Don’t Complain–Do it in the Rain!

I’ve lived in Nova Scotia most of my life and can attest to the fact that it rains a lot. Not quite as much as St. John’s Newfoundland or Vancouver, BC, perhaps, but on average Nova Scotia gets rain 143 days a year. This simple fact, along with constant and rapid changes (don’t like the weather? Wait a minute!) and the inability of meteorologists to keep up with those changes, can play havoc with plans for outdoor activities. I have participated in countless conversations of the “Should we still go, or should we cancel?” variety.

Believing strongly that if we stayed home every time rain was forecast, we’d never go anywhere, I embraced the concept of “liquid sunshine” and rarely allowed the weather to interfere with my family’s plans. After all, we’re not made of sugar. This approach has served us well both in our home province and in our travels.

We’ve gone swimming in the Bras D’Or Lakes, walked the trails at Kejimkujik National Park, picnicked at Salt Springs, went back in time at Louisbourg, and celebrated Canada Day in Halifax, all in fog, drizzle and/or bucketing rain.

Once we went to the Edinburgh Zoo in the rain. A torrential downpour drove the zebras to hide under the walkways and us to seek shelter in outbuildings we hadn’t noticed before. To our delight, we discovered both a baby anteater riding on its mother’s back and a baby pygmy hippo in a swimming pool. (Unfortunately, we also discovered that you shouldn’t try eating BBQ chips with wet hands!)

But what our family seems most fated to do in the rain is camp. In fact, rain is Kelly camping weather. My husband and I experienced this for the first time while camping in Jasper just before our oldest child was born. Imagine sitting in a pup tent in pouring rain, nine months pregnant, without a fire or camp stove. I should have known it was an omen.

A few years and another child later, we decided to try camping again. We booked a week’s retreat at Prince Edward Island National Park. I’d visited the Park before with my parents and siblings and was looking forward to swimming at Cavendish Beach and going to the outdoor amphitheater. I guess we should have checked the weather forecast first. We arrived at the campground at roughly the same time as the tail-end of a hurricane. It rained and blew for four days. We stuck it out and got to enjoy one hot, sunny day at Rainbow Valley theme park as our reward.

Nothing daunted, we continued to camp with our growing family. Sometimes we were lucky and had wonderful weather. Usually we had rain. But we also had great experiences, swimming, hiking, spotting wildlife, and telling stories around the campfire.

Our fun almost came to an end in 1998. It was raining that August day as we left Dartmouth for Broad Cove campground in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Nothing unusual, except that we had a two-year-old in the van. Who didn’t like being cooped up on the road, and let us all know in no uncertain terms. In an attempt to pacify her and keep what was left of our sanity, we fed her an endless supply of “car crackers” (ie, saltines). Disaster struck as we wove our way up Smoky Mountain. The twists and turns, added to the heat and stickiness of the day, resulted in her being sick all over her blanket, car seat and older sister. Did we give in? We did not. After an emergency stop at the picnic site at the top of the mountain, we continued onto the campsite, where we encountered weather reminiscent of our time in PEI–gale force wind and blinding rain. The women folk huddled in the van, cheering on my husband and son as they attempted to string up tarps and put up the tent. The rain did eventually stop, but not even a banquet of macaroni-and-hamburger, whipped up in one of the kitchen shelters, was enough to make up for the trials of the day. It would be ten years before we ventured out with our tent again.

Fast forward to 2009. My husband and I, and our four children, headed off on a camping trip with my father-in-law in the Scottish Highlands. We had borrowed a tent which had two sleeping areas and a “hallway”. Lots of room for us all to sleep. My son and his grandfather got the hallway, which was all closed in but didn’t have a floor. No problem, we thought. We had groundsheets. Tired after a long day of driving, we went to bed. We woke the next morning to “real rain” (the kind you only see in the movies), a river running through the hall, and two extremely soggy campers. That night we squeezed everyone into the two bedrooms. Most of the children slept in one room. My husband, his father, our youngest daughter and I slept in the other. It was a hot, humid and cozy (ie. tight) fit, but we all stayed dry. In the morning, my father-in-law exclaimed that it was the best night’s sleep he’d ever had while camping!

This summer has been, well, rather wet. The forecast for this week shows five days of rain. Will it keep us home indoors? Not a chance! I hope to see you as we venture out-and-about. After all, we live in Nova Scotia. So don’t complain–do it in the rain!

Family Vacations As a Child

There were eight children in my family. I mention this because I am amazed (as an adult and parent myself) at how brave my parents were in taking us on vacation. As long as I can remember, our family would set off in the car to see and explore new and exciting places. We toured the Cabot Trail, laughing and shrieking in the giant breakers at Ingonish Beach. We camped in Banff, Jasper and Riding Mountain National Park (where my sister Eileen, at three years old, managed to flush her doll down the toilet at the campsite). We visited Santa’s Village in New Hampshire and the Grand Coolee Dam in Washington Stare. The Dam impressed me so much that I was actually disappointed when I first saw Niagara Falls a few years later.

The actual driving (because we always drove) was memorable, though not necessarily in good ways. To begin with, there was always a fight over who got which seats—the prime seats varied, depending on the car Dad was driving at the time, but the seat in the middle of the back with the “hump” was the one no one ever wanted. Window seats were in great demand, as was sitting in the front, where you could see out the big window and escape, for a short time at least, being poked, prodded or sat on by your siblings. As air conditioning was non-existent at the time, the car was always too hot or too cold. And the music, well suffice it to say that we either couldn’t hear it at all, or wished we couldn’t!

We covered a lot of distance on those vacations, a lot of distance! Dad would have the day’s destination planned, and we headed for it like a forced march in the military. Despite numerous pee stops, construction and unexpected delays, we would press forward until we arrived at the designated campground. There we’d set up the tent or tent trailer, pump up the air mattresses, light the Coleman stove, eat supper and fall into bed to grab a few winks before getting up and starting all over again!

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration! Not every day was like that. I do remember stopping along the way—to stare at the figures of Paul Bunyun and Babe in Wisconsin, to throw snowballs on the Icefields between Jasper and Banff, and to eat ice cream at Hennigar’s in the Valley. And I loved the nights we went to the outdoor amphitheatre at the National Parks to learn about grizzlies, salmon spawning and lichen that looked like red-coated British soldiers.

Often we were accompanied on our journeys by one or another of my aunts, uncles and cousins. Usually in their own cars and trailers. But there was one memorable occasion when one of my younger cousins joined us in our car during a trip around the Cabot Trail. I can still remember his plaintive voice calling, “Uncle Wishie, I need to pee!”

The last big trip I went on with my family was in 1976, a couple of weeks after I graduated from high school. My older brother and sister didn’t come, but as I wasn’t working, I was free to join in. My father’s brother Clarence and his family tagged along. We drove through New Brunswick all the way to Boston, where we set up our trailers in the yard of one of my parents’ friends. We went on the Freedom Trail, toured “Old Ironsides” (the USS Constitution), visited the Massachusetts hospital where our host worked, and shopped the outlet stores. Our next stop was New York City, where we walked on Broadway, took the Staten Island Ferry, and even braved the subway. We returned to Canada and headed to Niagara Falls (where we got soaked on the “Maid of the Mist”), to Cambridge, Ontario (to see the African Lion Safari), and to Toronto, Ottawa and Old Quebec. The sights and activities we experienced are too numerous to list, but it was an amazing trip for me—firstly, because we spent a lot of time with extended family, which I have always loved; secondly because of the history and culture I absorbed through visits to museums and historic sites, and finally because I felt—and was treated— for the first time, a little like a grown-up, given some privileges denied the younger children.

My parents instilled in me a love of travel and a willingness to overcome the annoyances and inconveniences that it sometimes entails. I’m glad they had the courage to strike out for new and interesting places, even with eight children (and often a cat or dog or two) in tow!

Being Crafty

I always wanted to be crafty. Probably because my mother was
one of the most creative people I’ve ever known. True, much of
her creativity derived from necessity, especially when we were
small. She could cut out and sew dresses without a pattern and
with limited fabric. She could take apart coats and create new
ones, make Raggedy-Anne dolls with black button eyes, and knit
hats, mittens, socks and Mary Maxim sweaters. One never had to
worry about the devil’s work being made easy, for her hands
were never idle.
My first real attempt at being crafty was in Grade eight, when I
had my first Home Economics sewing class. I don’t remember
what I attempted to make that year, only that I spent more time
uncreating (that is, taking out whatever I had managed to do
that class) than creating. Grade nine must have been marginally
more successful, because I actually recall wearing a pair of pants
I’d made to a dance at Prince Andrew High School the following
year (I shudder at the thought of the fashion statement I made
that night!)
While in university, I decided to learn to knit. After the
obligatory squares and scarves—too tight to actually wrap
around anyone’s neck—I decided to knit myself a sweater. It was
a heavy, blue cardigan with a zipper and two front
pockets—quite a challenge. It took me a long time—longer than
necessary, as it turned out. I realized when I went to sew it
together that the right front piece was more than twice the
length of the left! However, with a bit of guidance from Mom,
and a lot of unravelling, the sweater was finished and I wore it
Fast forward a few years, until I got married. And the lopi
sweater craze started, at least within our family. I loved those
sweaters, and the round needles helped me to keep the stitches
from falling off the end of every row. How proud I was to
complete two matching blue-and-white sweaters, one for
myself and one for my husband, who loved me enough to
actually wear it!
Time went by, and my hands grew more and more idle. However,
one summer, when my older two children were still quite young,
they spotted stuffed “gingerbread dolls” in one of the gift shops
on the Cabot Trail. The price was, unfortunately, too steep for
my purse, but, I thought, how hard could it be? So, again with
help from my favourite seamstress, I whipped up two
gingerbread men for Christmas, and, if I may say so myself, they
looked good enough to eat (or perhaps to cry. “Run, run as fast
you can” as they ran off down the street).
Inspired by this success, the next year I bought cheery red- and
-white fabric, cut it out and created pajamas to go under the
tree—complete with a matching set for their dolls.
And then I was ready for my biggest challenge yet—my
quilt-in-a-day. The quilt-in-a-day was a craze that both my
mother and some of my sisters embraced joyfully. And so it was
with great excitement that I picked out the quilt pattern and the
blue, lavender and white fabrics I needed to create my
I will spare you the details, except to say that my quilt-in-a-day
turned out to be a quilt-in-a-decade. And to admit that, in the
end, it turned into a two-person project (Need I mention who
finally put the finishing touches on it?) I was pleased with the
end product, though, as was my daughter, on whose bed it lay
until the fabric became see-through and the holes too big to
I wish I could go on and say that my skill and production
continued to grow, that I dressed our children in fabulous
home-made outfits and filled our closets with wonderful,
original creations. But alas, the quilt-in-a-day was my last big
project. I did use my sewing machine, on occasion, to hem pants
and sew name tags on my daughter’s boyfriend’s hockey jerseys,
and I carefully placed the knitting needles into my girls’
hands and encouraged them to knit squares and scarves. But I
realized my dream to challenge my mother for the title of “crafty
lady” (as her license plate accurately described her) was just
that—a dream! And I’m okay with that!

Walking in their shoes…

You’ve all heard the expression “If you really want to know someone, walk a mile in their shoes…” While I was in Israel in May, I got to experience the truth of this saying first hand.

I have worked with newcomers to Canada for many years, and am very aware that I cannot understand (or even begin to image) the situations and experiences that many of them have lived through. However, I’ve travelled a fair bit and was confident that I had at least an inkling of what it must be like to be immersed in a world of strange customs and incomprehensible language.

I was wrong.

We were warned before we went to Israel that it was difficult to find stamps to mail letters. To my surprise, this proved to be true. Our hotel in Tiberius didn’t have stamps at the front desk or the gift shop. So I asked directions to the nearest post office, which fortunately was much less than a mile away. After supper one evening, my sister and I headed out to walk the two or three blocks to mail our letters.

After two blocks, we came to an intersection. Our directions stated that the post office was on the corner, but we weren’t sure which corner! We looked around and couldn’t see any building which looked like a post office, so we turned left and wandered a little way down the road. It was a busy alleyway, lined with tiny shops and full of people.

But no post office.

We stopped and looked at the signs and store fronts. Everything was written either in Hebrew or Arabic. The only English word we could see said quite clearly “Bank”.  No post office.

Okay, I thought. Let’s look at the pictures. Surely there is an international symbol for a post office?


Not knowing what else to do, I went over to a small kiosk and asked the man inside for directions. He shook his head– he didn’t speak English. Feeling both desperate and ridiculous, I mimed writing a letter and sticking on a stamp. Fortunately for us, it was a middle-aged man (who had probably used snail mail before); he recognized my gestures. His face lit up; he stepped out of his booth and pointed back the way we came.

We returned to the intersection, peered closely at all the corners, and finally saw it! A small symbol painted on the side of a building which was recognizable as a letter! We had reached our destination!

Unfortunately the post office was closed!

We went back the next day, and with the help of the staff, managed to mail our letters.

I have been a reader since before I can remember. I have travelled to many European and Caribbean countries. But never before have I been in a situation where I could not recognize a single word or symbol–and I’ve never before felt so lost!

I have now a much deeper understanding and respect for all those newcomers who come to Canada without literacy skills or who read languages that do not use our alphabet. I am only glad that I didn’t have to walk much further in their shoes!

Easter at the Cottage

Easter doesn’t always mean winter is over…

Easter at the cottage- doesn’t that sound like  a wonderful idea?  My husband and I thought so.  Several years ago, when our children were still quite young, we decided to get away from Halifax to celebrate the holiday at our favourite get-away place–my parents’ cottage in Boularderie, Cape Breton.  We packed the four kids, our Easter baskets and camping gear into our van and drove to the cottage. It was still chilly-after all, it was only mid-April in Nova Scotia- but the cottage had heating and indoor plumbing, so we didn’t anticipate any major difficulties.

We spend Good Friday and Holy Saturday relaxing, taking long walks in the country air, reading, and playing games.  We decorated our Easter eggs and placed our baskets on the table for the Easter Bunny to fill.

The children woke us early Easter morning, searching for their hidden treats and shrieking with delight over their candy-filled baskets.  After a light breakfast, we walked up the hill to the tiny church nearby.

It was just beginning to snow as we walked into the beautifully-decorated church.  Large, soft snowflakes provided a breath-taking backdrop to the bright yellow daffodils and waxy white lilies on the window sills.  We watched the swirling snow as the priest spoke of spring and new life.

After lunch, the children and I decided to make the most of the snow.  Pulling on our winter jackets-and the hats and mitts I’d fortunately remembered to bring-we ventured outside.  We left fresh footprints on the now-covered roads.  We made snow angels in the field, lying on our backs and staring up at the dark clouds above us.  We even made a snowman, dressing him in a spare hat and scarf.  At last, cold and tired, we went into the cottage to enjoy our turkey dinner and Easter goodies.  It had been a wonderful day!

Unbeknownst to us, lying snug and warm in bed, it continued to snow all night. Early the next morning we discovered the serious mistake we had made: our van was barely visible beside the almost-buried snowman.  We stood on the cottage deck and realized that we had to get the van and all our gear up a steep driveway, now knee-deep in snow, without the aid of a shovel or sandbags.

It was a long, slow process.  Inching forward cautiously, sliding back and inching forward again, it took my husband an hour and a half to maneuver the van up the hill to the main road–a trip normally completed in under two minutes.  Once he was safely up, we followed on foot.  We trudged along in the tire tracks- back and forth to the cottage, back and forth-carrying sleeping bags, food, clothes, and Easter baskets.  It took another hour to finish loading the van.

The drive back to Halifax was uneventful, but we’d learned our lesson well.  Whenever we get the urge to escape to the country after a long winter, we make our plans for the long weekend in May…


Peggy and the Thief

In fiction, the bad guys always get foiled, right? But how often are they foiled by a parrot? Follow the link to read about how Peggy saves the day in my children’s story, “Peggy and the Thief”

“Peggy and the Thief” was first published in Beyond Time and Place (Linden Hill Publishing, 2004)  Shared here with permission.

Machine Gun Joe

One of our favourite images around Halloween is the haunted house. Spooky houses, inhabited or not, play a big part in many well-known stories and movies. The Sanderson House in Hocus Pocus. Boo Radley’s House in To Kill a Mockingbird. The Old Granville House in It’s a Wonderful Life. And many, many others…

In the town where I lived as a child, down the hill, across the little bridge by my great-aunt’s house, and almost to the corner of the road which led to the coal mine, there was a real life spooky house. Set back from the road, across a wide, overgrown, weed-infested lawn, sat a ramshackle shack. The man who lived there was known to all the children as Machine Gun Joe.

One Halloween, when I was about 7 years old, I went trick-or-treating with my oldest sister and two of my brothers. My sister decided we should go to visit Machine Gun Joe. We beg and pleaded, trying to change her mind. But she convinced us that he was just a lonely old man, and was probably hurt that no one came to his door asking for candy. So reluctantly, we shuffled through the tall grass to his front door. The house was dark and looked deserted, but we kept on our mission of mercy.

We knocked. For a long time, nothing happened. We stood there (at least… I stood there…) shaking in our plastic masks and winter jackets, poised to run. We knocked again, and suddenly the inside door was flung open, and  a gruff voice yelled, “Get outta here!”

Was it just my imagination that I could see his shadowy face through the darkness behind the screen door? I’m almost certain he wasn’t carrying a machine gun. But I didn’t stop to make sure; together with my sister and brothers, I turned and ran. We didn’t stop running until we reached the safety of the sidewalk, filled with other trick-or-treaters.

Sometimes I wonder if this really happened. I know we didn’t tell Mom and Dad…maybe we never told anyone. But every time I read about  a spooky house, or see one on TV, I remember the terror I felt fleeing from that little shack, and wonder about the old man who lived there…


Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle

When I was in Grade four, I bought my first book from a Scholastic book order. Do you remember those? At that time, the order didn’t include toys or gadgets, such as microphones disguised as tubes of lipstick, or do-it-yourself detective fingerprinting kits. It was simply four (and sometimes six) newsprint pages of affordable paperback books. To an avid reader like myself, it was an almost-free pass to Wonderland!

The book I ordered –Reflections on a Gift of  Watermelon Pickle–was a book of poetry. I have no idea what possessed me to choose that particular book, but I still have it, sitting proudly on my bookshelf. And yes, I have read it!

It only occurred to me recently to wonder what a watermelon pickle was. Does such a thing really exist, or was the poet being…well…poetic? So I googled it. To my surprise, several recipes for watermelon pickles popped up!

The pickles are made from the rinds of the watermelon, not the sweet, juicy, pink flesh. What a wonderful way to keep all those rinds out of our organics cart! The idea appeals to my thrifty, environmentally-conscious self, as well as to my taste buds!

I haven’t had the chance to make them yet, but one day, I will. Perhaps, like the poet, I will find summer “captured and preserved”,  just like the memory of my first Scholastic book.


Reflections of a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity by John Tobias

During that summer

When unicorns were still possible;

When the purpose of knees

Was to be skinned;

When shiny horse chestnuts

(Hollowed out

Fitted with straws

Crammed with tobacco

Stolen from butts

In family ashtrays)

Were puffed in green lizard silence

While straddling thick branches

Far above and away

From the soothing effects of civilization;


During that summer–

Which may never have been at all;

But which has become more real

Than the one that was–

Watermelons ruled.


Thick pink imperial slices

Melting frigidly on sun-parched tongues

Dribbling from chins;

Leaving the best part,

The black bullet seeds,

To be spit out in rapid fire

Against the wall

Against the wind

Against each other;


And when the ammunition was spent,

There was always another bite:

It was a summer of limitless bites,

Of hungers quickly felt

And quickly forgotten

With the next careless gorging.


The bites are fewer now.

Each one is savored lingeringly,

Swallowed reluctantly.


But in a jar put up by Felicity,

The summer that maybe never was

Has been captured and preserved.

And when we unscrew the lid

And slice off a piece

And let it linger on out tongue:

Unicorns become possible again.




Variety is…

My children tell me that, when I die, they are going to erect a monument with all my favourite sayings. Not the profound sayings, like “Death be not proud”, or “Let me not to the marriage of true minds…”, or “and the greatest of these is love”. No, they mean the mantras I repeat over and over again, including (but not limited to): “Get Outta there!” “It’s fine once you get in” and “When it’s gone, it’s gone.”

One saying which will be given definite prominence will be “Variety is the spice of life.” While I admit is a cliche, I still hold it to be true. The world is a wonderfully varied place; there is so much to experience and learn, and I find it endlessly fascinating. Did you know, for example, that there are approximately 6,500 languages spoken throughout the world? That there are one hundred billion stars in the Milky Way? That the Vikings sailed all the way from Scandinavia to Constantinople? That there is a species of red spider that can scuba dive inside a pitcher plant in the jungle?

My mother used to say, “The more you know, the more you see.” She meant that learning and experiencing new things makes you more aware of the incredible variety that surrounds us, which makes life richer and spicier.

In my blog, I will share my thoughts on a multitude of topics–history, travel, books, the English language…whatever fascinates me at the time. (Maybe even architecture–did you know that houses in Lunenburg are famous for their “bumps”?)  I am also going to post some of the stories, poems and other random jottings I’ve written over the years. I hope you will enjoy them! Feel free to share the link and the stories. (Just be sure to give me the credit, please.) Together let’s prove that variety really is the spice of life!