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.



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.

In Praise of the Working Man

It has been quite the winter- rain, ice, snow, and every mixture thereof. Mild and wet, and bitterly cold. A time of year when it is a pleasure to have adequate shelter.

When driving home the other day, I had to turn around because a large limb had fallen under the weight of ice and snow. A crew of men was working diligently with chainsaws to clean up the street.

Just around the corner, another road was blocked. This time, men were digging a trench that was full of water. It looked like a water pipe had burst in the freezing cold. The breath of the men and the water in the trench formed a mist around them. It was messy, sloppy work. Backhoes and shovels were in full demand. No one was standing around.

I was grateful to be driving in my comfy, warm vehicle. And I silently said thanks for these hardworking men. For when I started to think about it, men like these have built and maintain our country to this day. Our whole infrastructure of highways and bridges, transportation and shipping, homes and offices have been primarily been accomplished by the sweat and strength of working men.

So, men, this post is in honour of you! Thanks for all you do, and for making our land such a great place to live! We appreciate it more than you know…

Here’s a great song from Canadian Country Music Award winner, Johnny Reid:


A Look Back, and Ahead

In 2011, I had 52 articles published (mostly news related), and made 39 blog posts. So that is one article a week, and almost that much for blog posts. Thanks to everyone for the encouragement and challenge along the way!

I am looking forward to two writing conferences in 2012, and I hope I can maintain and even better my record from last year. I would like to have more personal essays published, work on a novel, and just get better as a writer.

And I would love to have a new camera and improve my photography skills.

What are your (writing) goals for 2012?

Story Starters

For all my writing and imaginative  friends…

Here are some old photos that each tell a story. Who are these people? What is going on? Why are they here?

Tell me your thoughts!





All photos from the Holleman Family archives- please do not copy without my consent.



Sour Cherries

A friend recently posted a photo on Facebook asking what kind of cherry she had found. It is like a large chokecherry. While I couldn’t definitively answer her question, it reminded me of the sour cherry tree we had in our backyard the first decade of my life.

It was quite an old, large tree and it produced lots of fruit. It made the BEST jam- a sweet-tart deliciousness that was my favourite. I don’t know if I’ve ever had any since.

Photo copied from

The tree reminds me of my mother and her industriousness. Whenever the fruit ripened, she would diligently get out there and pick as many as she could before the crows and starlings cleaned off the tree. She would spend time pitting them all- individually. And then she would make preserves and jam- all while minding four children under the age of 10. You’ve got to respect that!

I don’t remember ever helping, but I do remember that my grandmother from out-of-province was there one time when the cherry harvest was on. I remember her sitting in the shade of the tree pitting brilliant red-orange fruit.

I remember sparkling, noisy aluminum pie-plates dangling in the tree in an attempt to keep the birds away. I don’t know if it worked.

I also remember that our picnic table sat in the shade of the tree, and my brother and I would play there. He liked to put on shows and I was the audience.

Best of all was going in to eat the yummy cherry jam on fresh bread when we tired of playing.

Thanks Mom!

Now to find myself some sour cherries…

Plaster, Nails and Wallpaper

Renovating- a big job.

After procrastinating for about a year, my husband and I finally decided to tackle the worst room in our house- the laundry room.

This room has not been touched for 40+ years, and beginning with a leak in the ceiling from the bathroom upstairs, it needs help.

So far we have removed the ceiling and one and a half walls of lath and plaster.

We have discovered large, hand-hewn beams (our house having been built in the late 1830s),

square nails of a few different lengths,

vintage wallpaper,

and evidence of a previous stove.

We also discovered how much insulation is in the outside, north-facing wall–


We are doing this reno in our spare time, which means an hour here and an hour there. This may take us until Christmas, but I’m okay with that. Of course, we’d like to have that wall insulated before then, but as long as we are  making progress and doing a quality job, I am happy. It will be the nicest room in the house!

Renovation is a dusty, sweaty job but a worthy pursuit.

Tell me your reno stories!