Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Three happy cats, one not

In a city with as many coyotes as Vancouver, there are always plenty of posters about missing cats pinned up here, there and everywhere. Each one is a stab to the heart if you have your own outdoor cat, especially one that has already had a run-in with coyotes. You know the next poster could be yours.

But sometimes you're lucky enough to come across street images of happy cats. A saucy cat painted on the rear window of a car, for example, with the windshield wiper made into its tail. Stalled in traffic on a rainy day behind this image, wouldn't it cheer your morning to see its colourful tail swishing back and forth?

 Tongue out, windshield-wiper tail swishing, this rear-window cat would be a sight on a rainy day.

Elsewhere, I looked up at a big tree trunk during a walk one day to see a blue-and-white-striped cat, probably made out of cardboard, smiling down at me. The stripes were reminiscent of the Cheshire cat's in Alice in Wonderland, but there was no explanation of what this tree-cat was all about.

A jogger approaches a striped cat high above her on a tree trunk.

There was no explanation of what this colourful critter was all about.

And then, in the back yard Wednesday night, Mr. Darcy ran up the apple tree, perched on a limb for awhile and smiled down, just like the blue-and-white cat. Obviously, he didn't hear the vets who said he would never jump or climb again after he lost a big chunk of one haunch in a coyote attack three years ago.

Mr. Darcy does his own smiling down from the trunk of the apple tree in the back yard.
 Mr. Darcy doesn't climb as much as he used to, but with a good run at it, he can easily get himself up the apple tree. Once there, he enjoys climbing from branch to branch.

It's hard to tell who's fuzzier -- Mr. Darcy or the tree with its layers of moss.

Not so lucky is the male bob-tailed tabby who's been missing for several weeks now, according to the many "lost cat, reward offered" signs that have sprung up throughout the west side of the city. The signs  have gotten bigger and more professional as the weeks have gone by, but unfortunately, coyotes don't know about rewards. And a cat can't be reconstituted from a coyote's tummy.

Missing-cat posters break my heart. I always feel quite certain about where that poor cat ended up -- part of a coyote's breakfast.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Their own kind of romance

The happiest picture I have of my parents. Taken in the months before their marriage 69 years ago, it reflects how happy they were to have found each other. 

Mom  and dad on their wedding day.
Sixty-nine years ago Wednesday, on Aug. 31, 1947, my mother and father were married in Wetaskiwin, Alberta. He wore a suit with a carnation in the buttonhole; she wore a blue hat, a navy dress with a ruffled collar and a corsage. Two friends "stood up" for them in the registry office, then the four of them went for lunch. There was no honeymoon.

Although they certainly weren't the only people in those post-war years to have a no-fuss registry wedding, it also said something about them. Two prairie farm kids of immigrant parents, they grew up as hard-working farm help, and survived the Dirty Thirties and the Second World War (dad was in the army; mom returned home to help on her parents' farm). By the time of their wedding -- mom was 27 and dad was 30 -- they had no illusions about what was important in life.

The only semi-romantic story I heard about their courtship was mom's tale of their first two encounters. They met in winter, at a dance in Red Deer, in late 1946 or early 1947. Mom loved dancing, and when she met dad, she liked his height and good looks, but most of all, she liked his voice. It was low-pitched and quiet, opposite to the constant high-pitched chatter of her father's household.

The second meeting was the clincher. On the night they had agreed on, it was viciously cold, so cold that both thought the other wouldn't show up (this was pre-cellphone, remember). The way mom told the story -- dad never talked about anything like this -- I got the sense that it was a revelation, a deal-maker, when they both realized the other was, first, interested enough to come, and second, tough enough to carry out the commitment.

I think those two elements were the basis of everything that followed. They cared for each other. And both knew they could depend on the other to persevere through whatever life threw at them -- crop failures, constant financial uncertainty, the death of dad's siblings, illnesses, and five growing children all with their own issues.

They never made a fuss about their anniversary. They rarely even mentioned it, at least to us kids. But mom's diaries show that once the kids were gone, they often did some special small thing to mark the day. In 1989, it was a little cruise boat trip from New Westminster to Fort Langley; in 1992, they went to Lynden and Bellingham, a favourite jaunt across the border. Often they had dinner out at a modest restaurant like Uncle Willy's buffet to conclude the day.

In 1994, on their last anniversary before dad died, and neither was very well, they made a big effort. "We drove up to Seymour Mountain, stopped at New West Quay," mom wrote. "Had supper at Knight and Day restaurant. Picked out the video, Guess Who's Coming for Dinner."

Dad died in March of 1995. That year, mom's Aug. 31 entry was one line: "May (a neighbour) came and picked up the apples." The next year, she took flowers to the cemetery.

 In the years after that, us children sometimes made an effort to see her on her anniversary, but she never made a point of talking about dad or saying the day was special to her. Aug. 31 was her and dad's day, and what it meant was between them.

Dad in his army uniform. He was taking a post-war training course when he met mom in Red Deer.

Mom at about the time she met dad.

Mom's simple gold wedding ring was so well-worn that it broke after many years. Mom and dad went out and bought another, which was lost in mom's final nursing home. 

Monday, August 29, 2016

Peeling eggs

When I realized I had forgotten the secret to peeling hard-boiled eggs, I had to learn a new one. The bowl to the left shows the sad results of my first efforts. 

The secret? Shake that baby as hard as you can in a glass with a bit of water. 

Eggs came straight from the warm feathery undersides of chickens when I was growing up (you had to beware of the hens that pecked), so they were cheap and plentiful food for a family of seven. We used eggs in all ways. Mom perfected angel cakes over years of practice, and whenever a whites-filled angel cake appeared, you knew the yolks would turn up a day or two later in a jam roll-up sponge. In the summer, boiled eggs were mixed with potatoes for potato salads, and boiled eggs went into egg salad sandwiches year-round.

I learned to cook from mom, and in those years in the kitchen, I would certainly have learned the best way of peeling hard-boiled eggs. I realized on Sunday, as I was preparing eggs for a salad nicoise for guests the next day, that I had forgotten that little secret. Thinking it was probably ingrained in there somewhere, I charged ahead, cracked the cooked eggs on the counter, and produced -- a mess. Instead of falling cleanly away from the whites, the shells clung. My eggs were as pitted as the moon; some disintegrated altogether.

Too embarrassing to present such a mess to guests, so I turned to you-know-what. The Internet had many sites about peeling eggs -- clearly, I'm not the only one who has had problems. The advice ranged from making sure your eggs are aged -- really? -- to boiling them in salt or baking soda to cutting them in half and scooping them out with a spoon (very defeatist!). The one I liked best was to put the egg and some water in a glass, shake it vigorously to create lots of little cracks, and "the egg will slip right out of the shell."

Well, they didn't quite slip out on their own, but the next batch ended up whole and shiny; I didn't have to pretend the salad was supposed to have chopped-up eggs. Whatever the old secret was for performing this miracle, I have learned a new one.

The pitted and torn first batch will go into potato salad. Or egg salad sandwiches.

More shaking. I like the energy I am putting into this. John took the photos.

A hopeful sign -- the first bit of shell separates nicely from the white.

It's going well -- the egg is half-peeled, and it's still in one piece.

And, the last piece of shell comes off in a satisfying big chunk. 

Voila! Smooth, shiny and whole. The secret is mine!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The old apple tree

My father was always amazed at the size of the apples produced by  the tree in our back yard. This year they're as big as ever -- here they dwarf a tea mug in my kitchen.

Sadly, the tree is on the way out. It has European canker and we have been struggling for years to keep it alive. Many branches have been removed, and its leaf cover is thin.

My father liked fixing machinery a lot more than he liked farming, but he never lost his interest in seeing things grow. Especially useful things that produced food, like the big old apple tree in my back yard.

He was fascinated by that tree, and every year when its apples were ready to be picked, he marvelled at the size of the crop. And even more at the size of the apples, which were huge, the size of softballs on steroids. "I wonder how many tons of apples that tree has produced over the years?" I remember him musing as he stood under it, looking up.

The tree was mature when we bought our house 40-plus years ago, so it is probably about 70 years old by now. But for the last decade or so, it's been in decline -- many branches have died off, moss is thriving on it, and a vertical split has appeared in its trunk. Our tree guy says it has European canker, and he is trying to extend its life with spraying, pruning and fertilizing every spring. But for the last few years, there have been no apples.

This year he didn't prune it because we thought the tree might have to be cut down when the nearby oil tank was dug out. But it survived, and this summer we noticed glimmers of red in its knotty, leaf-sparse branches. On Saturday, there were two enormous apples on the grass beneath it.

As I picked them up, I thought of dad. He would have been delighted to see those apples; pleased that after all these years, his favourite old tree is still producing food.

The appearance of a vertical split in the tree trunk doesn't bode well for the tree's longevity.

An example of what the branches look like -- there are always dead parts.

Arbourists say moss doesn't kill trees, but it doesn't make them look very healthy. This is a close-up look at one of the apple tree's branches.

Another view of the crown of the tree. Even though its leaves are sparse, they still block out some of the house next door. We'd miss it if it was gone.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Tom's place

Southlands Nursery's Thomas Hobbs likes to combine unusual objects. Here, a classical statue overlooks a table of fresh new pansies ready for fall planting.
Hobbs plays with putting together unusual colours and textures. Coleus and mini pots of grasses are an interesting contrast.

The local media sometimes describe Thomas Hobbs as an "internationally renowned florist," thanks to his appearances in Martha Stewart Living and magazines like House Beautiful and Better Homes and Gardens. 

But to me, he's the boss at Southlands Nursery, the place I'm most likely to go when I need plants. It's a pleasant 30-minute walk from my house, in a country-like setting traditionally devoted to horses and stables (mansions are taking over). But I have to be careful not to buy much when I'm on foot -- it's uphill all the way home.

When John and I drove into Southlands on Friday to buy some boxwood bushes, the first thing I saw was the internationally renowned florist himself, shirtless in the blazing heat, aiming a hose at some plants. Hobbs interacts with customers just like his staff, although I've noticed his advice sometimes comes with a certain hauteur.

But his nursery, and the artistic sensibility that created it, are amazing. His two books, Shocking Beauty and The Jewel Box Garden, illustrate what he's all about -- playing with unusual combinations of colours, shapes, sizes and textures to stop the eye and shake up the ordinary. Lime, plum and hot pink? Why not?

He often combines plants with antique-looking objects or classical statuary, but sometimes it's something modern -- intensely coloured glass ornaments or paper lanterns perhaps. He creates little settings all over the nursery -- a bench with statues on either side, surrounded by plants, for example, or an old-fashioned clock above grey shelves of cacti. Nothing is static. One year a section of the nursery was devoted to oriental poppies of unusual hues; the next year it was day lilies; now it's statues of cows and dogs.

The nursery is open year-round, although the outdoor displays are smaller in the winter. But the indoors is always full of plants and always beautiful. When it's cold outside and the orchids are blooming among the statues in the moist warm air, it's like having a tropical retreat just half an hour from my house.

Statues, pots, palms and orchids. Notice the similar colours of the different objects. 

More of the orchid display. The nursery building  feels like a tropical retreat in the winter. 

Classical shapes and statues combined with greenery are a Hobbs specialty.

Shelves of cacti with an old-fashioned clock.

I've never seen cows here before, but they look comfortable amid the grasses. 

Two dogs guard something classical looking. I hope it isn't the gravestone of a beloved owner. 

A little outdoor scene -- an ornate bench with a statue, an urn, a plum coloured bush and a white hydrangea. 

One of the tables of colourful plants for sale -- these are coneflowers.

What a lush combination of  plum and pink colours in this display! Notice the orange plant pots.

Tall thin grass heads contrast with the low-growing flowers below.

Another outdoor table of colour.

Lime green and dark leaves create an interesting contrast in this display.

I don't know what this little tree is, but it looked amazingly healthy and beautiful in a room of ornaments.

Hobbs doesn't restrict himself to the antique and traditional; here is a pot of brightly coloured glass objects that livens up a section of the nursery. 

Here, paper lanterns reflect the colours of some of the plants and merchandise below.

And, your first view of the nursery when you drive in. The classical urn amid a variety of shapes and colours is a hint of what to expect. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

My forest home

A conversation with a passerby on Friday made me think about how we adapt our homes to reflect our personalities. What does my back yard say about me?

Our place from the front sidewalk: Over the years, I have planted so many trees that the house is nearly hidden.. 
Houses in older neighbourhoods like ours take on the personalities of the owners over the years. The vivid paint job chosen by a colour-loving artist; the geometrically arranged and manicured flower beds of a perfectionist gardener; the massive renovation of a traditional house into a sleek glass-walled one by people with modern tastes.

My house and garden reflect me too. The cottage-like house is virtually the same as the day we bought it four decades ago -- I could never see the point of modernizing. But the garden has changed dramatically, from an ordinary city yard with two azaleas out front and two apple trees out back, to a forested compound surrounded by hedges.

I thought of how we adjust our spaces to suit us when a passerby stopped to chat as I was working on the boxwood hedge on Friday. She said she loved the greenery around my house. "It's beautiful," she said. "I always look at the trees. I hardly even realized there was a house here." (I quietly rejoiced, having always loudly maintained that the best houses are the ones you can't see for the greenery.)

I think my desire to live in a forest is the result of my country upbringing, where nature, privacy and an infinite amount of space seemed like natural conditions of life. I notice that all of my siblings, now in various degrees of retirement, have gravitated to country settings too. Unlike some of them, I didn't have to move to live in the midst of nature: Over the years, I have been able to grow it up around me.

Three of the boxwood shrubs planted in the front hedge last year have been wilting and dying all summer. On Friday, I took them out and planted three more.

I kept watering and hoping these shrubs would recover, but the prognosis seemed pretty clear. 

The replacement shrubs were way too small, but at least they are green and have a hope of growing. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

My Bronte summer

My summer reading: Seven novels by Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte and The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Once I got going on the Bronte sisters, I couldn't stop. After spending the summer reading all seven of their novels, plus a biography by their contemporary Elizabeth Gaskell, I'm still fascinated by Charlotte, Emily and Anne.

Their brief, isolated lives, spent mostly in their father's Yorkshire parsonage, were a mass of contradictions. Shy to the extreme, they made only brief forays into the world as students, teachers or governesses. Anne and Emily -- who died at 29 and 30 respectively -- never married, and Charlotte was married for less than a year before she died at age 39.

And yet they wrote powerfully and knowledgeably about male/female relationships, about jealousy, about bad behaviour, about marriages so abusive that the women fled, even though that was not acceptable in that era. The sisters were raised in a conservative household, but they wrote sympathetically about poverty, the lower classes and class struggles. They embraced nature at a time when industrialization was ruining the countryside. And in an era when talented women writers were told to stick to their knitting, they persevered and got themselves published, even if they did have to adopt male names to do it.

But most importantly, they had feminist ideas long before feminism was even a word. On the surface, they were proper Victorian women, obeying their father's orders and doing the right thing. (Even as an acclaimed author in her late thirties, Charlotte refused a marriage proposal until her father could be persuaded to approve it.) But their novels decried the lack of opportunities, education and options for women, and painted terrible pictures of impoverished single women forced into work they hated. Overall, the sisters pushed the tenets of modern feminism -- that women should be considered as individuals, with a right to self-fulfilment and independence.

I was young when I first read the "big" Bronte books -- Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights -- and I thought they were very romantic. After my summer reading, they don't seem romantic at all. They and the other Bronte novels seem like the voices of three intelligent women questioning the world -- and crying out for changes.

For those who haven't spent the summer reading the Brontes, here is a list of their novels:

Charlotte Bronte: The Professor, Jane Eyre, Villette, Shirley

Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights

Anne Bronte: Agnes Grey, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Summer's last hurrah

The yearly cycle of blossoms that begins in Vancouver as early as January with snowdrops and heavenly-scented witch hazel is coming to its usual big finish. Black-eyed susans, hardy hibiscus, asters, sunflowers, late roses and dahlias -- lots of dahlias -- are filling gardens with the summer's final blast of colour.

My own garden has shockingly few fall flowers, something I yearly vow to remedy but somehow never do, so I depend on the efforts of other, more dedicated gardeners for my annual end-of-summer fix.

Here are some of the colourful blossoms I have noticed around the city in the last couple of weeks:

Displays like this are why I adore the gardens of enthusiastic amateurs. No garden designer would ever give free rein to the sheer love of one type of plant -- in this case dahlias -- and fill a garden with it. Luckily, amateurs can do whatever they please. 
Every year, the dahlia enthusiast -- who lives in a modest house just down the hill from me -- puts on a similar fabulous display.
Mom always grew dahlias, and I think she would have loved these.

The dahlia border from another angle. You can see the gardener's small (for Vancouver) house in the background.

Rudbeckias, or black-eyed susans, create a sunny show in a back lane.

Another view of the back-lane display.

It's been a good year for roses, with enough sun to keep them happy. They are flourishing in this Point Grey-area garden, which also has several stands of Oriental lilies. You can see one bunch of  the pink lilies just above the light-coloured roses

Another look at the rose garden; I loved the variety of colours. 

Russian sage is beautifully purple and see-through on a street corner.

My favourite garden just below Fourth Avenue is featuring white hibiscus now. 

A blue hibiscus adds beauty to the front door of  a house near me.
This colourful planter welcomes visitors to a community garden in West Vancouver. 

Most fall colours are bright and intense, which is why this window box of pale begonias drew my attention. It looked like a wedding bouquet. 

I've never seen sunflowers in window boxes before, but here they are!

A mixture of  black-eyed susans with plum-coloured foliage makes a sophisticated border at Van Dusen Garden.

A stand of black-eyed susans is a blast of colour under a plain cedar hedge. 

This  community garden is always full of flowers as well as vegetables. In the centre, sweet peas climb a trellis.

 My own sweet peas in the kitchen window. In the background, the foliage of my garden, including white blossoms from the second flowering of my summer snowflake tree.