Monday, December 20, 2010

Feeling Grinchy

Last winter, while waiting for a delivery, I offered to give the store directions to my house. They politely declined by saying: "that's ok, our drivers have GPS." Duh.

They say you start to get old when you have trouble adapting to new technology so I guess I have arrived because I find myself commenting more and more on how things used to be. I used to give people verbal directions to my house all the time but now refrain from doing so for fear of sounding....well, like an old person.

Here's another example of how things have changed:  I always looked forward to writing Christmas cards around this time of year and would always send out between 40 and 50 to friends and relatives all over the world. As a result, we always received tons of cards back which provided a holiday tradition that goes back to the first year we were married; when the tree comes down we read all the cards out loud, one by one and share a memory or anecdote about the sender. With family living far away, this was always a bitter-sweet moment of connection, replaced now by the immediate gratification of social networking.

With twitter and facebook, skype and the convenience (not to mention the monitary savings) of e-cards, our old traditions are starting to change drastically. As a result we have received a mere seven cards so far this year. I probably should only admit to five, since one was from our newspaper delivery man and another from our dog's vet! I fully expect to receive Jacquie Lawson e-cards even from them next year.

And the anticipation of going Christmas shopping? Gone the way of the Dodo bird. Walking through stores to get ideas, checking and comparing with other stores, perhaps finding the ideal book for a person, getting them what you think they want, used to be fun and even exhilerating. Of course, you come home exhausted and somewhat cranky after a few hours of that, but it's all worth it if you find the right gifts. "Oh, you still do that?" asked a friend recently. "I do all my shopping on-line."

I concede that it may be more convenient to browse on the Internet but surely it's not nearly as much fun as shopping the old-fashioned way. I know that makes me sound ancient but there you are. I still like to anticipate what I might see in a real store and I like to touch and feel and check out the colours and I love the satisfaction of suddenly finding that perfect something that I know is really wanted by the person on my list and then bringing it home like a secret treasure. Although there, too, the influence of technology is vast. Remember when a nice holiday photo in a frame made a lovely gift? Now you can give grandma 200 photos in an electronic frame she can watch over and over like a bad sitcom. Should I give a book or simply download ten onto a Kindle/Kobi? Does anyone even remember how much pleasure we used to get from giving or receiving a simple sweater or scarf? Not many do.

I think this is the last Christmas where old traditions that my husband and I have built up over nearly three decades of marriage will prevail. Next year I will try to be more in tune with the times. I will send out e-cards, give Kiva gift cards to everyone and then serve a free range turkey with bio rice ad organically grown vegetables. But I will secretly treasure the way things used to be.

Happy holidays to everyone and may you put 2011 to good use!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Very Personal Choice

Like most people, I have very ambivalent feelings on the topic of euthanasia.  I have watched as people suffered needlessly and wished privately that I might have done something merciful to put them out of their misery. On the other hand, my experiences have also taught me that quality of life cannot be measured arbitrarily across the board by any one person since everyone has their own criteria as to what constitutes quality.
So it was with great anticipation that I recently attended a lecture on the topic of euthanasia given by a well-known author and ethicist, a staunch opponent of euthanasia. Fair enough.  I went with an open mind and I found what she had to say riveting and thought-provoking. I was disappointed, however, at her inflexible attitude during the Q and A that followed. What I had hoped for was dialogue. What I got instead, was dogma.
All good and fine for someone who is healthy to take an anti-euthanasia stand. But for an elder who might be tired of a long and lonely existence, someone who knows he or she is ill beyond repair and is suffering both physically and emotionally, it might seem like an answer to their prayers.
One of the problems, or so said the lady giving the lecture, is our collective inability to have  meaningful "death talks" on a regular basis as we used to do when we were more religious. With religion seemingly no longer playing pivotal roles in our lives, we have lost both the venues and the traditions that made our impending demise a normal part of living. Death has thus become a very frightening topic.
As well, we have a habit of hiding our frail elderly in hospitals and institutions rather than keeping them at home as previous generations did,  further restricting our daily contact with those in our circle preparing to make their exit. It does not bode well for any of us that we continue to encourage staying youthful at all costs over....pardon me for the obvious....aging gracefully and thereby accepting our eventual demise and even preparing for it.
Personally, I believe very strongly that I have the right to choose the manner of my own exit. Though I am not saying that I would want, necessarily, to be euthanized, and by that I mean having a doctor administer a lethal dose of something,  I would like to think that in the case of great and prolonged suffering, it might be an alternative offered to me.
As I write this, a woman in my neighbourhood is making sure her very old, blind, incontinent and arthritic dog is getting one last hug before being put to sleep. She took her faithful companion to the country over the weekend so he could have one last sniff in the woods, lie in the sun and listen to the lake water lapping on the shore while she gently stroked him.
While I appreciate that one cannot compare a person to a pet,  I think there are instances where animals get shown more mercy than people.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Rural Approach

Having worked with the elderly for many years, I am always interested in how other countries and cultures look after their seniors.

In small-town France, where I have just spent two weeks visiting family, there is a very clear understanding; getting older means just forging ahead while changes come about on their own and making as little fuss about those changes, as possible.

Case in point: my 83-year old mother-law, quite creaky now and slower than I've ever seen her, still lives independently in a five bedroom house. She has no intention of going anywhere else and doesn't see why she should. It takes her a little longer to get things done. She falls asleep more often during the day. No big deal, she is functioning at a level she can manage and deriving enormous pleasure from her days.

Her 90-year old neighbour, a woman who is legally blind and who now needs help deciphering her mail, also remains alone in her family home. She can be seen, early every Tuesday morning, trotting out to bring the garbage to the curb for pick-up. Both women still shop for their own food and depend on one another for moral support. "Ah, ma pauvre" is a lament often heard, a sentiment which is meant to express sympathy but not pity for all the things about life you can't change. Aging is seen as a normal process and there is no special focus placed on the specifics until an illness comes along which permanently alters the course of someone's life.

So why is it seemingly much less complicated to grow old in rural France than in Canada?

For one thing, they have much more forgiving winter weather than we do. No slipping and sliding on icy sidewalks and the worst of their winter is usually done by February, when the daffodils start to bloom. Another reason might be that people are very open to taking homeotpathic remedies for their common ailments with less debilitating side effects. Finally, there is less interest in how one looks than here, where we are constantly bombarded with ads for products that will make us look younger. I'm not saying the French, don't use lotions and potions like the rest of us. I'm saying that in the small town where my family lives, women seem to have a healthy dose of acceptance about their appearance and their age and they keep on contributing to their family life in whatever way they can which in turn gives them a sense of still being useful.

On the last day of our visit, my mother-in-law was hobbling around in her cluttered and inefficient old kitchen. She was making a tiramisu for a friend down the road who had just come out of hospital.  It took an entire morning to make it and most of the afternoon to deliver, but by the time she was in her chair having a little nap my husband and I could see how she and her elderly neighbours are still a vibrant part of their community.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Bedtime 101

It seems to me that an important childrearing tool has gone out the window since I was a young mother. I sound archaic even to myself for mentioning it but I have noticed that young parents today take their kids everywhere they go and that they are all tired. It's as though there is no such thing as a set bedtime anymore. Kids, even toddlers, get to go out, to restaurants, movies, even private cocktail parties. They stay up late, get overly-tired and fall asleep from sheer exhaustion, often after exhibiting inappropriate behaviour, rather than when their parents tell them to. It makes everyone involved cranky.
I understand that the dynamics of a working couple have changed the way kids are brought up. When are you going to have quality time with your kids if not after hours? And I can also totally appreciate how tempting it is to bring your little darling along when socializing. But past a certain age, a sleep deprived child who comes to believe that the world has no limitations is not a pleasant thing for the rest of us.
Anyone who knew me as a child will tell you that I used to create mayhem on a daily basis. My poor cousin, my main partner in crime back then, was often in trouble thanks to me. Not only did  I get us into countless scrapes, I would embelish scenarios which just sort of popped into my head as I went along, often leaving him to clean up our messes because I was already on the next adventure. But our mayehm had a schedule.
Like most kids of that era, we had basic rules to obey which included, among other things,  not leaving our garden without permission. This was in the days when, outside of school hours, children were expected to entertain themselves and to go and play outside right after breakfast with orders to stay out until they were called in for lunch. Except for bathroom breaks it was best if you did not show your face before being called or you were likely to be given a mundane task to perform, like having to set the table or peeling potatoes. Barring bad weather we much preferred being banished to the garden.
What our hours of freedom taught us was invaluable. We learned how to fend for ourselves, how to problem-solve, and how to let our imaginations run wild. We  learned to rely on ourselves and on one another, thus becoming capable later on of facing the world with a healthy dose of self-confidence.
We also absorbed quickly that certain punishments were not worth the crime, thus showing us concretely that all acts have a consequence and that we are all responsible for any action we choose to take, even at the age of six.
Whatever adventure the day held, when we came in to clean up for supper, we knew that playtime was officially over until the morning. No amount of wheedling would alter that. During dinner we were expected to practice the table manners that were constantly being drummed into us. We could not get up, run around, or leave the table without first asking to be excused. It was also expected that we would help clear the table after the meal was over. If we hurried with the chores we could catch a program or get time to read. Bedtime was absolutely not negotiable and the longer we dawdled the less time we had for the fun stuff.
I wasn't quite as strict when raising my own kids and our Canadian winters meant that I could not just open up the back door and let them run out to play, though I have to say that on sunny days I did just that and they turned out fine. But I was a stickler about not being disturbed past a certain time in the evening, especially when we had company. Bedtime wasn't any more negotiable at our house than it had been for me as a kid because I always felt that if I didn't get some "me" time and some "couples" time, I would go mad. I needed to recharge my batteries, connect with my husband and the outside world. What was that famous quote....if Mamma ain't happy, nobody's happy? That was certainly the unspoken rule when I was a young mother.
Parenting, like anything else worth doing well, requires guidelines, parameters, hard work, dedication, routines and a loving but firm hand that cannot be twisted with wheedling, pleading or bribery. I honestly don't know how couples today survive without those all-important daily moments of peace and quiet. I'm beginning to think that often they don't.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Be Kind: Shed!

For many months now, I have been watching friends who live in another city, struggle with all the elements that come into play when an aging parent develops dementia. The parent in question is his widowed mother, who lives in my home town, a good six hour drive for where our friends live and work.
Because doctors, banks, notaries and social service agencies are mostly closed on weekends, my friends often had to take time off work to come here on a Friday or Monday so they could move forward with the daunting task of getting his mother into a safe environment, something which requires a written mandate and which my friend's mother had not provided.
Our friends had first begun to notice a change in thought and speech patterns when talking to mum on the phone last year. A subsequent visit to find out why her electricity had suddenly been cut off (the bill had not been paid in many months) showed a tremendous change in her handwriting, her signature in particular. Moreover, the fridge was empty, the house was in total disarray and there were holes in their conversations because mum could no longer remember certain things.
The earliest doctor's appointment they could get was weeks away. In the meantime, bills had to be paid, money had to be transferred, groceries had to be brought in. The people next door were helpful to a point, mowing the lawn and buying milk, but one can hardly ask even a well-meaning neighbour to take on the intimate activities of daily living; showering, nail clipping, changes of underwear, laundry.
While waiting for the doctor to confirm their worst fears, our friends took time off work whenever they could and also drove here weekend after weekend to try and keep things going. They soon discovered that the fridge full of groceries was not a good solution because mum no longer knew what to do with food. Frozen, ready-to-heat meals were ordered instead. The trouble with that system was that mum didn't always want to open the door to the 'strangers' who delivered it. Same for the woman who was hired to clean. She never knew from one week to the next if she would be allowed in to perform her job.
After the initial doctor's appointment it was established that a geriatric assessment would be needed. Another appointment, another long wait. In the meantime, my friends continued to go back and forth between their city and mine, always trying to stay one step ahead of mum's needs. Even before the assessment could be made, it was clear that she was in jeopardy being left alone. Constant worry about falls and fires kept my friends awake on many a night.
It's now a year later and my friend's mother has finally been placed in a facility that has a floor  for people with dementia. She is not exactly happy but at least she's out of harm's way and gets three meals a day. She will settle to her new routine soon enough. But for my relieved friends, already emotionally exhausted, the real work had just begun.
Mum's house, now empty, was filled to the rafters with a lifetime worth of stuff. Old furniture with ring marks and faded upholstery fabric. Rooms reeking of cat urine and stale cigarette smoke. Closets crammed with never-worn clothes and drawers filled with items in desperate need of laundering. Linens in tatters. Chipped china, hidden silverware, paper, paper, and more paper, puzzle pieces, cigarette butts, mismatched shoes, old dentures, buttons, old nail files, brooches, faded photographs.  Just when they thought one room was more or less 'done' they discovered that the garage was still full and that there was a trunk full of more papers in the basement. A huge task to tackle on weekends after they have dealt with all the issues in their own lives. They did their very best but in the end had to pay someone to cart it all away.
Clearly, a big favour we can do our children is not  burden them with our left-overs. You may love that stained tea cosy aunt Maude gave you all those years ago but your son or daughter will likely throw it in the garbage the minute your back is turned. So get real. Leave a legal mandate or a least, written instructions and then shed stuff as you go. How many raincoats does one person need? How many magazines can you read at one time? If a mug has lost its handle, don't use it to hold old  leaky pens, throw it out!! If a puzzle is missing a piece, no point in keeping the box with all the other pieces, is there?
Keep what you absolutely need to be happy and comfortable, of course. Give no-longer used treasures to those who will appreciate them and then have a garage sale every year for the stuff we all accummulate in our lifetime. Whatever doesn't sell should be donated or thrown out. Left to rot in an empty house, stuff  morphes into costly junk.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

One Breath At A Time

We sat in a doctor's office, my family and I, awaiting a diagnosis we had dreaded for over three months. We sat there in a windowless, colourless room, facing a brisk but kindly doctor who was so polished it was clear he had done this many times before. We held our collective breath as he began to tell us what we didn't want to hear. Even when you have time to prepare, you are never quite ready.
With one hand I reached for my husband, with the other I pinched myself as hard as I could so as to not give in to my mounting panic. I needed to focus and stay calm. When the verdict finally came I looked at the person it was being delivered to, sitting tall, composed and brave, and my heart broke into a thousand pieces. I could not breathe.
Getting life-altering news is akin to drowning. I feel I can make such a statement because I almost lost my life in a lake when I was little. I can still remember that feeling of utter shock when I took two steps forward in the shallow water where I had been playing and suddenly felt the ground beneath me fall away. The mind spins in disbelief, the toes try to stretch towards a bottom that is no longer there as water simultaneously washes over your head, blurring your vision and muffling sounds. Something like electricty surges through your entire body. A split second and everything familiar no longer is.
In shock, you come up for air, try to find the horizon. Every ounce of energy is directed towards keeping your head above water and gulping for breaths of air. You notice the most mundane things; floating seaweed, a cloud. Even decades later, these images remain hauntingly sharp.
All of this flashed through my mind as the doctor spelled out possible treatment options and scientific data meant to encourage us. Lifelines. 
Stunned, we all heard only what our personal filters would allow and the good doctor seemed to understand this. He kept things simple and encouraged a summer of rest and adjustment even as he offered us his expertise.
In the days and nights that followed, staying very close for mutual support, we began to look beyond the immediate, towards the horizon, as it were, and lo and behold, we saw that we are surrounded by people standing on the shore with outstretched arms. Our friends and family, many of whom have actually waded in to help us, are giving us the greatest gift there is; love and support in whatever form they can give it. Thanks to them we are able to breathe again.
We are not going to drown after all, but we will have to learn to swim, all of us, in this unchartered deep water that until last week, looked deceivingly like a picturesque shallow lake.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Gift of Goodbye

Saying a final good-bye can be so agonizingly painful and yet, done correctly, can be so rewarding at the same time. Laying someone to rest is a way of paying tribute to someone you cared about but it is also a way of taking bearings on your own life.
I have attended three such farewells in the last month, each one very different, each with a unique gift to offer. The first was for a woman of 95, who by all accounts had grown tired of life and had simply stopped eating. Already thin and frail the last few years of her life, it did not take long for her to succumb.
Once a tireless volunteer where I used to work, she was a tiny woman who even in below zero weather or blinding snowstorms came to work on time and always with a smile on her face. I felt grateful, upon hearing of her death, that I had taken opportunities while she was alive to tell her how much I had appreciated her.
The service for her was held on a sunny spring morning, in the little chapel she had attended every Sunday for most of her life. It was packed to overflowing with family members, restless babies, church elders and people like myself, who had appreciated her and the tireless work she had done for her community.
I viewed the photos placed near the front by the urn containing her ashes and marvelled at the fact that she had not changed in spite of her great age; she had the same recognizable smile at the end of her life as when she was young. We subsequently learned, first from a nephew who delivered the eulogy and later from people in the church, invited as we were by the Minister to share any anecdote about her we could think of, that, in spite of never having married or having had children, she had experienced a rewarding life. Not in terms of amassed wealth but certainly in the accumulation of many good deeds which had served her community so well, a wonderful, humbling thing to witness as we sang hymn after hymn in her honour. I pray that I can have a long and useful life.
Two weeks later I was in Toronto at a Jewish cemetery to witness the unveiling of a tombstone. I had never observed such a ceremony before and this particular one was for a friend of my mother's who had been very kind to me when I was young.
We arrived a little early, my mother and I, and we used the time to find the grave and to look around, taking stock of where my mother's late friend had been laid to rest last year. Her grave was next to her husband who had predeceased her, just off a narrow path and not far from a lychen-covered bench. We  sat there while we waited for the family and the rabbi to arrive. The only sounds were birds chirping and the occasional insect buzzing around. It felt very peaceful sitting there. As my mother reminisced about her friend and their relationship, which spanned over five decades, I remembered how kind this lady had been to me when I was young and how unappreciative I had been of that gift at the time. I am grateful that I had the chance, before she died, to tell her this in person and to make amends by corresponding with her daily while she was ill. It was the least I could do. When the rabbi stood by her grave and sang a prayer in the sunlight, I found myself hoping that I am learning to be as gracious and forgiving as she was towards me on her final visit, just two months before she died. When her son read a prayer in Hebrew and laid the first stone on top of his mother's grave, I squeezed the one I held in my hand, as though it were a good-bye hug. When it was my turn to place the stone on the grave, I prayed for her eternal peace.
Not a week later, my husband and I found ourselves in the Catholic church of a small Qu├ębec town, at the memorial service for a man who had died at a very young age, 61, after a brief battle with cancer.  His eulogy was given by his 25-year old son, a very composed young man only a year older than ours, who did a wonderful job of explaining his father's life philosophy; he had lived largely, excessively, joyfully, until the very end.
When Ave Maria was sung by someone in the congregation who had a golden voice, the tears were hard to hold back. A haunting Jacques Brel song ripped at the heart. "My Way" by Frank Sinatra, was the perfect choice for a man who left his small hometown behind to make his way in the wider world. The lonely bagpipe that played "Amazing Grace" as a special request by the widow, was so painful to listen to that I felt a physical ache. I had not known this man well and yet I felt as bereft as if I had. It was an honour to witness the obvious love of his family, especially his son who surely did him proud that day.
In moments of grief, we are all deeply connected by the knowledge that our time here must count for something.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Finding Your Inner Babe

In the overall scheme of things, the annual bathing suit hunt is pretty low on the priority to-do list. But a brief holiday, planned to celebrate my sister's upcoming birthday, is quickly coming up and my old brown and green bathing suit from last year has gotten pilly and the colours are fading.

Thanks to thin models in magazine ads and the impossible standards set by Hollywood we have come to believe that everyone should have a goddess-like body until the day we die. Heck, even Susan Lucci, aged 60 plus, has recently been photographed walking along a beach wearing a bikini, long hair cascading down her lean back, looking fabulous.

Well, I am no Susan Lucci.

I am, instead, what my husband, prone to romanticizing things, likes to call 'his little quail'. I myself would describe my image as being that of a pleasantly plump mother of two, and I would add, a woman in desperate need of a holiday after a winter of work, a serious family medical crisis and a full kitchen reno. So a plan has been hatched for all the 'girls' of the family to get away for a week of sun, a bit of shopping, and a lot of celebrating. We all have much to be grateful for.

I therefore set out last weekend on a grey and rainy day to my favourite department store. I got there early to avoid the crowds. The only saleslady at that time was manning the cash so had no time to help me wade through the many choices in front of me. I dove in.

To begin with, there are many, many different brands, all offering different options, tightly wedged together in one  little space. As I walked around I saw bathing suits with skirts, bathing suits with beaded jewlery, bathing suits with matching cover-ups, bathing suits on sale, bathing suits for those who've had mastectomies, tops and bottoms for people who love to mix and match, bikinis, tankinis and the plain two-piece which seems to have fallen somewhat out of favour. Black, white, floral, geometric, animal print.

Then you have all the different sizes. Regular sizes, (w)ide for the broader woman, L for the long torso, D for the larger cup size....bust enhancing, tummy tucking, hip minimizers...and those that give "the illusion of a long leg."

My biggest problem was trying to get samples off the tightly packed racks which meant doing battle with annoying plastic hangers, some of which then spilled their contents onto the floor and which I would then have to bend down to retrieve and re-hang while balancing the suits I had already selected to try on while also hanging on to my purse, umbrella and raincoat! Would a coat check on every department store floor really be such a difficult service to offer shoppers?

Hot and already somewhat frustrated, I walked up and down the narrow aisles, selecting one bathing suit from every group in my size until I could carry no more. I headed towards the changing rooms but of course, there was a chain  indicating it was not in use.
"No, you have to go to the other side,"  said the cashier, pointing to the far side of the store. By this time I was actually breaking into a light sweat and wondering why I hadn't just ordered something from my Land's End catalogue.

Once in a cabin I lined up my suits according to preference and began the process of trying them on in my sweaty state, under harsh lighting, so flattering to the middle-aged body, without removing my underwear.
Like a robot I tried on suit after suit, concluding each time that it was either too long, too short, exposed too much flesh, the straps were too tight, too much cleavage, not enough cleavage, uncofortable, how long have I had THAT vein there, too plain, too fancy, possibly, maybe, and what was I thinking??

I poked my head out of the cabin door and asked the lady in charge of the dressing rooms if I could have said bathing suit in a larger size. She said she would check. Seeing as she had to cross the length of the Gobi desert to get to the other side, it took a very long time for her to come back, alas, empty-handed. The lull at least allowed me to review my choices, none of which excited me, while cooling down.

Discouraged, I got dressed, gathered my coat, umbrella and purse and went back to the far side of the store where I went around one last time. There, in a far corner, my eye suddenly caught sight of a lovely turquoise and blue one- piece floral number with a slightly gathered bodice. Just looking at those vibrant colours lifted my spirits and made me see myself, not white and flabby after a long Canadian winter, but tanned and lying by a swimming pool, a Diana Gabaldon novel in one hand, a cool drink in the other.

I didn't even try it on. I just knew I had found my inner Susan Lucci.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

What Is Happiness?

None of us are spared sorrow. It comes to all of us, especially if we love. Sometimes it's difficult to remember happy times when sorrow strikes. A reminder has fallen across my desk in the form of an anonymous note I once found  and have kept for years in a box that once belonged to my great grandmother, a woman who likely never had time to worry about how she was feeling. The wisdom in the note is that happiness is fleeting and a balance must be kept between what we strive for and what we have in front of us at this very moment, good or bad.

"What is happiness?
The facing of reality.
The reality of life includes trying to achieve a closeness with someone you love, acceepting the sorrow if closeness ends, accepting the pleasure if closeness lasts.
Knowing you are in for both pleasure and sorrow, you try not to exult too highly or despair too deeply.
Reality is sometimes joyous but always inescapable. And to live in reality is less painful, more pleasurable in the long run, than to live in the fantasy of eternal happiness."

Happiness might only be a fleeting moment, but if savoured and truly appreciated, it lasts beyond the immediate and gets you through whatever your reality happens to be.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

It's All Relaltive

Other than a mildly unpleasant disagreement between the contractor and the electrician over building codes, our kitchen reno is going quite well, thank you. With the ceramic tile laid, we are now ready to take delivery of the cabinets. Unfortunately, we just found out that they won't be ready for another ten days!
This would normally be upsetting news to us but in light of what has been happening in Haiti and more recently in Chile, we see it as a mere hiccup. I think about all those poor people out there as my husband and I camp out in the safety and relative comfort of our own home and I am so very moved by their plight. We may not have a kitchen for the moment but we do have a roof over our heads and for that we are most grateful. Lives change on a dime.
I can certainly attest to the fact that being without a kitchen, without a sink, without a stove, is terribly inconvenient. I can only imagine what it must be like not to have anything left other than the clothes on your back. It has been a challenge to serve meals and to clean up afterwards by taking the dishes to the bathtub and I am reminded by the recent tragedies that many, many people all over the world live like this day in and day out.
When I try to imagine what it must be like for those people out there, reduced to sleeping in parks or by the rubble of their destroyed homes, desperately dipping containers into swimming pools and puddles for lack of access to potable water, I feel humbled.
I am thinking a lot about my paternal grandmother these days as I attempt to work around our reno. For as long as I can remember she and my grandfather, post war immigrants with very limited means, lived in a three room cold-water flat. The bathroom and kitchen were in the same room with only a thin curtain for a bit of privacy. I remember that my grandparents kept a piece of plywood over the old claw tub when it wasn't being used for bathing, as a makeshift counter. My grandmother would have to stoop uncomfortably over it whenever she had to peel potatoes or carrots yet she never complained because to her, those three depressing little rooms were palatial. Once you have lost everything you own, either through war or a natural disaster, anything you can acquire afterwards, even a dingy three-room flat, seems like a great and luxurious gift.
My thoughts, as we await delivery of our kitchen cabinets, are about the many who have no kitchens at all.

Monday, February 15, 2010

How To Spice Up February

It's around this time of the year that I start to get antsy about winter. The snow outside is dirty, days are longer but still cold, friends are either nursing colds or away on holidays and likely a good six more weeks of this lies ahead. Time to liven things up.
No, I don't mean a vacation. We have opted to renovate our kitchen instead of escaping south. Two years ago we renovated our bathrooms, an experience not to ever be forgotten. The less said about that project, the better. I still cringe whenever I remember the look on hubby's face when our newly-tiled shower wall popped after only a couple of  uses. We swore then that we would never again use an independent contractor, not even one recommended by friends. Since then, we have learned a thing or two by watching Mike Holmes, the 'make it right' guy, so we now feel we're as ready as we will ever be to tackle one last mega project. February seems like a good time to turn our lives upside down and yes, we've checked all three references.
To prepare for next week when the demolition starts, we are trying to empty the freezer. Who knew we had three whole pork loins in there?! I also have thirteen very shrivelled and rotten bananas for the cake I never get around to making and two containers with ice cream that is more cyrstals than cream. Shall I ditch them or shall I hang on to the optimism that makes me believe that I will make a banana cake soon? After more than twenty years of always having black fruit in the freezer I would have to give up the idea that I am still a nurturing (baking!) mother, ready to provide comfort for all sorts of ailments with a slice of delicious cake. The kids are long gone and neither my husband nor I want/need the extra pounds so why do I still cling to these frozen bananas??!
I will also have to empty out the cupboard where we put all those things that don't have a natural home of their own. Like the rubber bands that are wrapped around the newspaper every morning, or the plastic clips from loaves of bread that my husband can't seem to help but place in the right hand corner of the cutlery drawer. Ditto the collection of chop sticks and the wine corks. Mind you, the latter may soon be a collector's item.
There are so many things in our kitchen that never get used anymore, from sushi rolling mats to cookie cutters. We have a different view of how to spend time in the kitchen now than we did back when we were raising our kids. Back then the kitchen was the hub of the house, a place from where I ran the entire family operation while supervising homework, folding laundry and dispensing advice while also preparing dinner. Nowadays, I am more likely to be sitting at the counter writing on my laptop while hubby quickly tosses up a stir-fry.
So next week end, in preparation for what is likely going to be our last big reno job, I will throw out all the remnants of my former role as an active mother and embrace, instead, the idea that this new kitchen will be an oasis just for my husband and I. The kids know they can come for a meal any time.  Maybe I should hang on to a couple of bananas just in case I need to quickly bake them a cake.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Calling All Receptionists

Where is it written that a medical receptionist cannot, under any circumstances, be friendly, helpful and approachable? It seems to me that every receptionist I meet lately is cross with the world and determined to make my day even harder than it already is. Whatever happened to becoming a receptionist because you're a 'people person'?
Case in point: the other day, the kind of icy January day that most of us would like to just skip, I found myself towing an 85-year old with a bad back and buckling legs, to a medical clinic. The clinic is located at a busy intersection where an elderly person taking the time to slowly and carefully unfold herself out of a car, is apparently cause for getting honked at. Same to you, buddy!!
From the car to the front door of the building was slow going because of the icy sidewalks. We managed to reach the three steps leading to the first set of heavy glass doors and then discovered that there are five more steps to climb followed by another heavy door, but no ramp or automatic door opener to make entry easier. Healthy people rushed by as we shuffled slowly down a long corridor leading to....a third heavy glass door!
Once inside the clinic we were greeted by a huge sign saying WAIT YOUR TURN and a receptionist who looked as though she might bark if anyone spoke to her. My heart sank at the sight. She eventually deigned to look up at us and mechanically take the information necessary to open a file. This was perhaps done efficiently, but without any warmth or compassion. Her interest in the person she was processing, was zero.
We were eventually sent by a doctor to have a CAT scan in another part of the building. The receptionist there was somewhat more pleasant. She actually greeted us as we entered her department but her smile soon turned sour when told that she had inverted the name of my unwell lady on her file folder. "Well what is her correct name?" she demanded of me, shooting daggers over her half moon glasses. When I repeated that the name was inverted she slammed the folder on the desk and said something that rhymes with fit. Thus I was made to understand that she was  displeased at having to print out a new name label. Whatever happened to giving service with a smile, walking an extra mile for an elderly person, or just plain caring about doing your job to the best of your ability?
Back upstairs to the first receptionist so we could get the scan results from the waiting doctor. The morning receptionist had by then been replaced by another. Again, no smile, no greeting, not even a direct gaze into my eyes. Just a bad perm with an attitude to match. "I will call you when I am ready for you," she said to the person in front of us who had dared approach her desk rather than wait by the sign. After hours of waiting and being patient I would have enjoyed a friendly face. Luckily, the doctor peered out from behind the receptionist and waved us in so I was able to skip the whole explanation of who we were and why we were there. The guy in front of us wasn't as lucky. When I last looked, he was still standing at attention, hoping for a miracle.
This is no way to treat elderly people. With reduced mobility it is often very difficult for them to travel from point A to point B. A friendly face at the end of such gargantuan efforts makes a huge difference to their morale. They are often nervous about the possible outcome of medical intervention. A caring smile would go such a long way to easing such anxiety.