so saturated by tubal excretions lately (it doesn’t take much) that any interest in adding any more, even quality content, has drained away. The sports networks in particular are thieving away our time and quiet, and I call it out to no avail. It’s not just the game for a few hours any more, but the pre-game features and post- game analysis that basically takes all day. I long for quiet especially now that I’m in the classroom several time a week.

My youngest son is waiting for me in the kitchen, hoping for some hot breakfast, and I help him make cheesy scrambled eggs. As I fix my yoghurt and granola, one of the other lions arrive. This is a person who never wakes up cheerful or even pleasantly groggy, and unless we all walk on eggshells (or have already prepared white flour waffles with whipped cream, bacon on the side) there will be roaring within minutes. It’s as if that’s her way to get energized–she seeks conflict, has from her first manifestations of personality. When she was little I clued in that she enjoyed a play fight–the push and shove made her laugh and even feel special–touch as love language. She owns the rough-and-tumble husky, which helps, as I often forget that words don’t mean the same thing. Lately I’m the most likely human recipient of the first blast of irritability, and I feel obliged to remind her once again that rudeness isn’t allowed and that she should go back to her room until she’s ready to be civil. My husband tells me not to take it personally. I don’t want to take it at all.

After trying to facilitate a nice, friendly or at least “do no harm” atmosphere at home, and to maintain some leadership of the domestic environs (not that I want it, but because I’m seen as the main housekeeper when it comes to messes and maintenance) so that the six users don’t leave the kitchen and living room trashed, I feel myself losing ground and slipping into sarcasm, a victim mentality, and decide to make my first retreat, a time to my bedroom. It’s quieter, and I have the calming view of the bare trees blowing in the wind outside the window that covers more than half the width of the wall, rain knocked off the patio canopy and juncos foraging in the garden. But I can still hear the roaring from there, despite the new solid wood doors we installed this year. Not fighting, per se, but the debate over whose preferences to go with as to the day’s activities–walk? movie? pizza? shopping? The daughters throw around personal insults which at other times they’ve told me are just a peculiar expression of love–the term “idiot” being most prevalent, and I count five such in the space of a minute, all from the mouth of the lion. I lean back against four pillows, hoping someone decides to go for a walk or even see a movie. I get in my zone, the buzzing of complaints in my head eases and a more proactive agenda starts to emerge. I can get outside and work on refinishing chairs if I go pick up some more sandpaper and nails. The rain has eased off and maybe I’ll be able to finish building the last raised bed, set up some rain buckets to water the beds of greens I want to plant in the greenhouse for winter salads.

 

 

On to Montreal to see Sister 1

June, 2015

I spotted my sister before she saw us–she was standing outside her rented car looking over where we had just come from. Wasn’t sure if it was really her, as it was dim, and she was just far enough away, and I hadn’t seen her since 2009. I called out and she turned and smiled in recognition as we started over. I guess I looked pretty much the same, plus signs of the years and darker hair. But my daughter she looked at in a kind of wonder. It had been seven years, my daughter had been ten at our last visit, and was now six inches taller that her aunt, a tall, slim beauty.

We loaded up the suitcases and headed out in Amber’s rented car before the attendants could ticket it.

She is seven years younger than I, and when we were growing up, that was a lot. She and my youngest sister were close to each other, but to me, both were little playmates or annoyances, depending. I played with them, might have changed a diaper or two, sewed dresses for them, but they were like a different generation, me in seventh grade at a different school by the time Amber started kindergarten. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, nor do I resent it now, they were the reason Mom had her hands so full in my upper elementary to teen years.

In later years, though she graduated from McGill in music and stayed in Montreal, and I finished up my education degree and moved out west, we reconnected at times, with visits at the homestead, and once in Montreal. There was the connection of evangelical Christian faith then, found separately and in different ways, as well as the experience of independence of adulthood, and reflecting on the setting in which we grew up. Whenever we met we had lots to talk about and have felt at ease doing so. Still, we don’t know each other well, with only a few days every few years to go on. I have drifted away from her beliefs in many ways, but the awkwardness of that is not as it was. On my side, mostly, I guess–she has never been pushy or judgmental, and is a loving, service-oriented sort of person, and generally fun to be with. And she laughs at my jokes.

The day before was Moving Day in Montreal, just after all leases end or are renewed by law, and her new flat was full of boxes, taped, labeled and stacked. The street outside held evidence of several moves, including a set of bedroom churches bagged and labelled “punaises,” which late I found means bedbugs.

We helped my sister get her basic kitchen equipped and flatten some boxes. Her belongings were basic, but we found what we needed, and fried up something or other for supper. We each got a room and hit the sack after talking late.

You never really know some people–ever mysterious and wonderfully so. But at least with family there can be a given that you’ll stay connected over the years and keep at it, however slowly. Maybe getting to know siblings is confused by projection of self, in addition to various kinds of growing-up baggage. So many similarities, just by the fact of having the same parents and, in our case, our shared physical environment. The same people lived nearby, mostly still do in some form. One of my best friends had a sister that was one of Amber’s. We went to the same schools and had some of the same teachers, and our neighbors never changed, just grew up along with us, and eventually inherited the family place. We know the tides, winds, slow springs, humid Julys and tingle of first frosty October mornings followed by warm afternoons. We know the creak of our mother’s knees and sound of feet hollowly stepping up thirteen stairs, the particular thump of each bedroom door, the smell of newly mown hay and the first spread of cow manure on the nearby fields.

My daughter was helpful on this journey, pointing out qualities I had overlooked, similarities and differences she saw, and sometimes critiquing my less than perfect ways of communicating (mostly with my mother, as we shall see). Concerning my Montreal sister, I agree with my daughter’s comment, after all our visits were over, that she is the least like all the other siblings, or like our parents. For some reason, we don’t really count my youngest brother in the group, because he’s always marched to a different drummer, and been responded to differently, as we also shall see..

Amber looks different, for one, with her auburn-brown hair and chocolate brown eyes, wide mouth, pale skin and light freckles. Though we were all brought up with music, she was the only one that went whole-heartedly into music study, majoring in piano performance. She was a Bach fiend, winning lots of prizes at our local adjudicated music festival and holding her own even among the big fish at Montreal. She was so intent–loved to practice, outgrew two piano teachers, started accompanying a church choir all before heading to college. Our old wooden farmhouse with the finished pine floors resounded each day with wonderful sounds until she left. Mom and Dad would have sent the piano to her, if it had been practical.

I was off doing my own thing in those years—studying education, moving out west, and then getting engaged. We did all major in doing our own thing, not resenting each other for not keeping in great touch, but enjoying the connections we had from time to time. Our brother married his sweetheart Heather in Ontario, bringing the family together there for the wedding in 1993, and we three sisters sang “Wherever you Go, I Will Go” at the ceremony, then watched them drift off into a lake on a houseboat honeymoon.

Amber takes a relaxed approach to life and music now. She enjoys her job working as a student advisor in the engineering department at McGill (where she once met Justin Trudeau, though she didn’t recognize him, and when he requested to see her colleague, asked if he had an appointment. “It’ll be okay, he said.). She got a promotion (a different time), then dropped back down to her former position, because she enjoyed the pace and interactions more. She no longer plays Bach, but once she found the Lord (in charismatic movement of the ’90s connected to the “Toronto Blessing” happenings), gave her music to God entirely for worship, on her own and for her church and its offspring in various parts of the world. Our mother was not amused, but felt she’d “grow out of it” and go back to classical. Never did, though. Just more of a secret internal reality working out in mysterious ways.

I was first up on Sunday and took a walk along the St. Lawrence River a few blocks south. There’s a few miles of park, with trails paralleling the banks. It’s a huge river, a major shipping route from the Atlantic up into the interior via the Great Lakes, but no ships were noticeable from this side. I saw a heron, red-winged blackbirds, one tiny toad, ducks, moths, and a few cyclists and joggers. I stopped by a shallow pond and wondered why it held only plants, until I noticed there was a plastic liner blocking the water from the soil. That nixed it for amphibians and probably most aquatic insects as a habitat.

We had buckwheat pancakes, eggs, and coffee for breakfast. Amber had decided to skip church–surely always a priority otherwise, to hang out with us. The day before she had mentioned it, and I said sure we’d come, but either she sensed that I was only slightly into it and maybe just being polite, of just wanting to attend out of curiosity about her life, she offered to spend the morning hanging out with us, to her credit, I think.

After a slow morning, with eggs and bagels, we hoisted our day packs and headed to the metro and zipped downtown for a hike up Mount Royal in the center of town.

Processed with VSCO with m3 preset

It was a warm day for walking, but with a blessed breeze again. After lunch at the Lola Rosa, up we strode, taking the long route that zigzagged up instead of the series of stairs. There were bikers, strollers, and stroller pushers. There was a boy annoyed at his parents for going the slow way, while he wanted to vauly up the steps joining the switchbacks. Half way up there’s a park that reminded me of a Seurat painting, but for the concrete border around the pond.

Park, Mount Royal

At the top is a large, airy hall of stone with a central room that could be used for balls, symphonies, and large weddings or funerals, surrounded by a few shops. Outside on the plaza a colorfully painted piano had been set up for public use, and some people were gathered around as someone plinked away. The main city was visible from the edge of the summit, with the Fleuve St-Laurent (the river) in the background.

view of Montreal

After walking down Amber showed us the underground mall network, miles of tiles, artificially lit stores that must be a haven from the cold come winter. Caught the metro back, watched “Ant Man,” and slept among the boxes. The next day we bused out to the airport for our flight to Halifax.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2016 in Places & Experiences

 

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Mother-daughter travel

Mother and Daughter have just returned from a pleasant walk to get supper at McDonald’s (chicken wrap for Mom and fries to share) and immediately after that, Tim Horton’s (Caesar salad for vegetarian Daughter, who discovered that Tim’s Caesars include bacon). Mother suggested Daughter record a video or audio of the counter guy, who would call each customer forward with a “I can help who’s next, b’y.” Daughter received her order from an island matron who handed over her salad with a “Here you are, my darlin’.”

It was clear on the walk back to the B&B, the chilly north Atlantic wind and cloud banks having  finally receded after several days of blow. Now it is night, and Mother and Daughter recline against the pillows on their respective beds in the B&B. It’s last night in Newfoundland, time to access wifi for the first time in several days. Daughter is catching up on Youtube videos, Mother is writing a blog post. Daughter’s quiet, breathy laughter drifts across the room to Mother.

Mother: “S, it’s okay to laugh out loud, you know.”

Daughter: “Don’t tell me how to laugh.”

Mother (lightheartedly): “I’m not, but I’m going to now.”

Daughter: “You just sucked all the happiness out of the room.”

Mother (laughing) “S, you’re good for me.”

Daughter: “I’m good for everyone.”

Not a hard word, hardly, between my daughter and I, on this whole trip. I am so proud of her, that she has turned out such a quality person. Every one of my family members was blessed by her quiet, kind presence. Just the fact that she could be out of what many young people consider “civilization” and could actually enjoy herself, is impressive. Mom & Dad, who live so far away from us and have only seen these four of ours every few years, will be talking of the sweet moments with her that they enjoyed. Lunches in and out with Mom, walks along the trail and through the village, the dip in the frigid water that my eighty year old father and she took  in the cove, reading all together by the wood stove, exploring gift shops, museum, dock and beach.

It would not have been as good without her, that’s sure. I feel like I’ve come bearing gifts.

 

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