When he was small, my youngest son had a habit of filling his pockets with treasures he encountered in his daily adventures. I didn't always understand the value he saw in his chosen objects -- really, how many rocks and sticks could one boy keep? In his eyes, though, each one was beautiful and important. Life is just like that on a larger scale, isn't it? We gather up the precious bits of our experiences and save them all to learn from and enjoy later. Perhaps you'll find a little something here that you'd like to keep in your own pockets. Thanks for visiting.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Found in Aunt Maisie's Apartment

This post is a piece of creative non-fiction I wrote for a CBC contest back in the winter. It didn't capture the attention of the judges, but I'm giving it a home here now because it's a meaningful story for my family, especially my mom and dad. Thinking of them and all the ways they give of themselves to bring brightness to others' lives.

Congratulations to the thirty-two excellent writers whose pieces were longlisted for the CBC's 2016 Creative Non-Fiction Prize.

The phone rang shrilly three... four... five times, its sudden clamour piercing the stuffy air in the otherwise quiet apartment. Anxiety had often compelled her not to answer when random callers beckoned in recent years, but this time it was not her mind preventing her from moving toward the phone. She was a lonely prisoner in her own home, an old woman sprawled despondently on the floor, having fallen two days (or was it three now?) earlier. Her shaky limbs were too weak to follow the commands her panicked mind repeatedly barked out at them. As darkness slowly swallowed up the room once more, she struggled to recall when exactly her body had turned such a traitor.


“My Aunt Maisie’s in the hospital.” Mom’s voice was tired and sorrowful, the recent passing of her own mother weighing heavily on her heart. She hadn’t seen Aunt Maisie in years, she told me, and Maisie had said everything was fine on the occasions they had spoken on the phone. It was a sixth sense, or love, or maybe a powerful message from a mom who was gone but somehow still close by that told her to try the hospital when Mom’s repeated calls to her mother’s closest sister went unanswered.

“Her superintendent finally let himself into the apartment out of concern,” she explained. “Maisie will be moving into a nursing home once she’s recovered from her fall; she can’t live alone any longer. She’s giving me power of attorney and the keys to her apartment so I can take care of everything.” I waited during an empathic pause on the other end of the line. “She has no one else.”

Mom didn’t realize then the enormity of the responsibility she had just selflessly shouldered.

It seemed improbable that the weary old apartment was capable of holding so much. Chaos spilled out from every corner and cupboard, the accumulated treasures and debris of an abundant life nearly eight decades long. It might have been a gold mine of sorts for someone without any personal connection to the rooms or the woman who had lived in them for forty-four years, someone who could seek out the physically valuable items and leave the rest behind. For my parents, whose task it was to completely empty the place while respecting Maisie’s wishes and feelings, it seemed an indomitable mountain.

There were cabinets full of tarnished silver and smudgy crystal. Newspapers and years’ worth of mail sat stacked and unopened on tables and beds. Dead plants drooped in pots and a vase held the remains of spring flowers that had withered months before. Bags of garbage were piled by the door, and the fridge held shelves full of rotting food. Everywhere my parents looked there were heaps of both precious and trivial possessions: new curtains and bedding lying across the couch, an endless supply of Swiffer dusters that nodded ironically at the inches of dust covering everything, a television sitting on an empty cardboard box, smiling collectible figurines and faded photographs. Mom walked the narrow pathway that led to the one empty bed in the apartment and felt a suffocating wave of hopelessness.

Aunt Maisie had always been a meticulous woman, Mom told me. I, too, remembered her spotless apartment from the few times I had visited it as a child, and the flawless way she had always presented herself with elegant hairstyles, clothing, jewellery, and make-up. It filled my mother with despair to imagine how Maisie’s life had fallen into such a sad state of disarray as her aging mind faltered. Scattered over many of the apartment’s surfaces were notes written in Maisie’s shorthand, a skill honed during her career as a legal secretary. My parents studied the cryptic scribbles intently, hoping to understand some small part of them, but the messages offered no clues about how they should proceed. There are no instructions for how to disperse the earnest collections of a family member’s life once she’s grown too old to take care of it herself.

Over the three months that it took my parents to empty the apartment, my mom found her own powerful memories resurfacing from the jumble. Old photographs allowed her to feel once again the warmth of familiar eyes and long-gone smiles; her mom’s pretty cursive flowed from cards and letters mailed to Maisie in the years following their reconciliation after a drawn-out, hurtful family dispute. She uncovered Maisie’s famous trifle recipe and the bowl that had held the festive dessert at many happy family Christmas celebrations long ago. Running her fingers along the surfaces of these intimate objects brought tangible proof that what she had lived and remembered was real.

I was at the apartment the day that Mom found a pretty hat box way up high in a closet. We carefully removed the lid and stood for a moment in reverent silence, staring at the small, ruffled dress and the love-worn soft monkey laid carefully inside. These had belonged to Maisie’s only daughter, who was stolen from her at the tender age of seven. A jealous river had pulled the little girl through a crack in its frozen surface and smothered her in its icy embrace.

Mom sighed with sadness and gently placed the lid back on the box. “I can’t make a decision about this. It’s not mine to say goodbye to.” The box would be one of the items brought to Maisie’s new home at the retirement residence, where she would build the last stages of her life from the fragmented objects and memories that remained. I wondered if for Maisie it was distressful, or a relief, to have family members free her of the weight of her life’s possessions, and a failing memory sporadically release her from old ghosts that might haunt her.

In the final days of sorting, clearing, and moving things from the apartment, a key to an unexpected off-site storage locker revealed well-remembered treasures from Mom’s grandmother’s house: a crystal bowl, a silver teapot and a collection of dainty china cups, a small cat figurine that my mom had wanted as a keepsake and that a then-bitter Maisie had denied her at my great-grandma’s last garage sale. The contents of the apartment and locker revived old heartaches and buried anger for my mom, but she let them go. She passed on the pieces and stories she felt were worth keeping to younger family members who would appreciate them, and with relief, she allowed everything else to leave freely. “You forgive,” my mom would explain to me several months later. “You don’t forget, but you forgive.”

Aunt Maisie is never far from Mom’s mind now. She visits her regularly, shops for what Maisie needs, takes her to medical appointments, coaxes her to get dressed and leave her room when anxiety has prevented her from doing either. It’s not easy, Mom tells me; she’s had to find much patience and understanding within herself. On good days, she knows Aunt Maisie appreciates her. Sometimes she just feels she’s being taken for granted.

“I don’t want to end up like that, confused and in pain.” Mom has shared these fears with me many times before. “I don’t want any of you to have to take care of me.”

But this, too, is a part of life for many of us. We spend years building and creating, then stand by helplessly in old age as some of it crumbles or fades away. We make mistakes as we stumble through youth, then make amends as time and perspective help us gain understanding. Eventually, many of us will forget, leaving others who come after us to pick up the loose threads and continue weaving a complex family history.

There will likely come a time when it is my turn to bring comfort and support to aging family members. I’m certain of what I will remember then: the generosity and tenderness of my parents caring for an elderly aunt when she needed them, a powerful image of unconditional love.

Monday, September 5, 2016

From Summer to September

The crickets chirp in earnest now from their secret spots in the backyard gardens. It's a steady, late summer song that carries us, somewhat reluctantly, from the long, leisurely days of the past couple of months to the bustle and hum of a fresh school year.

It's been a gorgeous summer. July and August gave us sunny skies and beautiful places for both quiet relaxation and lively fun with family and friends. We rented our friends' cottage on St. Joe's Island for two weeks again early in the summer, where we filled up our lungs with fresh northern air and our hearts with some of our very favourite people, landscapes, and family traditions. We spent a fun long weekend at Matt's parents' place on Lake Nosbonsing, where all of his siblings and their families gathered at once, including a brother who lives in Australia and who surprised us all with his visit. Later in August, Matt and the boys and I took a little overnight trip to Frankenmuth, MI, always an enjoyable getaway for shopping and sightseeing and famous chicken dinners. We also spent many mornings and afternoons this summer enjoying our own backyard together -- swimming in the pool, jumping on the trampoline, gardening, grilling, reading books and playing cards in the shade of the big, friendly trees. My brother and nephew and niece joined us for a few days in late summer and the yard echoed with the laughter of four kids who always have a wonderful time when they're together, despite the physical distance that separates them for most of the year.

The boys got up to some interesting things while they had an abundance of down time these past few months. They both volunteered as camp counsellors for a week, mentoring younger students in robotics and other STEM activities. Will mastered solving several new types of puzzle cubes and was invited to join an FLL team for the new season, which he's thrilled about. Noah spent much of the last couple of weeks at the Communitech hub, working diligently with a friend on a special design and programming project that was an exciting and challenging learning opportunity for them.

This summer, Noah turned 15 (!?!), and we finally gave in to Iris the cat's whining to go outside and bought her a harness and leash, which is both ridiculous and fun. We watched the Olympics, and the Tragically Hip's poignant last tour concert, and we sat under dark skies in our pjs late at night and watched for shooting stars. Oh, and in between all of this, we bought a new house, and sold our current house, in a wild flurry of activity driven by a hot real estate market where everything worked out in our favour. (We move in early October, and Will starts at his new neighbourhood school tomorrow morning.)

As the sun sets this evening on the last long weekend of a truly wonderful summer holiday, we'll go to bed here feeling well-rested, well-fed, reconnected, grateful, and happy. Though I'm wistful over the passing of another summer of my boys' youth, I'm also eager for the new adventures that surely await us as the seasons change once again.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Grilled Chicken, Veggie, and Pineapple Skewers with Orange Maple Sauce

Matt and the boys and I enjoyed the first long weekend of the summer by staying close to home and hanging out all together. There was lots of swimming and laughing, puttering and playing in the gardens and yard, a trip to the local farmers' market on Saturday morning, and tasty meals made easily and pleasantly with fresh ingredients and plenty of free time to enjoy the process. The start of summer holidays always comes with such an exhilarating feeling of lightness and spontaneity; we're all open to discovering new things in the wide open spaces (both the physical and the mental ones) that this relaxed, happy season often provides.

Saturday afternoon sun halo

One of our favourite meals from the weekend involved skewers threaded with chicken, peppers, zucchini, red onion, and pineapple, brushed with an orange maple sauce, and grilled nicely on the barbecue. I didn't plan for this meal to be part of a food post here, but the skewers looked and tasted so good when they came off the grill that I thought I'd share the recipe. (Luckily I have a patient family who was willing to wait to eat their dinner until I had snapped a few impromptu photos of it!)

Chicken, Veggie, and Pineapple Skewers with Orange Maple Sauce

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 sweet bell peppers, any colour
2 small zucchini
1 small red onion
half of a peeled and cored pineapple
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
2 tbsp pure maple syrup
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp ground cumin
a pinch of sea salt

Preheat the barbecue to medium heat. Cut the chicken, vegetables, and pineapple into similarly sized pieces, about 1 1/2 inches each. In a small bowl, whisk together the orange juice, maple syrup, olive oil, cumin, and sea salt.

Thread the chicken, vegetables, and pineapple onto skewers. (If you're using wooden ones, be sure to soak them in water for 20 minutes first.)

Place the skewers on the preheated grill and brush them with the orange maple sauce. Grill them for 15 to 20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through, brushing the chicken, vegetables, and pineapple frequently with the remaining sauce, and turning the skewers 5 or 6 times during the cooking process.

Serve grilled skewers with a side of whole grain rice and enjoy a simple but delicious summer meal!

Oh, one more thing before I go: If you enjoy following my stories and recipes here, you can now also find me on Instagram. Noah recently convinced me to actually try doing something with the account I had created there a long time ago, and I'm really enjoying its format for sharing photos and little snippets of life. I'm also still active on my Facebook page -- stop by and say hello if you haven't yet visited! :)

Monday, June 27, 2016

A room makeover and other happy surprises

One recent afternoon, Noah came home from school and found our main floor bathroom unexpectedly half-dismantled and out in the hallway, and me up to my elbows in paint and hardware.

Noah: Whoa! What is happening here?!
Me: I got tired of this bathroom.
Noah: Um, okaaayyy... Does Dad know about this?

I had to laugh at his reaction. In fact, his dad did not exactly know about my bathroom makeover plans. Matt and I had casually talked once or twice about doing a refresh in that room to tide us over until we're ready to do a major kitchen/main floor renovation. I had said that I should really paint the cabinet white, because it would look much better than the very 1980s wood grain that was currently there. And I had mentioned maybe changing up the dark brown wall colour I had chosen when we first moved in as a way to draw attention away from the uninviting and very limiting peachy-beige wall tile that a previous homeowner had installed two-thirds of the way up all of the bathroom walls. But I think I surprised even myself with how suddenly I decided to execute this plan.

(Okay, no, I actually didn't surprise myself.) I went out and got the paint on a whim at noon, and by the end of the day, in between various other commitments, I had the cabinet primed and painted white (SO much better!), new cabinet hardware installed, and the walls painted a striking deep shade of blue. All that was left to do was for Matt to install a new, more modern looking light fixture I had picked up, and help me hang a heavy new mirror, and then I should have been very happy.

Should have been....

As is often the case with home improvement projects, though, one thing tends to lead to another. After seeing the shiny new paint colours, I could not for one more second tolerate the now very dingy-looking peachy-beige wall tile everywhere. And so in a fit of perfectionism, I hauled out my paint brushes and cans again the next day and painted the ceramic tile white, too. I was a little scared about how that was going to work, but it turned out unpredictably well. And voila: a brighter, better-looking bathroom that happily surprised everyone! It's amazing sometimes what a big difference a few small changes can make.

We've been wrapping up more than quick bathroom makeovers this month. As the numbers on our chalkboard countdown-to-summer-holidays have grown smaller each week in June, so too have our outside commitments and responsibilities. Noah finished his volunteering at the swim club and his extra-curriculars at school for this season, and was recognized at his year end high school athletic banquet for his dedication and his accomplishments in sports and academics. I was so happy for him that his teachers and coaches see all the same amazing things in him that we do. He created an excellent first full year of high school for himself this year, devoting himself wholeheartedly to his courses and projects, his athletic and robotics teams and his volunteer work, and these awards were the icing on his cake.

Will performed wonderfully in his year end showcase for dance -- he and his friend Zach especially wowed the audience with their popping and locking duet. I wish I had a video of it to share here, as you'd have to actually see it to understand how impressive their striking unison with the music and each other was, and how vibrant their faces were as they told a very entertaining story through their movements. But the director of the studio told Will last week how many people had come to her and commented positively about that number after the show, and she has offered Will the opportunity to have a dance solo next season, which he is absolutely thrilled about!

Noah wrote his last exam this morning -- he is officially on summer holidays now -- and Will will join him at the end of the last school day on Thursday afternoon. We're all eager for lazy summer days together by the pool, for cottage time and fun visits with family, for many free hours for wondering and tinkering and creating new things. Long live the lighthearted summer months!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

"You can't be looking at these hoes": An 8th Grade Relationship Contract

There was an article in our local newspaper this morning about a relationship contract drafted by an 8th grade girl and signed by an 8th grade boy, the written copy of which had been found on the floor of a classroom and then tweeted by Twitter user Max Linsky. Among the nine "terms and conditions" included in the contract were these clearly worded particulars:

"You can't talk hoes."
"You can't hug these hoes."
"You can't be looking at these hoes."
"You can't break my heart because if you break my heart I will break your face."

The contract went viral on the internet earlier in June. This morning's article suggested that the document was written by a "super smart" and "confident" girl "who knows exactly what she wants", and that while the conditions are "comical and arguably extreme", they actually provide lessons for adult couples about important relationship issues such as respect, conflict, and communication.

I might be missing something (does the word "hoes" mean something different now than it did when I was a teenager?), but I don't find anything comical or especially enlightening about any of the terms set out by this young woman for her prospective partner. Her confidence seems to come from putting other young women down, and from positioning herself as having complete control in the relationship with the young man.

I don't have teenaged daughters to talk to about relationships, but if I did, I would tell them the exact same things I've been telling my teenaged sons: it is never okay to call someone a ho, or to threaten violence, even jokingly, when someone has a different opinion or feeling than they do. As a parent, I'm disappointed that a contract such as this one would go viral because people find it comical. I'm assuming that the "hoes" the 8th grader is referring to are her fellow female schoolmates -- how does the use of such a derogatory term by a young woman make people see her as strong and smart? What reaction would we have if a young man were to use the same term? Is the threat of breaking someone's face as retribution for heartbreak okay when it's uttered by a girl?

Recent distressing news events like the Stanford assault case and the Orlando shootings have made parents keenly aware that there are important, ongoing conversations we need to have with all of our children about respect for other human beings. We should want both our boys and our girls to understand that name-calling and threats of physical injury are not acceptable. Sharing a contract like this one, or any other offensive words or images, over and over again on social media because it's "funny" sends everyone the wrong message.

If my sons decide to date one day, would I like them to be in relationships with strong, smart, confident young women who know exactly what they want? Absolutely. I just hope that their girlfriends' confidence comes not from insulting other young women or thinking they have a right to break a boy's face, but from having a healthy, positive sense of self and knowing how to communicate their feelings and needs intelligently and respectfully. I want my boys to be treated with the same consideration with which I expect them to treat others.

If we want to widely circulate a lesson about relationships in the media, let's make it this one: there should be no double standard when it comes to courtesy in human interactions. Let's hold all of our young people, boys and girls, to the same high standards of kindness.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Mediterranean Pasta Salad

I planted our vegetable garden mid-week last week, and by the weekend, there were already tiny, eager green shoots pushing their way through the soil towards the sun. I never stop being amazed by this process each spring, the sudden bursting forth of potential encouraged by the combined efforts of me and Mother Nature.

The warm months are my most favourite time of the year for food. Every week there is something new in the gardens or at the farmers' market for us to enjoy, and it seems almost effortless to put together meals that are full of appealing colours and flavours. Today I'm sharing a recipe for a simple, hearty pasta salad that I often make to serve a crowd during the fun-filled summer months.

Mediterranean Pasta Salad 
(adapted from this recipe from Chatelaine magazine)

3 generous cups dry fusili pasta (I used a gluten-free brown rice version)
1 540ml can romano beans, drained and rinsed
half of each of a sweet red, yellow, and orange bell pepper, diced
1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted and halved
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley

3 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
the zest of one small lemon
1 clove of garlic, minced
1/8 tsp sea salt

Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Drain, and rinse under cold running water until cooled. Allow pasta to sit in the colander for a few minutes to drain well.

In a large bowl, whisk together the olive oil, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, lemon zest, garlic, and salt. Add the cooked pasta, romano beans, sweet peppers, olives, and parsley to the bowl and toss gently to combine. Serve immediately, or refrigerate for later.

This colourful salad is really easy to prepare and is perfect make-ahead side dish or main for all kinds of summer eating: potlucks, family barbecues, picnics, a quick and healthy lunch on the go. (Simply double the recipe for a larger crowd.) Enjoy the coming season of delicious food and happy times with family and friends!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Etsy: Summertime Favourites

Will was six years old when I started this blog and decided to name it after his pocket stuffing habit. He and I and this space have all grown and changed in the six years since then, but I always find it reassuring to see that some things remain constant at their core, even as time passes. Here are some of the bits I've pulled out of Will's various pockets in recent days:

(I didn't include the pair of dirty socks that were all wadded up into little balls and stuffed in his shorts. You're welcome for that.)

I think many of us are collectors of some kind, no matter what our age. Tucked away in pockets, boxes, file folders, or drawers, we gather items that inspire us or make us remember, smile, or wonder.

Lately, I've been gathering up summery things in my "Items I Love" folder on Etsy. Here are some of my favourite handmade and vintage finds for warm weather adventures. (Click on the highlighted text for more information about each item.)

Ice Cream Bowls and Spoons from PennySpoonerCeramics

English Oak Bird Feeder from LayerTree

Raccoon Sleep Mask from JulienEmilyDesign

Bicycle Bell from BringaLingBells

Recycled Wool Picnic Blanket from EllieEllieltd

Tiny Brass Bunny Earrings from saffronandsaege

Custom Leather Keychain from madebyperri

Toasted Marshmallow Soy Candle from SmellsLikeCanada

Lawn Dice Game from ArtiZanGroup

Farmhouse Tray from ChalkedBySam

Sagan Star Chart in Navy from wildwanderco

Tablecloth Playhouse from StripedCoast

Blue Agate Slice Coasters from BullCityGems

If you live in the Waterloo area and are interested in doing some in-person shopping for handmade treasures, you can visit the Etsy Local Market at RIM Park this Saturday. There will be more than sixty creative and talented artisans displaying their handiwork there, and admission and parking are free. It's a good place to discover something new and lovely to add to your collection.

Have a wonderful June weekend!

*Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. Thank you for shopping Etsy through Pocketfuls.