Category Archives: Childhood

Remembering a friend

My family lost a close and very dear friend back in February 2007. I think about him everyday. Back when it happened, I even wrote an editorial for one of my magazines about him. My publisher at the time pulled the editorial. He told me no one really cared about happenings in my own life. I disagreed, believing my readers  – mostly farmers – would be able to relate. Even so, I caved and wrote something “more suitable.”

I’ve saved that editorial all these years and I’ve decided to publish it here. The Genius once read it at a Toastmaster’s meeting – all the women cried. So be prepared.


My family lost a close and very dear friend recently.

My children had known him their entire lives, my husband for the past nine years or so, and I had been close to him (and he to me) for his entire life.

He was a joker and a free spirit who loved everyone. And everyone loved him right back. He was also the kind of friend you could rely on. When life was tough, he’d be there to talk with and lend a shoulder to cry on. He had a rough side, too. He was a risk taker, an explorer with an enthusiasm for life. We used to joke he’d probably die in mid-stride, on route to a new adventure.

Cancer got him in the end; his body shivering with pain, his breathing laboured.

His name was Jasper – Crystal Creek’s Jasper Jynx to be exact. He was my dog and, simply put, one of my very best friends.

Jasper as a puppy.

Jasper as a puppy.

Jasper entered my life 12-plus years ago, a headstrong liver and white coloured English Springer Spaniel puppy who cried and whimpered almost non-stop for the first two weeks he lived with me. I almost took him back to the breeder I had bought him from. But I persevered and he soon settled down.

If he could be described in one word, I think it would be exuberant – nothing got that crazy dog down. Everyday was a new adventure, every step a new discovery. He was my constant companion. If I went to the store, he rode shotgun. He slept under the covers of my bed at night. And when I went for evening walks on my parent’s farm, he was 20 feet ahead of me. We would walk four miles a day, from one concession to the next and then along a side concession and back again. His flag of a tail was always in front of me, never behind, always urging me on.

When I met my husband, Jasper was there. He was part of my “dowry” (along with a Clydesdale-Saddlebred cross mare named Bobbi) and made the move to my new urban home. My husband, a city boy who had never had a pet dog (which seemed very odd to me at the time and still does), wasn’t very enthusiastic about his new, four-footed housemate. To his credit, he built Jasper a state-of-the art, fully electrified and insulated, heated doghouse (our friends used to joke that all it needed was a computer and Internet access). But the dog didn’t use it for long. Soon, he was basking in the heat or air conditioning of the house. But never the bed – that’s where my husband drew the line.

A more mature Jasper.

A more mature Jasper.

Jasper and I just weren’t meant for city life. Eventually, my husband and I moved from our cramped city home to a small farm in the country. We hadn’t been in our farmhouse a month before Jasper started cleaning up the new neighbourhood, rousting both an opossum and raccoon family out of our barn and killing a fox.

Nothing gave him more pleasure than to chase barn cats and wild rabbits. The strange thing was, he was always good with the pet rabbits. We once had a massive rabbit break-out – the bunny equivalent of The Great Escape – and it was Jasper who caught them all, one at a time, dropping them at our feet unscathed, with only a few damp hairs and very hurt prides.

When the children came, Jasper was there. He wasn’t sure what to make of them. They smelled interesting but made a lot of noise, especially when he tried to clean their ears. They also didn’t move out of his way. But my husband and I seemed to like the babies so he put up with them. He never growled or snarled when his ears or tail were pulled. He followed the avoidance philosophy – if one of the little critters was bothering him, he’d just get up and leave.

Alex was very gifted at cleaning children's faces. Not all the children enjoyed this.

Jasper was very gifted at cleaning children’s faces. Not all the children enjoyed this.

Unfortunately, the kids grew up and became faster. I had difficulty explaining to my tear-stained little boy that Jasper wasn’t meant for riding. My daughter was convinced for the longest time the dog was really her brother. Both kids were also fond of pretending Jasper was their long-lost mother. I hadn’t the heart or the ability to make them understand the dog was actually a male – a neutered male at that. Jasper would roll his eyes and try to keep one step ahead of them as they crawled after him, yipping like puppies.

My daughter thought she was related to Jasper for the longest time. She thought he was her brother.

My daughter was convinced she was related to Jasper for the longest time. She thought he was her brother.

This past Halloween, my daughter insisted the dog dress as a skeleton, complete with glow-in-the-dark bones. It wasn’t long after that he actually began to resemble his Halloween self, the flesh melting from him. His sleek physique and shiny fur disappeared. We tried changing dog food, thinking perhaps his teeth couldn’t handle the crunchy kibble anymore. We tried soft food and soon shifted to canned. He lost weight while his stomach ballooned.

A visit to the vet before Christmas ended in tears. Tumours were growing near Jasper’s liver and spleen. He hadn’t long to live. We gave him the best Christmas ever, complete with liver pate and shrimp. He had a wagon ride to the bush to chase squirrels and bunnies. He ate ravioli and cheeseburgers everyday. And for the last week of his life, he slept on our bed, between my husband and I.

He’s buried along the windbreak just to the west of our house. We wrapped him in a blanket and buried him with his favourite stuffed toy, Clancy. The kids each said goodbye through their tears and my husband, the man who never had a pet dog, wept.

We look for Jasper everyday, forgetting he’s gone. The children are rallying for a new dog and we’ll probably get one in the spring.
But for now, we remember and honour our dear friend – Jasper.

As an update, we did get a new dog in March 2007. Her name is Jorja (pronounced Georgia), Spring Knight’s Jorja on My Mind to be exact. She too is an English Springer Spaniel but so different from our darling Jazzy. She is quieter, more sedate, steadier and less intelligent. But I love her to death and she loves me – as it should be. She sleeps beside my bed every night and follows me everywhere I go. She loves to lie on the bathroom mat when I have a bath and goes camping with us every summer.

The other half of my “dowry” – my horse Bobbi – joined Jasper along the windbreak in the summer of 2010. This is a sacred space to us now; it is not mown and the grass and weeds grow waist high there every summer. They would both like that – Jasper could hunt for mice and Bobbi could pull mouthfuls of grass. Heaven.


The Cow Whisperer

I’ve decided I should tell the story of the first farm animal my family ever purchased – Lilah the Holstein 4H cow.

As I believe I mentioned in an earlier blog posting, although my father was a businessman in his younger years, under his shirt and tie beat the heart of a farmer. When I was about five, we moved to a 50-acre farm adjacent to the Hatchley swamp (I’m not joking), located on the southern edge of Brant County in southwestern Ontario. My parents built a house on the property, which had soil that ranged from pure sand to boot sucking clay and produced the largest mosquitoes and snakes known to man. We moved in just days before the Christmas of 1975. The next spring, my father set to work building a barn. I believe he had it finished that summer and my mother spent her holidays from her off-farm job painting the trim around the windows (which came from a bus, I kid you not), swatting bird-sized mosquitoes and killing a steadily growing pile of snakes (a story for another day).

After the barn was completed and hay and straw had been moved into the loft, my father decided we should buy a cow. Now that I’m an adult, I must admit I’m not sure what my father was thinking when he decided we needed a cow, and a milk cow no less. Milking cows is a lot of work – they need to be milked twice a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, for as long as they are giving milk (they usually dry up just before they have a calf, which is typically an annual event on a dairy operation). That takes dedication and skill, skill I don’t think we as a family possessed at that time. But it didn’t matter – I was just a kid then and I was very excited by the prospect of a new animal to maul, even if it did weigh 1,000 pounds.

I’m not sure how the transaction came about or where exactly she came from or even how she got to the farm (I seem to remember something about her walking behind the truck but that can’t be true) but one day Lilah arrived at the farm. Lilah was huge – (well she looked huge to six-year-old me), a large boned, black and white Holstein, a milking breed. And she was fat, huge with a baby calf that was expected fairly soon. I was ecstatic – a two-for-one deal! My mother was leery.

Lilah was moved into the barn and a pen was quickly constructed out of straw bales. A pasture was also made near the barn in the apple orchard using old fence posts and barbed wire. During the day, Lilah would graze in the pasture and at night, she came into the barn. But since there was no plumbing in the barn yet, my father had to lead her down to the pond morning and night for a drink.

The cool thing about Lilah was she had been a 4H calf in her youth, meaning she was halter trained and spoiled rotten. She had been brushed, trimmed and coddled by the dairy farmer’s son and shown at fairs across the region. She was basically a very large cow that thought it was a dog. My mother would watch in horror as my dad tried to lead her to the water. Lilah would jump and buck and kick in her excitement and basically drag my father to the pond and then drag him back to the barn. She would lower her head and moo at him, trying to butt him with her forehead (a common cow behaviour) and my dad would have to hide behind a tree while she worked off her energy.

Lilah even came with her own urban … umm … rural legend: she had saved the life of the dairy farmer’s son by pulling the drowning boy out of an irrigation pond he had fallen in. Who knows if the story was true – I was ready to believe the damn cow could fly – but Lilah did have an interesting skill that not every cow possessed. She was broke to ride like a horse. Every chance I could, I would beg my dad to boost me up on that cow’s back so I could ride her around the field, clutching her built in “handle” – the bony ridge at her withers. She would start off the ride gently but once she had enough, she would take me under a low tree branch and knock me off.

Me as a little goober riding Lilah the cow in the pasture. If you look real closely, you'll notice she's considering walking under a low branch to knock me off.

Me as a little goober riding Lilah the cow in the pasture. If you look real closely, you’ll notice she’s considering walking under a low branch to knock me off.

I thought she was wonderful.

Everyday after school, I would jump off the bus, run up the driveway and check on the cow. As the due date of her expected calf drew closer, she was kept in the barn most of the time. One day, I came into the barn and was met by a deep moo and then a smaller little croak. The baby had come! Lilah was laying in the deep straw of her pen and beside her lay a little black and white calf. I was so excited, I jumped into the pen to see the little one.

Now, those of you who have a farming background already know that jumping into the pen of an animal that has just had a baby is a very stupid thing to do. No matter how tame the animal, you just don’t know how they will react to a human being in the mix. I was a naïve six-year-old and was clueless about animal behaviour. I curled up beside the calf and Lilah in the straw to enjoy the newest member of the family. And Lilah just lay there, chewing her cud.

About an hour later, my mother came home from work. My older siblings told her all about the new calf. After doing a quick head count, my mother asked where I was. Out to the barn the group marched and discovered me lying in the pen. My mother thought I had been trampled. But I was just curled up beside the calf, both of us sleeping while Lilah watched over us.

The little calf turned out to be a girl – a heifer – and we called her Rosebud in honour of my mother. Unfortunately, not long after her arrival, my dad had to sell Lilah, realizing there was no way we could properly care for this milk-producing machine. A truck came and got the pair. I cried as they drove away.

Making a buck

I had a rather horrific day at work this past week that  resulted in a night of insomnia. I was tossing and turning in bed, replaying the day and how I could have made it different, a rather futile exercise considering the day is past and I have yet to discover the secret to time travel. But as I was lying in bed torturing myself, I remembered some of my first employment experiences – cringe-worthy horror stories in themselves.

Like a lot of country kids, my first employer was my father. During the summer months and some weekends, my mother didn’t always have someone available to watch me while she was at work as my older siblings all had full-time summer jobs. So I would be packed off to spend the day at my dad’s office, which happened to be a manufacturing facility that built products from fibreglass and aluminium. My dad owned and ran the company with a partner and spent the day selling and managing the factory workers. I spent the day exploring the back fenced storage area for toads, frogs and wild cats, riding empty resin barrels like a horse, sorting sales brochures, playing with the adding machine and tracing routes on the large map of Ontario that was pinned to my father’s office wall. I also liked to fiddle with my dad’s address book, which was equipped with a metal arrow. You slid the arrow up the side of the address book to the letter you were interested in and then pressed a button at the bottom. Presto-chango, the address book would open to that page. I could play with that damn thing for hours.

After awhile, my father obviously got annoyed with me kicking around his air conditioned office. Or perhaps he was amazed by my prowess with the adding machine. Regardless, he soon found a summer job for me.

I guess I could have tried a lemonade stand but we lived in the country and only two or three cars went by our house each day.

I guess I could have tried a lemonade stand but we lived in the country and only two or three cars went by our house each day.

It started out with sweet corn. Although my father ran a manufacturing company, deep down under the collared shirt and tie, beat the heart of a farmer. And, as such, he had this great idea that selling fresh produce in the parking lot of his company, which was located along a very busy highway, was the perfect thing for me to do. So, he put out a table, a cash box, a lawn chair and what seemed like 100 dozen of fresh sweet corn and set me to work. At times it was an extremely hot and boring job. I’d read my Nancy Drew books and dream about that air conditioned office as I sat on the hot pavement in the direct sun, sweat dripping down the back of my shirt. I always seemed to have to use the washroom a lot. But soon I had enough truckers and harried factory workers starving for fresh sweet corn to keep me busy for hours. Huge semi trucks would pull over in front of my stand, hissing and whistling and chugging while the driver bought six cobs of corn from me (50 cents). Before the driver was back in the cab, he’d be husking a cob and eating it raw as he drove away.

The sweet corn was such a success, my dad decided to up the ante and invested in a truck load of peaches. The flats were stacked in the air conditioned office for storage and I would take a few baskets out at a time to set up my display. Soon I had truckers buying corn and baskets of peaches, juice dribbling down their chins as they drove down the highway, corn silk flying out the window. The smell of peaches soon overpowered the smell of fibreglass in the office and customers interested in fibreglass and aluminium products were soon buying baskets of peaches as well, unable to resist the aroma.

The sweet corn was such a success, my dad made me start selling peaches.

The sweet corn was such a success, my dad made me start selling peaches.

It was a very educational summer that taught me an important life lesson – how to add, subtract and make change in my head. My father checked that cash box every night and if the daily sales total did not match up with my sold inventory, I received a lecture on the importance of adding and subtracting money PROPERLY. I was soon a pro, counting back change from $20s without batting an eye.

The summer after that, I worked for my dad on our farm doing field work in the vegetable patch and picking up piles of potatoes by hand. I swear those potato rows were two miles long. He would harvest the tubers with a special machine that dug them up and dumped them on the ground behind. We had to grab the greenery and shake off any spuds still attached and then pick up all the potatoes and put them into bushel baskets we dragged behind us. It was back breaking work and I can remember laying on the front lawn trying to crack my back into place as the potatoes were being washed with the garden hose.

The summer I was 13, I dressed in my best T-shirt and shorts, tied my hair back in a ponytail, shoved it up under my black and white Flamboro Downs hat and mustered up the courage to pedal my bike down our concession road, just over into the next county, to ask Doug Arthur for a job. And for some strange, mysterious reason (I think it was the hat) he gave me one. The Arthur’s bred, trained and raced Standardbred horses. And I LOVED horses. I decided that summer the best job in the whole wide world would be to shovel horse shit and clean water buckets while surrounded by huge animals that liked to bite and kick you. I had experience with horses but not horses like these – pampered, spoiled, temperament divas who were coddled and had zero stable manners. My first day I had to be rescued from a rearing stallion who had managed to pin me in the back corner of the stall I was cleaning. I loved every minute of it.

I LOVED horses, even when they tried to attack me. I never claimed to be smart!

I LOVED horses, even when they tried to attack me. I never claimed to be smart!

Unfortunately the barn manager didn’t love me. I was fired after one week and told to come back when I was older – and faster at shovelling shit. I cried all the way home. But in my pocket I had about $300 in cash, the most money I had ever earned in a week. And I learned another important life lesson – sometimes it’s hard to make a buck in this world. But it’s really easy to spend it.

A state of grace

Grace – that wonderful pre-meal tradition where you thank some invisible dude for the food you’re about to eat that you know damn well was actually produced by a farmer somewhere and purchased with your hard-earned money.

When I was a kid, grace was a big deal. It was always said before each meal and the honour of spouting it off was usually rotated through myself and my three other siblings. My parents never had to say it, although on special occasions – like Christmas, Easter or Thanksgiving – my mother seemed to have the power to whip a long, flowery one out thin air. It would go on and on and on as the food steamed and went cold around us.

As the youngest and least powerful member of my family, the job of saying grace seemed to fall on my shoulders a bit more often in the rotation. I hated it. I was hungry. I wanted to eat the meal that I knew my mother actually prepared, not some alleged high and mighty deity. Why’d I have to thank HIM? As with all things I didn’t want to do, I eventually rebelled.

See that kid on the end? That's how I used to act when grace was said at our table. Of course, my mother never served my meal on a prison tray like this poor sap. The rest of these old farts don't look a thing like my family. They also have a nicer chandelier.

See that kid on the end? That’s how I used to act when grace was said at our table. Of course, my mother never served my meal on a prison tray like this poor sap. The rest of these old farts don’t look a thing like my family. They also have a nicer chandelier.

I think I was about 14 or 15 when the incident happened. For my 13th birthday, my father had finally given in to my years and years of incessant whining and begging and had purchased me my very own horse. His name was Pongo (named in honour of the dog in One Hundred and One Dalmations) because he resembled a Dalmation – white and covered in brown spots. He was purchased at the annual Norwich horse auction and I was never prouder than the afternoon I led him up our farm driveway, much to the horror of my mother (she wasn’t a fan of horses).

Owning Pongo resulted in many adventures, including near death experiences for both the horse and myself. As a result of the illness that almost killed Pongo – a story for another day – he would experience “off” days when he wasn’t 100 per cent healthy and would lay around groaning in the field. It was amazing how often these episodes seemed to correlate to the times when I wanted to go for a ride.

It was during one of these bouts of equine malaise that the great grace incident happened. It was a Saturday and I had spent most of the afternoon sitting beside my groaning horse in his pasture rather than actually hacking with him down the road. I was concerned I might have to phone the vet – again – and my father wasn’t home to bounce the idea off or finance the visit. I was contemplating selling my new English saddle to pay for the vet bill when my mother yelled out the back door for me to come in and have dinner. About 10 minutes later, she was back shouting for me again. After the third shout and the use of all three of my names, I decided I better go in. With one last concerned glance at my suffering steed, I went in the house to eat.

It was just a small group for the evening meal – my sister, her boyfriend, my mom and I. As I sat down after scrubbing my hands in the laundry room sink, my mother informed me they had already said grace but I was going to need to say it as again since I was so late to the table.

“GodisgreatGodisgoodletusthankhimforourfoodamen,” I mumbled, actually reciting that blessing faster than the speed of sound. My lips actually stopped moving before the sound of the grace ended – I’m not shitting you.

I reached out for a bowl of mashed potatoes but was stopped by the sharp use of my name.

My mother wasn’t impressed with my amazingly speedy recitation. She trembled in her chair with outrage.

“You’re going to say it again but this time, with feeling,” she said through clenched teeth.

I’m not sure what made me do it. Maybe it was the idea of entertaining my sister’s boyfriend. Maybe I was unstable after the stress of caring for my sickly horse all afternoon. Maybe I just wanted to be a smart ass. Whatever the reason, I mentally snapped. She wanted a grace said with feeling, she’d get a grace said with feeling.

The rest of them stood open mouthed in disbelief as I stood up from my chair.

“GOD IS GREAT,” I boomed in my best impression of a Baptist preacher, both of my arms extended up to the ceiling like I was worshipping the wagon wheel chandelier (Yep, we had one of those ugly things).

“GOD IS GOOD,” I added, pointing at each one of them sitting around the table.

“LET US – THANK HIM – FOR OUR – FOOOOD!” I shouted, rattling the plates and silverware as I pounded my fist on the surface of the dining room table to the beat of my voice.

Now for the big finish.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMEN,” I sang, holding the note for as long as I could.

I think I probably looked a lot like this guy during my performance, except I'm not a guy, I didn't have a band accompanying me and there was no alcohol involved - I think.

I think I probably looked a lot like this guy during my performance, except I’m not a guy, I don’t wear suspenders, I didn’t have a band accompanying me, and there was no alcohol involved.

I plunked back down into my chair and once again reached for the potatoes. I KNEW those acting lessons would come in handy some day.

My performance was met with complete silence. I think I was two spoonfuls in to loading my plate when I heard the first noise. It was a choking sound deep in the throat of my sister’s boyfriend. I quickly glanced up at him. His face was turning bright red and I knew I had him. A laugh exploded out of his mouth along with some green beans. He gasped for breath in between bouts of laughter, tears streaming down his face. My sister soon followed, her shoulders shaking with the effort of trying to keep in the sound. She soon lost the battle, hanging onto her boyfriend for support as she laughed and laughed.

My eyes turned to my mother. If I thought she was trembling before, now she looked like she was experiencing her very own internal earthquake. She positively vibrated in her chair. Her eyes were huge, her face pale except for bright red patches on each of her cheeks. She gripped her cutlery, her knuckles white. We stared at each other for what seemed like hours. At first I was worried. She looked pretty pissed off. But then I saw it, that slight quiver in the corner of her mouth, a small curve to her lip. She was fighting back a smile. Without a word, she dropped her eyes back down to her plate of food and I did the same.

It took my sister and her boyfriend a few minutes to gain back their composure but they too were soon eating their meals.

The battle of grace had been waged and I had won  this round anyway. I had made my point, expressed my opinion, let my view on the exercise be known in the best way I knew how – like the smart ass I was.

After that, my mother always paused before asking me to say grace. Perhaps she wasn’t sure what I would actually do. Or maybe she was just trying to choke back a chuckle.