Give Thanks- Always

Today, in a moody late winter day, we have had ice and overcast skies, puddles of melting snow and brilliant sun.

But for our little town of 1000, it has been a tragic day. Blair’s Barbershop has burned to the ground. The people above the shop have lost their home.

While the details will come out in the news in the next several days, my eyes tear up. Blair had one of the longest, if not THE longest running business in town… 45+ years.  His shop was a cozy place. Small, smoky from the woodstove and the lingering scent of customers, filled with memorabilia, deer antlers, antique toys and more. It was a landmark.

And as I write, it is being torn down, smouldering, stinking. Charred, rippled, century old beams- some of which are still in one piece- are toppling to the backhoe that sits in a narrow lane by the post office. It barely has room to swing around. I see the BLAIR’S BARBERSHOP sign in blue lettering get crunched. The sun is bright and people stand around in winter coats, but no toques or mittens.

Blair’s Barbershop shared an old stone wall with Stedman’s Department Store. That wall, and the valiant efforts of our local volunteer fire team, have saved Stedman’s. And the brick post office beside it. The post office is closed indefinitely due to smoke. The department store must also be.

I spoke to Giles, Stedman’s soon-to-retire owner, and he said, “You never know what you’ll wake up to, do you?” He is thankful. But he immediately thinks of Blair.

Moments before, I crossed the street under police direction to go to FoodMart to get some of life’s essentials. I saw Blair coming the opposite way.

An OPP officer was leading him, almost supporting him. Blair is a man in shock, and I don’t think he even saw me. I feel nothing but sorrow for the man. He was alone when I saw him, and I felt grateful for the officer who was doing his duty with dignity. Blair’s entire life’s work and efforts and memories have gone to flame in a matter of hours, minutes even. Heartbreaking. Nothing will ever replace it.

I could have taken photos today, but it didn’t seem right. Even though the sidewalks had many people around, it was quiet, hushed almost. The cracking of timbers reverberating off the buildings across the street. It didn’t seem right to freeze such a moment in time into a still-life.

Ironically, there is a funeral home within a stone’s throw of the barbershop- basically  at the back door.  There was a funeral today. Everyone dressed in black. Exiting the funeral as the burned building is taken out. Parking is full on both sides of the street, some on snow banks. Traffic is moving in slow motion as this is also the detour route around Main Street.

Life is full of twists and turns that would probably overwhelm us if we saw them in advance. You never know what you’ll wake up to. So give thanks. Give thanks that you woke up. Give thanks for all the good in the world.  Give thanks- always.



John’s Positive Pipe Organ

My father grew up in the Netherlands, and as a young boy was impressed by the pipe organ he heard in church. That impression never left him. Organs became his hobby, and my childhood was full of organ music.

I remember Dad reading the Diapason magazine, studying it, really, as my brothers played with Lego around his feet.

He taught me to play chess, while pipe organs from Europe played from vinyl records. A lot of times, it was Johann Sebastian Bach.

Apparently, I was the referee before I even learned how to play the game. Dad is on the left. Sunday afternoon was the only time Dad had for chess games, and most likely there was organ music playing.

I would come home from a stressful day in high school, and Dad would be home from work, alone, eating his jam sandwich, with pipe organ music belting out of the stereo. I didn’t necessarily smile, but he sure did. I liked it. It was such a switch from the day-to-day grind of teenage hormones and insecurities. It meant home.

Often times, Dad would wake us up on weekends with his playing.

Along the way, I attended pipe organ concerts along the French  or the South Shores of Nova Scotia.

One of the most remarkable feats was when he acquired a complete pipe organ that was sitting abandoned in someone’s barn. It came to us in thousands of pieces, like a giant 3-D jigsaw puzzle. Dad patiently reconstructed it all, even making way for its soaring soft pipes by cutting into the empty barn loft of our century barn. He eventually sold it, and it is now in someone’s home.

He built a clavichord, a pretty little instrument. Again, a pretty neat accomplishment.

And his latest feat was the building of a small, living-room size pipe organ. It is entirely, painstakingly, built from wood, pipes and all. Some of it recycled wood, and all of it carefully chosen.

The organ is showcased here, in a 10 minute interview, via the link below. Take a look!

Tissues & Tears

My father-in-law is in the hospital. He has multiple medical concerns, perhaps the greatest being the state of his lungs after a lifetime of cigarettes. But the most disconcerting thing is his dementia and decay of mind.

A dedicated farmer, “Opa”  began his life in Friesland (northern Netherlands). He has always claimed that he started work at the age of three. I’m not quite sure what exactly that looked like, or how true it was, but it is true he did not live long before he was helping on the family farm.

He milked sheep outside and hated it. They were wet and smelly, and it seems he did the job alone. (Sheep milk is used to make cheeses such as ricotta or feta.  I am not sure if the Dutch made sheep-milk gouda. Can anyone tell me?) (

Sheep that may be similar to the ones milked by my father-in-law as a child.
Photo from: (

The oldest of 11 children, he carried much responsibility, including when he immigrated to Canada as a young man, with other family members, taking over financial responsibilities and other things for his father.

When I entered the scene, years later, he and his brothers were living on successful, thriving farms, or operating other successful agricultural businesses like potatoes and apples. He himself had pigs, which he did not really enjoy, but which gave a steady income prior to the sharp decline in pork prices in the 1990s. He also had Holsteins, his true love.

The birthday parties when all the brothers and sisters were united were noisy, joyous occasions. The longer the celebration was, the louder it got- the stories became more boisterous, the tales of the past more adventurous. My husband and I would hear crazy stories of these Boys in Friesland with their wild horses. They were reckless, bold, and not afraid.

We heard stories of Opa being dragged down a cobblestone street full-speed by a runaway Dutch Warmblood horse. (For more about the Warmblood, go here:

We heard stories of him as a teenager, having to walk miles to deliver their best horses for World War II service, and how heartbreaking that was. To this day, he loves a fine horse, particularly Warmbloods or Friesians.

Friesian Horse

But as I mentioned earlier, his true love is Holstein cattle. He spent years milking them, studying and developing pedigrees and good genetic strains. His office is decorated with colourful ribbons won in many competitions and classes. He got out of bed every day, eager to spend time with his cows. In the evening, on his cot, he would fall asleep, Holstein Journal opened in front of him.

He was smart and shrewd, a sharp businessman, which did not always win him favour. But he knew his stuff and wasn’t afraid to dicker. I heard more than one business transaction get heated over the years that I was on the farm with my husband.

In 2012, one of his Holsteins, Friesia Goldwyn Lainey, won significant prizes in various prestigious competitions:

2nd five-year-old at Quebec Expo; 4th at International Holstein Show &Quebec International Fall Show; and 5th at Royal Winter Fair.

2nd five-year-old at Quebec Expo; 4th at International Holstein Show &
Quebec International Fall Show; and 5th at Royal Winter Fair.

(Friesia Goldwyn Lainey continues to win:

Which brings me to the title of this post- Tissues & Tears.

Opa has dementia, the mysterious decay of the brain. It means he has days where he does not know where he is, what he is doing, or what he is saying. He wants to get out of bed, but is not really able to. He sees things that we don’t. Yesterday he kept saying there’s water coming in, mice and rats are running, the hay will get wet, there’s water coming in…

I wish I knew the story behind that.

He also spent time yesterday taking every Kleenex out of the box- swoosh, swoosh, swoosh- methodically, one by one. Then he tried stuffing them all back in. This story brings tears to my 18-year-old daughter’s eyes. It has always been a family joke that she did the same thing when she was 18-months-old and I was napping on the couch.


It is very hard to see someone you love become frail and helpless. To see the strong become weak. To hear the garbled words of someone who could earlier play with words. To feel strong and vibrant next to vulnerability.


Tissues and tears.

We love you, Opa.

Update: Opa passed away on April 11, 2013, one day after his 84th birthday.


I remember as a child watching a tall office building burn down. I remember the hook and ladder truck reaching for the top and looking so thin and flimsy next to the raging inferno. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.

Another time in my childhood, the hay barn of a neighbour burned to the ground. It burned all day (and smoked for many after), and the firetrucks came from all around the county, zooming by our house, sirens screaming. It was a beautiful, east-coast-sky-blue summer day, and black, black smoke roiled furiously for hours. We stood in the backyard and watched it all.

In later years, my husband’s cousin lost his entire pig farm operation to an electrical fire. The historic barn, the newer addition, and hundreds of pigs were lost. It was a tragedy. Interestingly enough, his cousin now says that the fire was a good thing. Painful at the time, it also gave them a new start, a new opportunity. They now operate a beautiful boarding facility for horses, which had been part of their original dream at the beginning.

Friends of ours just lost their modern dairy barn, more than 100 milking cows, in a brilliant blaze that lit up the night. Again, my husband was there to help pick up the pieces and clean up debris. And he wasn’t the only one. Neighbours and friends from all around came to help. A community dinner and dance will be held in support of the four families who earn their living from milk. And meanwhile, they are beginning to speak of rebuilding.

And this is the amazing thing about disaster. When we are faced with it, we have a choice.

To give up or go on.

To sink or swim.

To die or rise again.

When you study the history of the old downtowns of cities or villages, it is common to learn of vicious fires that raged through a whole street of structures. Most often, today’s viewer cannot tell where the damage had been.

I love the poetry of Isaiah 61, where it says that God comes to

“Provide for those who grieve-
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.”

No matter what difficult thing you may be facing, I hope that you will begin to be able to experience beauty instead of ashes.

Like sitting by a crackling fire on the hearth on a cold winter’s day…

This blog post inspired by a WordPress writing prompt:

A Tribute to “Little House”

I went to bed thinking that my next blog post would be about  my favourite children’s books- Goodnight Moon, Frog and Toad, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Green Eggs and Ham and all the other Dr. Suess books, Caps for Sale, Pippi Longstocking, Anne of Green Gables…

I remember my father reading me an earlier version of this book, complete with sound effects!

And then something happened during the night to help me focus my thoughts.

But first some background….

We live in a small village. Population 1000 for the last 100 years. It is so small that we feel very much like we still live in the country.

Under the village sign, Holsteins graze. In the sky, big Vs of geese are common. Teens ride snowmobiles to school. And we can hear the shots of duck-hunters. Skunks wander freely. We often hear the yip-yip-yipping of coyotes at night.

Which is what happened last night. I heard coyotes. In fact, I didn’t just hear them, I was awoken by them. They were LOUD and sounded like they were right under my window! And their voices sounded more like howls than the customary yips. Which made me wonder two things-

1. Were these older coyotes?

2. Or were they wolves?

I actually shivered from the sound of them. Which is UNusual, because I usually like the sound of them, and try to listen to all their voices and make out the variances of sound. I find it interesting.

But this night, they sounded different.

Which connected my thoughts to the earlier ones. I suddenly thought of Little House on the Prairie, my all-time favourite children’s book and series.

My well-loved, well-used copy of Little House that I can’t quite part with.

I remembered the story of the wolves circling Laura’s little log home. (Maybe because my husband was away, I was more sensitive to these outside things…)

Which got me thinking about Ma Ingalls. Maybe Pa and Laura thought it was interesting to watch the wolves, but what about Ma? Did she shiver in bed too?

If you consider all the adventures that the Ingalls faced on the prairie frontier, and think about the role Ma played, and the adversity she faced, there had to have been many frightening moments. I’ve never really looked at the story from a mother’s point of view until now. Laura leans heavily in her father’s favour when she describes the love of the open land.

Ma was concerned about education, food, heat, raising well-behaved children, and having a cozy home. She undoubtedly wondered if she would be able to do it, and must have had days where it seemed impossible. Not so different from the feelings many mothers of today experience.

Despite all the challenges, as far as we can tell from the books, Caroline Ingalls remained a person of good character, and was a factor in contributing to her daughter’s determination and drive. Perhaps she deserves a little of the credit for these books.

Exact replica of Charles Ingalls’ homestead, outside DeSmet, South Dakota. My children are in the doorway, and cottonwoods are in the background.

The impact of the Little House books continues to this day. Hooray for good literature!

Sky Beauty

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, for me, the number one reason to believe in God is the incredible beauty of nature around us. The diversity, the adaptability, the complexity make me marvel, especially in light of the poor care we humans have often shown for the earth.

I love nature! I really should have studied biology more.

Take for instance, the sky. Do you ever stop and marvel at the sky? For most of us, I think we go about our days working, eating, relating to others, and not really noticing the vast expanse above us, unless of course, it is dropping moisture on us, or burning our skin. We are kind of sleepy when it comes to observation of obvious things.

Instead of stopping to smell the roses, how about stopping to study the scudding clouds in the sky? How about lifting your chin, looking for a vista, and taking note of what you observe?

You might see the cumulus or cirrus or cumulonimbus formations that you learned in elementary school.

You might see varying shades of gray, or the whitest white and the bluest blue in contrast.

You might see red or orange, and then when you stop to enjoy the majesty and savour it, you might start seeing pink, purple, coral, blue. You will notice how the sky moves. How it contrasts and complements the earth below. How the trees look black against a darkening sky.

Perhaps you have the chance to fly above the clouds. I have seen beauty there too! Rainbows between clouds, dark earth below. Piles upon piles of white billowy condensation. Mountains peeking through low mist.

I once read a book about a World War II survivor who was given hope enough to stay alive, just by having a small window in her cell where she could see a bit of sky. If she could be inspired by observing that little bit of light and colour on a daily basis, how much more couldn’t we, most of whom can easily find a place to view the wide horizon?

So if the darkening days of autumn do not lift your mood, perhaps the sky will. Look up and be amazed.