Thursday, August 27, 2009

There's Something About Mary

It was 1979 and I had left India "for good", as we used to say (as opposed to leaving "on furlough", which is what most of my family's status would be). I found myself in Edmonton, enrolled in a small college called Mount Carmel, among a very small student group -- 28 of us, as I recall.

I was shell-shocked from being in Canada, from being away from my family, from being at this school that I had chosen but for what reason I had no idea. I knew no one except for one of the instructors and his wife. I accepted an offer to be a roommate from someone who saw my conservative, prim blouse-and-skirt ensemble and decided -- mistakenly! --that maybe I would be tidy and organized and a good foil for her more bohemian lifestyle.

I was miserable.

And then along came Mary. We students were split into four groups and I had the good fortune to land in Mary's group. She was somewhat older than I, married with three children; but somehow I felt that she accepted me for who I was: not the missionary kid or the smart-mouthed teenager, but just someone who was lost in this new world and who desperately needed kindness and understanding. Even though she was going to college and was a full-time, very hands-on mother, she always made me feel welcome in her home. It was comfortable being around Mary. She made me feel normal somehow, not like the freak I was sure people thought I was, with the wrong clothes and the wrong accent and no winter boots and no job and no life.

I could hardly wait for the year to be over; humiliated and defeated, I vowed I would never contact anyone from there again.

Fast forward to 2003. I moved to Trois Lumps, opened the TH -- and two of my earliest guests were Mary and her husband, Richard! They had settled in Three Hills after their children had grown. Mary and Richard were just the same: life had dealt them some hard blows in the form of a particularly vicious breast cancer for Mary, and heart trouble leading to a transplant for Richard. But they were steadfast in their love for one another, their kindness toward others and their certainty that God and good would prevail through it all.

We quickly renewed our acquaintance. This time, however, it was so precious to be able to sit with Mary and Richard and get to know them from the entirely different perspective that a quarter century perforce brings. I discovered, for example, that Mary was proficient at needlepoint and cross stitch and that she knit and crocheted beautiful blankets and gorgeous baby's clothes. For Nilgiris' one-year anniversary she cross-stitched six panes of various teas, which were lovingly framed by Richard. They hang in the TH to this day.

Our time with Mary was far too short. On two of the last times I saw her we had a tea party, complete with Star of India tea (her and Richard's favourite), china cups and saucers and some dainty treats. The second time she could barely swallow; but to please Richard and me she managed a few spoonsful of mango sorbet.

And then it was April 2007 and Mary left. She left the doctors and the blood tests. She left the trips to Edmonton for treatment and the treats at Wendy's on the way home. She left the struggle for breath and a comfortable position. She left the disappointments and the dashed hopes. She left all that pain.

She left for a far better place, where there is no more pain and all tears will be wiped from every eye.

But she left us too.

And how we miss her! I miss her subtle sense of humour, a quip slyly inserted or a comeback that could make you do a double take to something her irrepressible husband had said. I miss her faithfulness in coming to visit the teahouse and her encouraging words -- her belief that this is a special place and one of comfort and peace. I miss her squabbling light-heartedly with Richard over who would pour the tea. I miss her eagle eye noticing some little change or addition. I miss her hugs.

Last Saturday morning, when I was particularly tired after a stressful week and needing a boost to get me through what promised to be a busy two days, once again Mary reached out to me in a most unexpected way. Her daughter came to the TH bearing a gift: two framed cross-stitch tea cups! Between our tears and laughter Rebecca said, "I found these among Mom's work. I know she intended them for you -- they couldn't be for anyone else ..."

And so, two years later, on a blue Saturday when I was missing my Mum and missing Mary and missing myself, Mary managed to speak to me again. She showed me that what is beautiful and what is important will have lasting value. She showed me that thoughtfulness is more to be treasured than the finest porcelain tea cup. She showed me that she believed in me. She showed me that kindness can make a heart sing.

She showed me that love can reach from beyond the grave.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ten Things I Love About You ...

You find the beauty in even the most mundane circumstances

You are hospitable
    You like the same kinds of movies I do!

    You facilitate the changing of lives through your job

      You are resourceful and imaginitive
        Family is important to you
        You seek to honour God
          You are generous with your time, talents and treasures
            Elliot Paul and Oliver Charles!
              You were my first friend ...

              Happy Birthday, Bronwyn Ruth Ironside Spilsbury!

              (All photographs in this entry were taken at Bowness Park on August 17th evening, when the boys and I held Bronwyn's birthday "event". All, save the ice cream one, are courtesy of Cathryn Ironside, who -- happily for all of us! -- joined us for the picnic and s'mores by the fire)

              Sunday, August 16, 2009

              Tuesday Evening Concert

              I heard her outside the window, stating in her best dramatic fashion, "She's not here, Daddy."

              Who could resist? I opened the side door and said that indeed I was here, and would she like to come in?

              She graciously acceded, informing me that she had come to play the piano.

              J is one of my favourite Nilgiris people. She is intelligent and charming and funny. She loves pink. She mostly loves her big brothers and sisters. She has a mind and a will of her own: she knows which teacup she wants ("the dog one") and which tea she enjoys ("the pink one"). When she comes for tea with her family she always tracks me down to give me a hug before she finds a seat. When she leaves, she wonders aloud whether she should take an extra chocolate Ovation for the brother or sister who couldn't come on this particular visit. She likes to share scones and clotted cream with her mommy. Where the occasion demands it, she likes to let her daddy know who's boss; agreement is usually reached after a little bit of dramatic flouncing about and pretend petulance (on J's part, not Don's!) and then she wraps her arms around his neck and says, "I'm sorry, Daddy," and all is well again ...

              J and her dad were on a bike ride when she decided she'd like to stop in at the TH. So in she came and scrambled confidently up onto the piano bench. She studied the music intently for a few moments, and then said, "I'm going to play this one," and away she went. I think Ludwig would have been surprised but charmed at this entirely new interpretation of Minuet in G. All the octaves were given their due, with strong, full-throated chords in the bass encouraging and balancing the frivolous flights of fancy that her right hand seemed determined to follow.

              We talked about the piano and how the notes were structured. She asked why the notes in the middle were so loud and the notes at the top and the bottom were so soft. I speculated that perhaps it is because there are just so many notes in the middle that they have to be louder to be heard and to stand out in the crowd. But the notes at the low end of the scale are like hearing a baby lion purr or growl, while the notes at the high end are like a whisper -- you lean forward and really listen to hear them because they are so important that you don't want to miss a thing they are saying. That they really don't need to be loud when they have something to say.

              My tiny pianist leaned slightly forward and gently pressed the highest note on the piano, the delicate, eloquent C. She paused for a moment and then nodded solemnly, once.

              The music ended a few minutes later with a magnificent glissando; and, hopping off the bench, she went to the little fridge under the counter to get Ovations for her dad, herself and me -- and for her brother Isaiah Alexandre. What a fitting end to this delightful concert! I was so glad I had heard her inimitable little voice outside my window.

              I am confident that -- thanks both to her great personal courage and confidence, and to the incredible love and support of every member of the remarkable family she belongs to and is an integral part of -- J's voice will stand out in the midst of the chattering of the more commonly heard notes in the middle of the keyboard. May she always have something to say. May she always be heard.

              Brava, J! Encore!

              Tuesday, August 11, 2009

              Consider the Lily

              As you might imagine, running the TH -- even just on weekends -- can be an enormous drain, not only physically but emotionally and financially as well.

              A couple of weeks ago I finally hit a wall: I was exhausted; things at Carswell seemed somehow to be going awry; the TH's traffic had been very slow over the previous month. The toaster oven had died the previous weekend as did a fridge, causing me to lose a goodly portion of perishables.

              I had fretted all week while I was away as to what I could do about the fridge and toaster oven. And then, to top it all off, the plane that was bringing me back to Calgary was late, taxiing to its leisurely halt at 7:22 pm on Friday evening.

              Now, Costco closes at 8:30. Even my most optimistic guess didn't allow for deplaning, the inevitable wait for luggage, the even longer wait for the Park'n'Jet shuttle, the drive to Costco and then the shopping -- all to be completed in one hour and eight minutes!

              So what's a woman to do? I did what comes naturally -- called my sister from the plane as soon as the seatbelt sign went off, intending to beg her to pick me up at the airport and take me to Costco, and I would come back later and collect my temporarily abandoned suitcase and car.

              Deborah just burst out laughing. "Get your luggage and car and give me your list: I'm in Costco right now myself." I couldn't have scripted a better solution to my immediate problem -- although a few fellow travellers looked askance at me when I ordered 12 whipping creams and 8 lbs. of butter!

              I finished up at the airport and proceeded to Superstore to do the rest of the shopping, and then collected my Costco purchases and reimbursed Deb for them. We realized that we had forgotten to get fresh flowers for the tables -- and then Deb considered the flowers growing in her front garden and cut me a lovely bouquet of lilies.

              I started to head home at about 10 p.m. when, 20 minutes out of the city, I remembered that I was supposed to pick up a package of syrups that my coffee distributor was going to have stashed for me under a bush in front of their shop. I turned around and drove back into Calgary -- only to find no package in the regular hiding place (speaking to them on Monday, they had simply forgotten to put it out!). Wearily I pointed my car in the direction of home again, wondering drearily if this was the straw that was going to break this camel's back or if something else was going to hit me.

              At that moment a lovely perfume wafted up from the back seat to the front of my car, and "consider the lilies" immediately penetrated my sombre thoughts. These flowers had nothing to do except to be. If the rain and violent winds hit them, they couldn't run for shelter; if the sun shone on them they basked in the rays. They couldn't control one thing about their circumstances. They certainly hadn't asked to be cut that evening! And yet they were so beautiful and sturdy and brought so much joy -- just by being!

              As I eased my way through Timmie's drivethrough (extra-large double-double -- on top of everything else those lilies didn't even have to stay awake to drive!), I resolved to be grateful for the opportunities I have been given and the privileges I experience every day. How many people can say that they truly love their job? And yet, I have two "jobs" that I truly love, so much so that neither of them feels like I am working.

              With this new-found gratitude came a sudden liberating rush of realization that I am where I am supposed to be for right now, just like the lilies. There is not much I can do about rising prices, crippling local taxes, late-night drives from Calgary, dearth of guests. What I can control is my attitude and reaction to my circumstances. I can just be in the place where I have been planted, enjoying the sunshine, appreciating the rain, bracing myself against the wind, until one of two things happens: I will have put down strong roots and will produce perennial blooms, or I will be selected to be transplanted into another garden. (How would I be as a hot-house flower?!)

              I pulled into my driveway at about midnight, so happy and thankful to be home, to be at my wonderful magical tea house home again.

              I pushed the automatic door opener and started unloading the groceries when I sensed that something wasn't quite the same as before. It took me a moment to realize that across the room from me there was a fridge with something stuck on the front of it. In disbelief I walked over and read the sign taped to the front of a brand new fridge:


              I peeked inside and all my pop, sparkling juices, etc. -- everything that could be salvaged -- had been stocked into this new fridge.

              I looked over at my Dad, my Dad who always stays up late on a Friday night to help me unpack my groceries because he knows it is the thing I dread the most out of the entire week, and he was just beaming. "Dad, you shouldn't have ..." I started to say, and he shushed me and said that he was able to do this and he wanted to do this for me and the tea house, and that we had better get the butter into the fridge.

              I started to carry eggs and dairy into the cooler in the kitchen and the first thing that caught my eye there was a shiny new toaster oven! I was ready to weep, just overwhelmed with my father's generosity and my Father's provision for what I desperately needed but could not afford to purchase at all.

              As I hugged my Dad he said that we need to help each other where we can, when we can, and that he was privileged to have been given the means to help me so that the TH could continue to be a haven for other people.

              Then on Saturday morning one of my regular guests came in and said he was heading into Calgary and would be happy to pick up the flavoured syrups I needed ...

              At the end of the weekend I thought of those crazy lilies again -- BethAnne had divided and arranged them so that every table in the TH was graced by their beauty, and on Sunday evening I had given some to some of my guests so that they too would be able to enjoy their fragrance and loveliness into the week -- and I realized that no amount of worrying or fretting could have conjured up a fridge or a toaster oven or customers for me (yes, our end-of-weekend totals had risen slightly!).

              And I was filled with gratitude for even the timing of my horticultural lesson: because I had been able to let go of some of my anxieties before I got to the TH on Friday night, I was able to revel in the enormous grace of the gifts I had received, not only of the fridge and oven but the timing of Debbie being at Costco and the generosity of her cutting the most beautiful blooms in her garden for the TH to enjoy, and the talent that BethAnne displayed in their simple, charming arrangements. Even the timing of the guest coming into the TH on Saturday morning and being able to pick up the syrups from Calgary for me was a gift! If I had NOT come to the conclusion that it is better just to trust and to be before I arrived back home, either I would have entirely missed all those moments of grace, or they would have felt more in the nature of a rebuke.

              I being who I am, however, I am going to forget the lesson many times and will have to be reminded -- in ways both gentle and stern, I am sure! -- and so before it gets to that I will try to remember to pop back to this page and look at the picture at the top of this entry and then close my eyes and recollect the scent of the lily and the smile of my father and know that all I have to do at that very moment is to breathe it all in ... and to realize that my roots are curling deeper into this rich, luxuriant soil into which I've been planted.

              Sunday, August 9, 2009

              "We Now Pause for this Commercial Message..."

              I am not a person enslaved to name brands -- well, except for Coca Cola! -- but when I travel for Carswell, I always see if I can book into a Delta hotel. And my favourite hotel out of the chain is the Ocean Pointe in Victoria.

              This is the hotel where I brought my parents and my sister Cathryn on the last holiday I would have with Mum. They treated her like a queen and went out of their way to make everything wonderful for us.

              The next year when I returned, my lovely waitress Melissa remembered not only me but my Mum and asked after her with much kindness.

              This year was no exception. I was put into a beautiful room with a glorious view ...

              ... and because I am a regular guest with the Delta chain, they sent up a cheese tray ...

              ... and a kind note from Kimberley Hughes, the General Manager (all the Delta hotels include "the welcome back note" to returning guests, but Kimberley's touched me in light of the memories I have of this particular hotel).

              That evening Kathy, the wonderful representative from housekeeping who was offering turndown service, asked me if I would like an extra chocolate. When I said I shouldn't be eating any at all she replied, "Everyone should have an extra chocolate on vacation!" When she found out I was here on business, she responded, "Well, in that case you deserve extra chocolate!" and gave me several more. Who could resist?

              (Kathy's chocolates & Kimberley's note)

              (The next night, when I arrived back to my room after a long day at work, on my bedside was the "tomorrow's temperature" card -- encircled by another gift of chocolates courtesy, I have no doubt, of the generosity of Kathy!)

              Henry served me breakfast the first two mornings I was there. He was charming and cheerful and didn't even laugh too much at me for not seeing the coffee pot in plain view on my table ...

              And the last morning Melissa herself was working in the dining room and I had the great good fortune of being seated at one of her tables. As usual she was friendly and thoughtful and remembered -- the perfect way to end a stay in Victoria.

              The food is fresh and tasty -- seafood cakes, anyone?! I also appreciate that children are made a big deal of by the staff. The front desk crew is efficient and accommodating; one poor agent graciously even did faxing for me in the middle of the night ...

              This is all rather gushy, I'm afraid; but when I find a hotel that treats its guests the way this one does (and it appears that everyone gets treated extremely well here), I feel like I should pass it on. Customer service seems to be more and more of a dying art - yet at this hotel it seems to come naturally. People really do make the difference. I only hope that we at the TH treat our guests as well as I was treated.

              If you are planning on going out to Victoria and want a place to stay, I suggest you go to and sign up for their email service: they will send you regular notices about special rates and packages.

              Oh, and one last thing -- to set the seal on excellence! -- they even serve Coca Cola ... :-)

              (view from my room at night)

              Monday, August 3, 2009

              "We Said Goodbye to our Dad Today ..."

              They stood closetogether in the entry of Nilgiris at 6 o'clock on Saturday evening, the brother, the sister, her husband, their mother. For the first time that day, the TH was empty. As I brightly pointed out where they could sit, they didn't move: blank faces, frozen limbs.

              Finally the sister spoke from just inside the doorway: "We said goodbye to our Dad today ..." and the picture came into focus and I recognized the tableau. "He's better off" "It's a relief" "It's for the best" "We've been expecting it"

              And the dignified beautiful mother hugged me fiercely
              And the kindly husband's smile toppled off his face
              And the devoted sister squeezed my hand and said, "You know"
              And the valiant brother blinked hard

              But what about we who are left behind? I thought. "He was your Dad," I said aloud. And I led them to the table and brought them their food and kept their water glasses filled, just like any other Saturday evening.

              Other regulars started to drift in, talking about their day, the football game, music, dessert, just like any other Saturday evening. Soon the place was full.

              But nothing was the same. I wanted everyone in there to sense the unspoken grief in the room, to acknowledge the invisible gaping wound, like a ribcage being wrested open with two bare hands and the bloody heart being pulled out. I wanted them to see the joy of a soul being released who had been trapped in the casings of mortality juxtaposed with the quiet anguish of the mortals who loved him still fettered to the earth.

              But after all, it was Saturday night at the TH.

              Then the earth expressed the dissonance of the evening: The wind started to gather force, howling bitterly, folding around itself as it swept down the street where the TH is, the street where the mother lives. The wind scooped up chairs and shattered trees and tore up roofs as it searched for some hiding place for its pain. Dust clawing at eyes gave permission for tears. The sound of hearts ready to burst could be heard in the moaning of the chimney as the wind railed and rattled and uprooted and demolished.

              And the customers rallied, one running after abducted chairs, another holding the door, someone tracking down the fallen "Open" sign, others shutting windows, people greeting each other and checking on each other and offering rides. People caring for each other. Everyone drew a little closer together for those moments; and for those moments the mother and brother and sister and husband were not quite so alone.

              On Sunday evening I saw the brother's fire-engine red truck parked up the street. It had been there most of the day. Memories of the day after suffused me: the planning -- "arrangements", they call it -- the loss settling in uneasily like an immigrant, like the weight of the world. Word will have started to get out and there will be calls and casseroles and cards.

              The day after is the day you want to be with all of those you love. But one of those you love isn't showing up. There is so much talking and time is of the essence and you have to make sure the church is free the obituary written the program designed the music selected the notice sent to the paper the flowers ordered relatives and friends called an outfit and pictures chosen to give to the funeral director the ministerial call please, you need to eat something how many rows for the family what about the refreshments after the service do you remember when he

              And all you really want to do is crawl back into his lap and say, "Dad? What do you think?" and you want to grab his hand and say, "Father? I really need to know he's okay; please let me know he's okay ..."

              And on Sunday, in the late watches of the day after, the heavens declared.

              The lightning sliced the night in half and the sky split open and the thunder beat the drums slowly and triumphantly. Rain showered down from the skies, its warm needles ministering to the wounds of grief and pain and loss. The parched earth and the splintered trees and the broken flowers, casualties of the day before, dared to breathe again.

              Finally, when the clouds had exhausted their supply and all was quiet, the smell of the newly washed earth returned to the sky like incense. And the blood-tinged, almost-full moon started to wend its way slowly from the horizon to the heavens, the attendant stars sprinkling light like rose petals in its wake.