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Tuesday, 8 December 2015

A tale of two cities... and a Christmas tree

Did you know that each year, at Christmas, the huge tree that glitters on the Boston Commons is a thank-you gift from the people of Nova Scotia?

The 2015 Christmas tree in the Boston Commons

At this time of year, and with the news filled with stories about terrorism, war, refugees, and mass shootings, I thought I would share a story from the city where I was born and raised: Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the East Coast of Canada.
The two-tone Christmas tree on my old-fashioned Christmas bracelet

In the midst of the First World War, on the morning of December 6, 1917, in the Halifax Harbour, the SS Mont Blanc, a French cargo ship laden with high explosives collided with the Imo, a relief vessel bringing supplies for civilians in war-torn Belgium. While citizens of Halifax gathered on the pier and watched the ensuing fire, the Mont Blanc drifted closer to shore until it exploded, creating the largest man-made explosion before the development of nuclear weapons.
After the blast, looking down the hill towards the waterfront
The 7 million pound hull of the Mont Blanc was tossed upward of 1000 ft and rained down in white-hot shards. The fireball was 1.2 miles high and the shaft of the Mont Blanc's anchor landed more than two miles away. The heat from the explosion caused the evaporation of seawater in a 20 foot radius, momentarily exposing the floor of the harbour. The blast was felt over 250 miles (400 km) away.
The "Before" - the North End of Halifax in the early 1900's

The "After" - a train travelling through the area of destruction
The "After" - looking up the hill at the area of destruction
The 700 mph blast rolled up the hill from the harbour and four hundred acres of residential homes and businesses were flattened - and then slammed by a 60 foot tsunami. Stoves, chimneys and lamps knocked over in the blast set homes on fire, often with families trapped inside. Whole streets were ablaze. The very next day a blizzard dumped 16 inches (41 cm) of heavy snow on the city, putting survivors at risk from exposure as well as impeding fire fighting, rescue efforts, and even the arrival of relief supplies.
A home destroyed by the blast
All told 1600 people were killed instantly - by the blast, the tsunami, or the collapse of buildings. Another 9000 were injured, 400 of whom would die from their injuries. And in a city of less than 60,000 people, suddenly 25,000 were homeless. Having processed hundreds of bodies from the Titanic, only a few years before, the city was equipped for identifying the remains. Residences were turned into hospitals and schools were turned into morgues. Within 48 hours trains brought relief workers and took away casualties and refugees.
Families who watched the fire from the windows in their homes, and children who watched from the windows in their schools, were instantly blinded when the blast wave shattered and splintered all the glass in a 20 mile (32 k) radius. Thirty-seven people lost their sight. Almost 6000 people had eye injuries and medical staff surgically removed more than 250 eyes.
My mother reading Braille
My mother, who was visually-impaired and very active in the blind community of Halifax, knew some of the children who were blinded in the Halifax explosion. Ninety-eight years later I suspect they are no longer here to remind of this event in our collective history. But people do remember. 
After the Halifax explosion the most significant, and best-remembered, American support came from the state of Massachusetts. Within twelve hours of the tragedy, Harvard University emptied its medical school and with the Red Cross and hospital nurses collected what was needed for a medical suite on a train bound for Halifax. Back in Boston there were community relief drives collecting schoolchildren's pennies and high society money and collecting a warehouse of relief supplies to be shipped to their northern neighbours. Emergency teams remained in Halifax for months and were part of the rebuilding effort.

Temporary housing named for Massachusetts Governor McCall on the newly created Massachusetts Avenue

With the explosion, Halifax was front page news around the world. This was part of my history growing up; knowing that people from other countries step up and help when there are disasters, war, and refugees.
Since then my province was the site of the crash of Swissair Flight 111. Local fishermen led the search for survivors and many volunteers helped in the recovery, while other locals brought food and blankets to emergency workers. For both recovery workers and the families of the victims, Nova Scotians offered their homes as places to rest, and churches as places to grieve.
Only a few years later, on the morning of 9/11 flights were diverted from New York City, with the Halifax airport taking the greatest number of aircraft - forty flights in total. It took five days before flights started moving again and in the meantime Nova Scotians opened their hearts and their homes to the 8000 unexpected visitors.
The year after the Halifax explosion the province of NS donated a large Christmas tree to the city of Boston in thanks and remembrance of their assistance. In 1971 the province started sending a tree every year, and also sends trees to two shelters for the homeless in Boston. Residents of Nova Scotia vie for the honour of having their tree selected for donation.
Nova Scotia's tree getting loaded for Boston
In 2013, after the bombing at the Boston marathon, the official Christmas tree of Boston was led out of Halifax by a group of runners, in honour of the victims of the bombings. This year's tree, a 72-year-old white spruce that stands 49 feet (15 m) tall, was donated by a Nova Scotian who was a former Boston marathoner. Just last week was Boston's Tree Lighting Ceremony, with the Mayor of Boston, the Premier of Nova Scotia, members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and, of course, Santa.
The 2015 official Christmas tree of Boston (and a pyrotechnic display)
As we put up our Christmas tree this year, I will be sharing these stories with my teenaged twins, and reminding them to be grateful, and to think of others, in their hometown, in their country, and around the world.
Best wishes to you and your families this holiday season.
This bracelet is mostly composed of charms "borrowed" from other bracelets. I will wear it everyday until Three Kings Day

Related Posts:

To hear a tale about international friendship during the Second World War, and the charm that I have to represent my Pandora friends around the world, please check out this post.

To read a story about my mother's youth during the Second World War please enjoy this post.

For a more current account of how terrorism came home for me have a look at this post from last month.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Let there be peace on earth

Exactly one year ago I posted this photo on Instagram and Facebook. It shows the spot where I put my "Dove of Peace" charm that I purchased on Remembrance Day, after a terrorist attack here in Canada.

This was my post on social media a few weeks prior, on October 22, 2014:

"I will be holding my kids extra tight tonight. I live in Canada's capital city and the city is on lockdown after gunfire downtown and an attack on our Parliament; my husband is on lockdown at work and my kids are on lockdown at school. I am trying to take some comfort from our pussy cat Bubbles as I'm anxiously waiting for my family to come home and I can hold them in my arms."

At the time of my post, very little was known about the situation, and I didn't really know what was happening with our kids at school, except that they were in lockdown. As it turns out, it was a lone gunman who shot and killed a soldier guarding our National War Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The victim was Cpl. Nathan Cirillo who served with the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, and, like all ceremonial sentries, only carried an unloaded firearm.

Cpl. Nathan Cirillo on the left guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
(photo from CBC footage)

After the fatal shooting at the Cenotaph, the assailant drove the short distance to our Parliament Hill. He managed to enter the Parliament Buildings and was eventually killed in a barrage of gunfire from security and RCMP (our national police service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police). The city remained in lockdown for many hours until city police and RCMP officers decided their search for a rumoured second shooter was futile.

There has been much discussion in the last year about whether this was in fact a terrorist act or simply the act of a confused man with a criminal record, including drug-related charges, and a history of mental illness, who was living in a shelter and frustrated with his difficulty in obtaining a passport to go to the Middle East. The assailant was born in Canada but had family from Libya.

Screen shot from the video made by the shooter in Ottawa
Last month the RCMP released a video made before the shooting. A transcript reads, "This is in retaliation for Afghanistan and because [then Canadian Prime Minister] Harper wants to send troops to Iraq. Canada's officially become one of our enemies by fighting and bombing us and creating a lot of terror and killing us and killing our innocents. So, just aiming to hit some soldiers just to show that you're not even safe on your own land, and you gotta be careful. We'll not cease until you guys decide to be a peaceful country and stay to your own and stop going to other countries and stop occupying and killing the righteous of us who are trying to bring back religious law in our countries. Thank you."

On November 11, a few short weeks after last year's shooting, we attended the Remebrance Day ceremony at our children's middle school; our daughter was in the school choir. I wore my Flower Power bracelet, my pink and red mother-daughter bracelet with two red poppies, a symbol for remembrance. Although we have attended many Remembrance Day assemblies at schools over the years, last year's ceremony was particularly emotional because of those very recent events. When I read these words in the program, "If we are to maintain our peace and freedom, we must always remember," and saw this picture of a dove with an olive branch, I decided to buy the "Dove of Peace" dangle, as a reminder. 

Taylor's vocal class singing Amazing Grace November 11, 2015

Our children are in high school now, and last week we attended a Remembrance Day ceremony at our daughter's high school, because her vocal class was performing. It was a very moving service, alternating between her class singing and students reading letters sent home to families and sweethearts in Canada. They were from soldiers in the Boer War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and most recently those serving in Afghanistan, as well as Canadian troops involved in peace-keeping missions around the world. The "Dove of Peace" represents my hope for peace in this crazy world. That seems appropriate given the latest events around the world, including Paris and Beirut.
The dove of peace on my Love Blooms Here bracelet
YouTube video of "Let there be peace on earth"

The back of the Canadian Parliament Buildings


Friday, 16 October 2015

Do you know what makes you happy?

Pandora's Autumn Bliss charm
If you look up the word "bliss" you will find that the definition is "supreme happiness." And that is how Autumn makes me feel - supremely happy. I am happy that the air is cooler, the days are shorter, and the light is softer. I love going for walks in our neighbourhood and taking photographs of all the splendid colours. Without the oppressive heat of the summer, this is the time of year to do our gardening. It always seems an act of hope to plant tulips, because it's something to look forward to after the long cold winter. And we have some very fun traditions in the fall. Read on for the details - and photos.
My favourite tree in our neighbourhood.
We try to get to Saunders Farm every year. This "farm" would more aptly be called an amusement park, with its many and various types of mazes, as well as jumping pillows, a tractor tire playground, a pirate ship climbing structure, and the crazy (tree)house that jack built, with a hayloft for jumping. There is a spot to measure your height every year and they even have a Halloween-themed outdoor play which is always quite amusing, for children and parents alike. There's also a haunted hay ride, a perennial favourite. This year we're wondering if our teens will be brave enough for the haunted house and the evening (read scarier) version of the haunted hay ride.

Mitchell and Taylor at Saunders Farm (2008)
The (Tree)House That Jack Built
Saunders Farm (2008)
Mug shots of Mitchell and Taylor at Saunders Farm (2008)
Saying goodbye to Saunders Farm, until next year. (2008)
Hiking in the Gatineau Park is always a family favourite in the fall. When my mother was still alive - and still mobile - she would accompany us, on some of the trails with a flatter terrain.
Hiking and pretty colours with Taylor, almost two years old
Taylor and Mitchell, almost two, hiking with my mom, their Nana
Mitchell almost two, having a picnic after our hike
Every fall we make a day trip to the Mackenzie King Estate, traditionally on Thanksgiving Day. This piece of property, 200 hectare, is the country estate of Canada's tenth, and longest-running, Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, which he bequeathed to Canadians upon his death. King loved horticulture, landscaping, romantic gardens, and architectural ruins. The ruins were from Westminister in England, as well as being salvaged from Canada's Parliament Hill, which burned down in 1916. My children's favourite thing of course, is climbing on these ruins and climbing up trees, with a pause now and then to pose for mommy and the camera. These are some of my favourite photos. You can also see photos from this photo shoot on an earlier post about my son the clown.
The view from a park bench at Mackenzie King Estate (2014)
Mitchell, almost seven, at Mackenzie King Estate (2008)
Taylor, almost seven, at Mackenzie King Estate (2008)
Mitchell and Taylor at Mackenzie King Estate (2008)
Taylor and Mitchell, almost 14, at Mackenzie King Estate (2015)
The view from a different park bench (2015)

This year we brought someone with us - my younger brother Thomas. And for the first time since our children were born we cooked a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. I think there needs to be a charm to represent this momentous occasion, but that will have to wait for a different story. 
Mitchell and Taylor with their Uncle Thomas, my younger brother; this is what happens when you tell your subjects to scrunch together like they know each other. I love Tom's smile in this picture!
We broke out the good china and fine silverware for our Thanksgiving dinner. I forgot to take photos before the turkey was carved or the desert was served. It tasted a lot better than it looks.

When you battle depression, it's important to know what makes you happy. And often it's the little things that bring happiness; these are the things you need to notice and be thankful for. For me it's taking the kids to buy pumpkins. Seeing the leaves change colour outside our bedroom window. Raking leaves and jumping in the piles. Filling the house with the smell of pumpkin muffins. Hearing the crunch of leaves underfoot. Bliss!

You can read more about this idea of paying attention to what makes you happy and having an "attitude of gratitude" - and how it actually changes your brain - in a post from last Thanksgiving.
Taylor and Mitchell in the pumpkin patch, almost six (2007)
Our bedroom feels like a treehouse.

Mitchell, three-years-old, raking leaves with Mike
The autumn bliss charm on my Sacred Woods bracelet

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Surprise! Mothers can be athletes too!

I just thought this was the craziest thing when I was a kid: my mom said she played basketball in university! It was hard for me to imagine, as I'm sure it's hard for MY kids to imagine ME playing varsity volleyball. I also thought it was funny that they wore bloomers! When my mother-in-law Dede (who was eleven years younger than my mother) played basketball at the University of New Brunswick the women's team was actually called "The Red Bloomers."

Even more amusing to me, when I was young, was the rules they had for women's basketball. Men's rules were "too strenuous" for women of course! The ladies were not allowed to run the whole length of the court. (There are more details about these "old-fashioned" rules at the end of the post.) So the sneaker dangle, that looks to me like an old-fashioned high-cut basketball shoe, seemed the right charm to represent my mother's active youth. I wear it on the bracelet I have in her memory; I call it "My Unforgettable Mom - her life in charms."

From the Dalhousie University yearbooks
I've often wondered what it would have been like for my mother during the Second World War, and of course never asked her before she passed away. So I was very happy, as I shared in the first post in this series of stories about my mom, when I found her first photo album and got a glimpse of her early life. As I mentioned previously, she also dictated a collection of stories about her childhood and I've looked back at those stories in writing this post.

My mother was twelve years old in 1939 when the war started. While she was in high school a Y opened in her hometown. At the Y she was in a Leaders Corp and they swam every day, eventually earning the Bronze Medallion life-saving medal. When my mom was fourteen (the same age as my twins are now, well almost) she was "very keen" to attend a summer camp run by the Y.W.C.A. and worked hard to persuade her parents to let her go. With a fourth child on the way, they were probably happy to have one less child to think about, although my grandfather did have to make the two-day drive there and back.

A picture of my mom's photo album where she had snapshots of her first year at Y camp
Before and after the camp Mom was at her grandfather's summer place. She tells the story that she and her grandfather played a lot of checkers that summer. He would only play checkers with her because she was the only one who could beat him on occasion. Apparently many of the books in that house were about the Civil War and Mom recalled being taken aback about the ways in which the African-Americans in the Southern U.S. were portrayed in those books. Mom says she read every book in that house that summer, and there were many! I imagine her being very much like my almost-14-year-old daughter Taylor who is now a voracious reader - and, although not a checkers player, is a bit of a card-shark.

When my mother was fourteen her sister Edna was born. Mom recalled buying books and reading to Edna when she was little. She described Edna, on one occasion, being in bed with the mumps, "sitting up in bed with her long pigtails and big fat cheeks," while Mom read her "Winnie the Pooh." Their brother Walter was in the next room making fun of them reading the book. Each time he heard "Winnie the Pooh" he would call out, "Pooh, pooh, pooh," which of course made the girls giggle!

As Canadian Girls in Training (CGIT) my mother and her friends organized a bicycle day trip, 1942
This organization was run through the Y in its early years.
(Mom is the tallest girl)

It appears that that Mom went to a different Y camp, closer to home, in the summer of 1943. There were also photos from a Girl Guide camp in 1942.
(Mom is in the back row, second from the left)

One thing that occupied my mother's time when she was young, was listening to the radio. When the news was on, "everyone listened to it totally" - no music on, no conversation. It was a ritual: news on, everyone quiet, particularly from 1939-1945 when the war news was on. Although she admitted that we now know that much of what they heard was propaganda, she said the radio was very important in those days.

One of the things my mother listened to was soap operas on the radio - called "soap" operas because they were sponsored by Proctor and Gamble and other soap companies. There was one programme in particular that her father, my Poppy, "couldn't stand," so when he came into the house he would quietly switch off the main fuse box on his way in. The rest of the family just assumed that the electricity had gone off. Mom said it later amused her to think of them being censored quietly by her father. I wish it was as easy to censor MY kids on the Internet, or get them off electric devices!

Mom and her friends at Blackette's Lake on the Victoria Day long weekend May 24th, 1944. They would have been 17 and almost finished high school.
(Mom is standing in the centre of the photo between two boys)
The war was still on when Mom graduated from high school in 1944, so she worked at the bank that summer, through the winter, and then the following summer. During the war silk stocking were all the rage - the kind with the seam up the back and held up by a garter belt - and according to my mother, there was a "great scarcity of stockings during the war." When she was working at the bank, one of the messengers would report when there was a new supply at the local department store and the girls at the bank "would rush out frantically to buy," and the supply wouldn't last the day.

Mom said the pay was "phenomenal" at the bank: $600 per annum plus $60 cost-of-living bonus. After six months that was raised to $700 plus $70 cost-of-living. She was able to live at home and save money for university, as well as sew a wardrobe for going away. She started university in the fall of 1945.

The following photos are from the yearbook at Dalhousie University that my mother attended from the fall of 1945 til the Spring of 1948. She played basketball all three years - and apparently some ping pong! The next blog post in this series will be about my mother's academic life, not just as a university student, but as a life-long learner.

Inter-class Managers
Intermediate Basketball Team, 1946

Varsity Basketball Team 1947

Varsity Basketball Team 1948

The sneaker dangle on "My Unforgettable Mom" bracelet

The "old fashioned" rules for women's basketball:
When basketball was first introduced to women, only a year after it was invented by James Naismith, the court was divided into three sections with six players. It wasn't until 1938 that this changed and the court was instead divided into two sections. There were six players on the court (now there are five for both men and women). There were three forwards and three defenders, and you only played on half of the court - three defenders guarding their own net and three forwards attempting to score on the other team's net. Of course they had to pass the ball to their teammates on the other side of half. Originally there was no dribbling the ball. Later women were allowed to dribble, but just once and only if it was at least knee high. It wasn't till 1949, after my mother had graduated from university, that two bounces were allowed, and later, three. It wasn't until 1966 that continuous dribbling was allowed, and 1971 before women were allowed to play full-court and have five players on the floor.