Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Mamma Mia!

For the first time all six Ironside women joined forces last Thursday evening to celebrate Bronwyn's birthday at a Calgary performance of the musical Mamma Mia!

From the opening notes of I have a dream to the joyful singing and dancing that formed the curtain calls, we were - all six of us - entranced.

Together with everyone else we hummed along to the songs that were part of the music of our growing up, laughing at certain moments and tearful at others. The particular scene that touched each of us was the one where the about-to-be-married daughter wanted her mother to help her get ready. Earlier, when they had sung Does your Mother Know? I had wondered if Mum would perhaps have got a kick out of the whole evening, out of being with her girls even though she wouldn't necessarily have loved the music. And now, at the secene where the mother was helping her daughter into her wedding dress I was overwhelmed with the realization that if any of my sisters says I do, I do, I do, I do, I do, she won't have an opportunity for those kinds of funny, tender memories with Mum. I wanted to grab the 21-year-old stage bride and say to her, treasure this time. Look deep into your mother's eyes. See what dreams she's willingly sacrificed to get you to this place. Engrave this moment on your heart.

Indeed, Mamma Mia!'s story tells how one person can dream both big dreams and small and be forced to watch them disintegrate before her eyes; and how someone else can try to act out the dreams she believes she should be dreaming, only to find herself adrift in her own life. The mother had a dream of falling in love, marrying and settling on a Greek island. Her beloved had a dream of designing the inn they would build and run together. Through bad timing, they lost touch with each other. But life had to keep going, so they stoically jettisoned their hopes and worked individually toward what was in their power to accomplish.

And the daughter dreamt of finding her father and planned on having a "traditional" life, something that had eluded her in her unconventional upbringing. But by the end of the story she realizes that those dreams are quite at odds with her own philosophy of life, so she courageously releases them and starts exploring what it is she really wants to accomplish.

After the show we went out for tapas and we talked about our own dreams: between us we had wanted to be a teacher, an artist, an Olympian, a veterinarian, a doctor, a wife, a mother, a writer, a dancer ... but in many cases we were too timid, too unaware of what we could accomplish if we had set our mind and our resources on our goal. Most of those dreams were not destined to come true; and even the ones that were fulfilled took different shapes than what was anticipated in the dreamer's mind so long ago.

However, the amazing thing, we realized, is that our dreams still have life in the background of our consciousness, giving us a landmark of who we were and a milestone on the journey to who we are becoming. They have the ability to move us still; and on evenings like this they allow us to unwrap them carefully and peek at them once again, reminding ourselves of their beauty and innocence and power. Reminding us of our power. 

And so this evening we celebrated mothers and daughters, and life, and music, and the bittersweet gift of dreaming.

So I say
Thank you for the music, the songs I'm singing
Thanks for all the joy they're bringing
Who can live without it, I ask in all honesty
What would life be?
Without a song or a dance what are we?
So I say thank you for the music
For giving it to me

("Thank you for the music" - ABBA)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Life Goes Full Circle

It was you who threw me a surprise party for my 21st birthday; I believe I cried almost the whole time, cried for the thought you had put into it, for the good intentions behind it; cried because I had never been the focus of a surprise party before.

We wrote each other through college in a runic script of your devising. We challenged each other continually, each determined to be the victor at every skirmish. The rules of engagement were simple: at all times, en garde. It's a cliche, I know, but we made each other laugh and drove each other crazy. Such heady days.

We both won. Then we both lost.  

And through the ensuing years, separately we learnt to pick our battles with much greater care, to keep our swords sheathed for the most part. We learnt what was important to fight about and what was crucial to fight for.

Slowly, we both made significant gains of our own. You had the daughter with the name we both loved; I birthed the Tea House. You launched yourself into a successful stage career; I started to focus on music and literature. You circled back to your roots; I put down new ones.

And on the occasional occasions our paths intersect, we find we can both still laugh together, the banter coming easy with the pressure to impress removed. We're finally comfortable in our own skins.

Now, all these years later, you're celebrating a landmark birthday. I can't throw a party for you; indeed, you have no need for me to. But I can exult from a distance at the person you have become. I can give thanks for the times we spent together. I can finally listen to Charly McClain and hear the sweetness in the song.

And I can, and do, root for you as you explore this new segment of your life. May you never become stagnant. May your career thrive. May your sorrows be a stepping stone to greater wisdom and opportunity. May joy, often so elusive, become palpable.

And because it's your birthday, I'll let you have the last word and the last laugh:

                         Your gorgeous, Karyn

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Third Anniversary

It was three years ago that you left us. Sometimes those years seem interminable, the distance unbridgeable; at others, the time seems raw and new, like it happened yesterday, like you're in the next room.

Mary Oliver wrote about the spectre of death glimpsed through the lens of life:

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measles-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

You took the time to learn the names, to marvel at the flowers, to exclaim at the snow on the mountains, to relish the vast golden fields, to hear the music of the brook and the seashell. You were always amazed by the beauty of life, and you embraced it all, animal, vegetable, mineral. You asked the full twenty questions.

You "made of [your] life something particular and real".

By no means a mere visitor, you inhabited the world, giving back to it much more than it gave to you. You truly strove to make it a better place, focussing on the impact your actions of the moment would have in the light of eternity.

Our longing for you increases even as the time until we see you again decreases. What are you learning about, what brings you particular joy these days?  What is the second thing you will want us to see?

Thank you for opening our eyes to the beauty of life, to the gift of each day.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Christmas Comes Early to the TH!

Nilgiris is blessed almost every week by people bringing in gifts - china, ornaments for the "Tea Tree" in the entry, magazines and books, games and puzzles; even obscure things like the never-before-used, ancient but charming English Christmas pudding steamer or the peacock crafted and painted by a preteenager.

One of the quirkiest cups I have received!

Today, however, was a record. A delightful guest and her husband had visited us earlier in the summer with a local couple; she loved the TH and when her friend from Three Hills went to visit Fort McMurray, she returned with a special delivery for Nilgiris.

Then in the afternoon my friend George dropped in with a cardboard box: "Di thought you might like these," he said diffidently.

And shortly before closing a gift bag was handed to me from my friend Bernadette. One of the things in it was a beautiful breakfast cup from Bernadette's "Mummy", a cup most likely about 75 years old.

My sentimental favourite: The coronation of King Deorge V!, with a miniature of the two Princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose
 After I unwrapped the first batch of china I set all the pieces up on the large oval table, named "the Island", near the counter. I added to it in the afternoon with Di's offering, and in the evening added Bernadette's Mum's cup and saucer.
"The best cup of tea in a long time!"

On Sunday morning after church Dad and I have a little tea ritual where we sit in the purple chairs and drink Tiger Hill tea before he leaves for his next service and I depart back to the kitchen. This Sunday morning I served him in Bernadette's Mum's cup because it reminded me of Nana, my Dad's mother, who had cups of the same vintage and pattern.

As soon as I set the cup in front of him and I poured him the tea in it, he remembered. As I offered him milk, he remarked, "It's almost a shame to put milk in this tea cup - you lose the beautiful colour ..." and from there we had a sweet time reminiscing about Dad's life at the farm and his mother in particular.

This weekend had threatened to be dull and listless, a transition between a soggy summer and a brittle fall, a sombre anniversary of a brutal action nine years ago that has changed the tone and the tactics of the world. It turned out to be a weekend of joy and pleasure in the Tea House as all my guests could also enjoy the beautiful pieces arrayed on the table and be reminded that life still is wonderful, that in the midst of the chaos without there can still be tranquility within.

Don't you love Christmas?!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Other Streets of the French Quarter

This incessant damp and cold as summer sidles - embarrassed, undecided - out of Alberta this year forces the contrast of just a month ago where the streets in the French Quarter were wet but warm and spilling over with a fighting attitude. Although the skies were grey, the colours were vibrant. Katrina and BP are not being allowed to defeat this brave, resolute city.

Was it really only a month ago that we were there? Here are some views of and from the streets close to Bourbon Street, and mostly by day:














I think I'm almost ready to go back ... 

Sunday, September 5, 2010

"A Good Friend To God"

When Dad and I were in India in the spring, we visited a college that had grown out of the work of the college where Dad had laboured for over 40 years in Bangalore. This next-generation college was in Trivandrum, and Dad was to speak at chapel for almost a week as well as on the Sunday we were there.

"Sir" and Mathan
Mathan, one of Dad's former students, is the Dean at the college, and it was he who met us at the airport and he who introduced Dad each time before the latter spoke.

He told anecdotes about Dad as his teacher and as his Dean and as his Vice-president when Mathan was a student. And in listening to Mathan, and in having the privilege of being with Dad for the next three weeks, I got a fresh perspective on this man whom I thought I knew so well.

As Mathan introduced Dad to the students for the first time he told about how he first met "Sir" and how in the years that followed he sat under him in classes and watched him and followed his life. He talked about Dad as a man of prayer and of moral courage and of integrity and of leadership and of kindness.

"He is a good friend to God," said Mathan.

Philip's church
The Friday evening we were in Trivandrum, Dad went to a tiny village church where Philip, another former student and a current teacher at the same college where Mathan teaches, is the pastor and where Dad spoke in English and Mathan translated for him. The respect and love with which these three men hold each other was palpable that evening. At the bottom of this post is a seven-minute clip to give you the flavour of that evening.

Dr and Mrs P.D. Cherian
After Trivandrum, we went on to Coimbatore, to another college and another group of former students and faculty members and friends who wanted to see Dad again, to talk with him, to shake his hand. Pastor Joy Benjamin and the President of the college, PD Cherian, and Bruce Schwalbe all vied for his time. Bruce is an American and started a school for the deaf, launching it from Dad's college in Bangalore many years ago. His wife, RuthAnne, told me that the only person she doesn't have to sign for is Dad: for some reason, Bruce can read Dad's lips easily and loves to be in meetings where Dad is the speaker.

We went back to Bangalore and Dad's great friend, Mr. Subbaiah, met us at the airport. How Mum and Dad loved Subbaiah and his wife, Pravin! We got to spend some time - not nearly enough! - renewing our families' friendship over the next week.

Mr and Mrs Subbaiah
Jeremiah and family
And of course in Bangalore there were many people who love Dad and were so overjoyed to see him again: the barber, who wept when he left; Mary Swinden, the college's faithful secretary, and Padma, the retiring librarian. There were the vendors in the market and at Koshy's bakery; old neighbours; the choir director and the piano player for the college; Ed and Joh, Dr Chelli's boys who are now carrying on the work of the college and who regard my Dad as their second father; Rajah, faithful and loyal servitor to the college, who would bring Dad his hot water and lemon in the morning and would come to Dad to give and to receive counsel; Jeremiah, former student and now excellent teacher.

Many of these people would also seek me out to tell me what an impact Dad has had on their lives. And the recurrent theme throughout each of their narratives was one of love and service. A couple of them told of the time the sewer system got backed up at the college. There were no on-call sewer companies in those days, and tempers on the campus grew frayed. None of the sticks and hooks and pipes that were tried would unblock the septic tank. No one seemed willing to deal with the crisis further - it was, after all, India with the caste system simmering just below the surface at all times - and so finally someone went and laid the situation before "Sir."

Dad quietly listened to the whole story, and then quietly went to the septic tank and quietly reached his arm into the cesspool and somehow released the blockage. The angry voices on campus were stilled as they realized that their Vice-president was willing so to humble himself. He never had to say a word. And now, over 25 years later, that story is still passed down from one generation of students to the next and there has never been an instance where people have not been willing to follow in the footsteps of Sir.

Keynote speaker at Berean's graduation 2010
In listening and observing for those three weeks, I started to ask myself what it is about Dad that causes the loving response people have to him wherever he goes. And I have finally come to the conclusion, after pondering it for these past six months, that the main message Dad brings to any situation no matter where he is in the world is love. How he shows God's love to all the people he comes into contact with! In his sermons he emphasizes the love of God; in his actions he portrays that love; in his presence one can feel the presence of God in the room. As a matter of fact, even here in Canada several of my unchurched friends have remarked that when Dad prays to God, it is like God is another person right in the room whom Dad is talking with. The clip you can view illustrates this: we are in a small room with some of the poorest people any of us will have met. Some of them are blind and maimed and orphaned and widowed. Most have no running water in their houses and not much education and not much hope, according to the standards of success in the world. But Dad talks to them about God's great love for them, just as they are right in that tiny room. The whole sermon went on for almost an hour, and by the end you could feel the presence of hope renewed and faith brought into focus. They were not asking God to take them out of their present circumstance, but to have the grace and strength to bear it. They were thanking God that this "old man" who came from overseas took the time to meet with them.

Dad is a man of faith and principle and he will not compromise his principles; but at the same time, he is reluctant to judge other people's motives, firmly believing that it is God who sees the individual's heart and it is God to Whom the person must answer, not Dad. He does not indulge in gossip and speculation. His focus is on knowing God.

This weekend we are celebrating Dad's birthday in Kindersley, Saskatchewan, where Dad is scheduled to speak to a men's breakfast on Saturday morning and then church on Sunday morning. Today - his birthday - he came back to the motel and told us how after the breakfast meeting he gave a neck massage to a couple of old guys who had knots in their necks, and then foot massages to a few men with aching feet. He takes delight in helping people and people respond to him because they recognize that it comes from a pure heart overflowing with kindness.

I am beyond grateful for this year in which I have had the privilege of travelling with Dad, of sitting at his feet when he speaks both in Canada and in India. My view of him, limited for the most part to being his daughter for all these years, has expanded tremendously as I witness the impact that his life and ministry have had on countless people, even to the fourth generation.

As Mathan said to me whilst he introduced Dad for the last chapel service we attended in Trivandrum: "He is your father, but he is our Sir."

Happy birthday, Sir. How we all love you!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Birthday Girl

She's the one who when I say
"I need to wash some cups today,"
will fast respond, "I'm on my way!" -
My friend Norma.

She's the one who when she's shopping
Keeps an eye out for table toppings
in colours that can be show-stopping -
My friend Norma.

She's the one on Saturday night
who peels potatoes with all her might
then cleans till I turn out the light -
My friend Norma.

She's the one, it's very clear,
her grandkids hold especially dear
It gives her joy to have them near -
My friend Norma.

She's the one who, when I'm beat
says, "Come for lunch - there's lots to eat!"
and cooks me up some special treat -
My friend Norma.

She's the one whom Don adores:
He waltzes her across the floor
and hopes that time will give them more -
My friend Norma.

She's the one for whom I pray
that God will show Himself today
and bless her on her special day -
My friend Norma.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Nilgiris' First LOIS Award Evening

On Saturday, August 28, 2010, Nilgiris Tea House held our first LOIS Award Evening.

Lois Hunt started working for the TH when she returned from a stint at Hebron School in the Nilgiris, South India. She stayed with us until she went to college in British Columbia for a couple of years. Then back she came to the TH. Next she went to the Philippines to get her midwifery training. When that was done, here she was again. She left and returned several times; but finally, in 2009, we had to adjust to the idea that the next time she left would be somewhat permanent: after Christmas she was moving to New York because Lois Hunt was about to become Lois Lewis ...

One of Lois's many gifts is that she can inspire young people to reach inside themselves and deliver their best - their best efforts, their best attitude, their best accomplishments. Time and again I have seen her taking a rookie teahouse employee and tuck the newbie under her wing and get her or him going on the right track. She listens, she instructs, she teases, she laughs, she corrects, she entrusts, she encourages.

Most of all, she cared. She cared for the customers, cared for the staff, cared that she is giving her best to whatever job is at hand. And she gently led the staff to follow her example.

I was so happy for Lois when Greg won her hand. But I wanted the lessons that Lois taught the TH staff to be valued and remembered and passed on. She inspired me to create a tribute in honour of this selfless, hard-working, dedicated young woman. I called it the LOIS Award.

LOIS stands for Leading Others with Integrity through Service. Lois has never been a leader who feels the need to be in the spotlight, who must make her voice heard at all costs. She said to me so many times, "I just want to be wherever you need me the most." But I have rarely seen anyone who impacted the lives of people around her like Lois did, and does. The TH staff all loved and respected her. She could reach any of them where they were at any given moment in their lives. She keeps in touch with them still.

I felt that the award should be in the nature of a small scholarship, funded by tips I receive from the Monday morning men's group, by recycling bottles, by the occasional little cheque and bills people have shyly handed me to "help someone" through the TH or to "pay it forward" because someone had done something nice for them, or even to put toward the "LOIS fund."  The criteria for the award would be as follows:

  • Grade 12 graduate
  • Worked at the TH for at least a year
  • Continuing on with their studies or going on a mission trip
  • Manifest the characteristics that Lois exemplified: a good attitude, willingness to work hard, and a leader with a quiet, unobtrusive influence among the staff.
This summer we had our first LOIS Award recipient.

Brent Benavides started working at the TH three years ago. He was one of Lois's proteges and under her tutelage grew from a timid lad to a confident young man who could set aside his apprehensions and natural reticence and tackle anything I threw at him. For example, one Sunday the cook called in sick very shortly before we were to open. Brent stepped up and took charge in the kitchen: he plated, garnished and served 31 roast beef dinners, plus quiches with salad, soup, and a steady stream of desserts, all without the slightest glitch. He gave direction to the two younger employees in the kitchen and got them to work well together as a unit.

Brent had just turned 18 years old.

He graduated from high school in June and now Mount Royal University in Calgary beckons. Such an occasion demanded that we close the TH at 5 p.m. on Saturday to celebrate this exceptional young man.

The evening started with "Coach's Corner", where "Coach Arnie Timothy frm Newfoundland" and a substitute recommended by Grapes himself, conducted an interview with Brent, complete with guests on the panel who discussed Brent's prowess in hockey; his leadership at school as President of the Student Council; his dedication to His Singers, a high school choir; and his work at the TH.

Coach, of course talked about Brent's entertainment career, his political career, his sports career, and his culinary career. As Don Cherry does in Coach's Corner on Saturday hockey games, Coach Timothy nearly stole the show ... until he said it was time to cut to commercial break and Brent responded, "There is one more thing before we go to commercial break ..." and handed Coach a silver tray on which rested a pot of Earl Grey tea and a fantastic tea cup and saucer set painted by Brent in Prairie Sabres colours and decorated with a pair of sabres, Brent's number 4, the date and COACH painted on it.

For the first time ever at the TH, Coach was speechless ...

After that presentation was made and Coach poured himself a cup of tea, Dad spoke a few words of challenge to Brent, at my request.

Dad told of the story of Daniel from the Bible, applying it to Brent as the latter got ready to leave his home and move into the larger world of university. Dad pointed out how Daniel purposed in his heart to do what is right, he prayed, and he prospered; and all of that could come about because of Daniel's conviction, his companions, his confidence in God, his consistency, and his continuation of good practices throughout his long life. Brent and his four closest high school companions listened intently as Dad spoke.

Then it was time to eat: I asked Dr. Oswaldo Benavides, Brent's Dad, to offer thanks in Spanish, and everyone eagerly filled their plates from the table laden with an array of tempting delicacies artfully arranged by Krista, who had come back to pitch in for the occasion ... Krista's presence also gave me an opportunity to thank her for the magnificent job she did for us over the past eight months. Truly this young woman is an artist as well as a thinker. She is clear sighted and focussed. She is disciplined and beyond hard-working. She kept me on track for the last few months and I am so grateful to her for her continued presence in my life. But I still want to see her dance ...


When everyone looked like they were satisfied, I presented the first LOIS Award to Brent, touching lightly on how he lived out the characteristics; but as I was speaking my heart was heavy, knowing how much I and the TH will miss this very talented, very capable, very committed young man with his keen mind and attention to detail and his humble heart and spirit. He is worth more than six kings and six saints, as one of my charmingly erudite friends would put it.

All the best at Mount Royal, Brent! Come back and visit us often: we'll save "your" apron for you ...