Friday, 22 August 2014

Living Each Day to The Fullest

I can't believe another month has gone by and that it is almost time for the children to go back to school!! I've continued to live life to the fullest since I've been back home from holidays. I've enjoyed working in my gardens as I try to dig out the weeds and gain control of the gardens. I didn't really plant my vegetable garden this year because I knew I would be away and it would have become choked out with weeds. This was a smart decision because when I came home you couldn't see where I had planted some carrots and a couple of pepper plants or the one lone tomato plant. The first thing I tackled was my vegetable garden.

As I dug out and pulled the weeds (roots and all), I thought about my Uncle Russell (from my mom's side of the family) and how I was going to write an account of his life which included his personality. How do you write about someone and make them come to life when you didn't even know them?! So I pondered this as I pulled the weeds. I thought about my grandma and how much I miss her. I thought about Uncle Russell's other siblings that I knew well into my own adulthood. I remembered the various reunions and how much fun the Martin clan was to play baseball with and the pranks and family love that infused the events. As I pulled weeds out of the vegetable garden and then the first of the flowerbeds, I also pulled up memories of my great-grandmother from when I was a little girl. I remembered her as being in her late 80's as she sat in a rocking chair in my great-aunt's (Aunt Mary) home. The rocking chair was always in the kitchen by the window so that Great-Grandma could be part of the conversations that always took place in the kitchen. She was a small, frail woman when I knew her. It was always hard to imagine that she had seven children back in the early 1900's. Being a fanciful, imaginative little girl, I was slightly afraid of Great-Grandma. She had an old, crackly voice, that I now know as just being from old age, but at the time reminded me of the old witch in "Hansel and Gretel". What I didn't recognize at the time but I do now in my memories, was the gentle smile that often graced her wizened, wrinkled face. If only I could go back in time, talk with her and make the most of the short amount of time I knew her. However, being a child, I didn't recognize the importance of knowing her. I do remember her being sick once when we came to visit Aunt Mary and my sister and I were given permission to go upstairs to visit Great Grandma. We crept up the stairs quietly because we didn't want to waken her if she was asleep. I remember Great Grandma being awake and in a big bed with lots of covers and pillows. She motioned us in and we spent a little bit of time with her beside her bed. This is one of the last memories I have of Great Grandma because she died not long after. In hindsight, she looked a lot like my grandma as my grandma got older. I've been told that I look like my grandma. Although these memories of Great Grandma are hazy, I do remember a sense of warmth and love when I put aside my childhood imaginings.

So as I've spent the last month working in the gardens and pulling up weeds and memories, I've been working on a project for the Co-ordinator of the Visitors' Centre at Holten Canadian War Cemetery, Mr. Gert Jan van Holt. When we were there in July, he asked me to write up an account of Uncle Russell's life including who he was as a person. It's taken me 3 weeks as I've interviewed Uncle Russell's nieces and nephew who would have known him personally. Of course, these family members were only 4 or 5 years old when he joined the Canadian Army as part of the 23rd Field Company of the Royal Canadian Engineers. So through the telephone interviews, I've received diaries from 2 of his sisters and various memories from his nieces and nephew. I've also received pictures of Uncle Russell and his wife, Aunt Erma. As I've sorted through all the information, I was surprised to discover that I could see his personality emerging. I was flabbergasted and stunned with the type of person he was according to family accounts and memories! My oldest brother has a sense of humour and personality that we always wondered where it came from. His sense of humour was not like my dad's and not like my maternal grandfather's. What I recognized was that my brother's sense of humour and personality is very much like what Uncle Russell's! Now my project was becoming much easier to write. I finished it a couple of days ago but have spent the last 2 days editing it. I finished it last night and it is now sent off to the Netherlands.

This has been such a treasure and joy to work on. I can honestly say that I have smiled with warmth and humour but I have also shed tears of grief as I've learned who Uncle Russell was. If he hadn't died in WWII, I would definitely have known him well as I did his siblings.

I have been reminded again constantly the importance of living life to the absolute fullest. So I've taken time in the last few weeks to play some golf and continue with my golf lessons. My husband and I have been able to continue our enjoyment of lingering beers and food on the local restaurant patios on Fridays after work. We've included our son in these too. Unfortunately, our daughter has to work on Friday nights. But I've spent time with her as we've gone to the mall and had lunch out. I had promised her at the beginning of the summer that we would go for sushi together for lunch at her favourite sushi restaurant. We did this and had a very enjoyable time. She laughed at my attempts to use chopsticks. Throughout my life, I've tried to use chopsticks occasionally and I'm never successful. My daughter patiently showed me and I ate my full meal using chopsticks!

As I've been grabbing life with both hands and enjoying the ride, my husband and I have been going out on his Honda Goldwing. We try to go out every weekend and sometimes even during the week. Last weekend, we drove to visit friends who we haven't seen in about 10 years. They dropped by our home while I was in chemotherapy but I didn't seem them because I was having a rough day. Our visit was truly enjoyable and full of love and warmth even though we drove through heavy rain on the bike to get there. We played cards, stayed overnight, had a wonderful breakfast, saw both their children who are about the same age as our's, and then visited a bird sanctuary. It was a weekend full of love, warmth, good friendship and positive vibes. I truly am blessed!!

In my humble opinion, this is what life is about. Filling each day with positive experiences and creating warm lasting memories, truly is what make life fun and vibrant. Sure we have careers and responsibilities but we do not need to let the drudgery pull us down. As I've read the diaries as part of my research of Uncle Russell, I saw that the women who wrote them had full days of hard labour on the farm during a time when there was no electricity or "gadgets" to make life easier. But despite the long hours of hard work, they made time to visit with family and friends in the community to have fun. I learned from reading these entries about playing cards and going to dances at the local community centres. I think our society has lost our ability to BE a community and involved. We, myself included, are more prone to individual pursuits and isolation. I truly believe that living each day to the fullest is tiring but so well worth the effort. I like nothing better than to fall into bed at night fully satisfied and joyful from connecting with the people around me. I find it helps fill my life with love and warmth.

In a future post, I will post my account of Uncle Russell's life. Have a super weekend!!

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Until We Meet Again Holland

At the end of last week, we spent time exploring the Mookeheide by foot.  What an enjoyable day it was and a nice break after all the emotional two days before that.  It was very warm as we walked and hiked but once we were within the shade of the trees in the Mookeheide, it was cool and refreshing.  Thursday, July 24 we went back to Oosterbeek to visit the Airborne Museum and then on to Arnhem to visit the small but surprisingly thorough Arnhem Museum.  The Airborne Museum was very interesting and in the bottom floor, there was a display with live sounds and shouts to make you feel you were there in the midst of the battle and evacuation.  The Arnhem Museum was good but there was no one there to give us a tour in English so we were loaned a guide book with the labels of the artifacts in English.  We saw a German mortar gun and shell which is most likely similar to what hit my uncle's boat as he went across the Neder Rhine.  I found the museums brought forth quite a bit of emotion again and by the end of the day, I was exhausted.

On Friday, July 25, we decided to do something totally different.  We went to the Krohler-Muller Museum of Art which was recommended to me by a friend of mine here at home.  To get to the museum, we drove through a nature reserve/park and we were very surprised to see a desert area complete with sand dunes.  The Krohler-Muller Museum was full of orginals of Dutch painters, Vincent Van Gogh and a special exhibit of Seurat paintings.  After going through the museum, we wandered through the grounds which was another exhibit area of sculptures.  It was very interesting.  After our tour of the museum and sculpture exhibit, we borrowed two bikes from the bike loan area and went for a short tour through the surrounding parkland by bike (on the bike paths of course).  This was fun although I know that scared a lot of the other bikers around us as I haven't been on a bike regularly in over 30 years.  I was a little wobbly and so when I met people on the paths or they were passing me, I would deliberately go off the path so I wouldn't wobble into them.  I obviously need practise but I think I could get into riding a bike again.  It was a day of wonder and something completely different to what we had been doing in Holland up to that point. When I arrived back at our cottage/house, I immediately went to work on doing laundry so that I wouldn't have mountains to do when I arrived home in Canada.  It made for a very late night.

On Saturday morning, we said good bye to our "home" and set off for Amsterdam as part of our travels home to Canada.  We arrived in Amsterdam too early to check in at the hotel, so we decided to drive to Zaanstreek as this was also on our "to do" list while in Holland.  We parked the car and enjoyed a stroll through the area.  I loved all the old windmills, sawmill, cheese house and various boutiques.  This is obviously a tourist area but we did enjoy it.  Then we headed back to Amsterdam to our hotel where we checked in.  Our breakfast for the next couple of days was a combination of the herbed gouda cheese and clementines that we had brought with us from our "cottage".  On Sunday, we took the train into Amsterdam and spent the day there.  I really enjoyed seeing all the old architecture as we took a canal tour by boat.  The boat tour started out as an adventure.  While we waited onboard for the captain to be ready to go, we were banged with quite a jar from another boat.  Thank goodness these tour boats are built to withstand such abuse.  It really did make me wonder about the qualifications of the people they hire for "captains".  However, once we were underway, it was an enjoyable tour.  After the tour, we had some lunch at a café terrace and then we walked to the Anne Frank House where we had a tour booked for 2:30 p.m.  I found the visit to the Anne Frank House very poignant and I could almost feel the terror of the residents of the "house" because as we walked on the wooden floors, the slightest step would create a creak which would definitely be heard down below in the warehouse. The house is deliberately not furnished so that we have a sense of what Anne Frank's father witnessed when he returned after the war.  The living area had been completely ransacked and emptied out by the Germans.

After our visit to the Anne Frank House, we wandered the streets making our way back up to the train station.  We enjoyed a lovely dinner on a terrace that overlooked the canals.  It was interesting to notice the smell of marijuana as people walked by enjoying their smoke. We made our way back to the train and once on the train, we were seated opposite a young couple from Wisconsin.  We chatted and before we knew it, we had arrived at our stop at the Airport.  Our hotel was directly beside the airport.

On Monday morning, we had a leisurely morning and caught the hotel shuttle to the airport so we would be there for our check in time of 1:00 p.m.  There had been thunder storms throughout the early morning but our flight indicated it was still on time.  However, this was not to be.  Due to the storms in the morning, everything was backed up.  Our flight from Amsterdam to Frankfurt ended up being delayed by 3 hours.  This meant we missed our connecting flight from Frankfurt to Toronto.  We were treated very well though by Lufthansa (the airline) who put us up in a Ramada Inn for the night and included a dinner buffet for Monday night as well as a breakfast buffet for Tuesday morning.  The agents at the airport found a new way for us to get home.  We would catch the United Airlines flight from Frankfurt to Newark, New Jersey and then catch a connecting United Express flight from Newark, New Jersey to Toronto and then on the last flight from Toronto to our hometown.  So off we set on Tuesday morning with the hotel shuttle to make our way home.  All the flights were running on time so this was a good omen for us....or so we thought.  We got on the flight from Frankfurt to Newark, New Jersey and before it took off, we were informed that we were upgraded to Business Class (first class).  What a bonus!!!  I had positively been drooling with envy when we walked through the Business Class area to get to our Economy Class seats.  I ended up with a tremendous amount of leg room.  The seats could be fully reclined to make beds! We had complimentary and unlimited drinks (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) as well as a three course meal!  Oh the luxury!!  I loved it!!! This certainly helped pass the 8 1/2 hour plane trip in comfort!

When we arrived at Newark, New Jersey, we had to go through "Passport Control" (customs) and then pick up our baggage and re-check it to continue on to Toronto.  Ooops....our enjoyable glow from our Business Class experience came to an abrupt end.  The line up was tremendous and the United States government had only 4 kiosks open.  We stood in line for 1 1/2 hours to get through "Passport Control".  We missed our connecting flight to Toronto!  Now we had to wait for another flight which was 3 hours later. We finally made our way home and arrived in our house at 1:00 a.m. this morning.  We literally dropped our luggage in the living room and I fell into bed.  We had been up for more than 24 hours and I was exhausted.

I'll spend the next couple of days getting back into this time zone.  This has been the trip of a lifetime even with the glitches in the air travel. I'm a little numb but there are some definite highlights to the trip.  I'll get adjusted and then I hope to organize my self and memories.  I took tons of pictures which always nudge open the door of my memories. My pictures will help me feel and remember this wonderful trip.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Cathy Conquered Cancer Living List (Bucket List)

These last two days in Holland have been incredible!  This trip to Holland was one of the major items on my Cathy Conquered Cancer Living List which I made while I was undergoing chemotherapy in 2012. The activities I've engaged in are the culmination of my husband's research into my Great Uncle Russell's demise during Operation Market Garden in WWII.  My husband's interest was peaked throughout the years as I always recount the stories my grandma and my mom would tell me about Uncle Russell.  Of course, I never knew him as I was born many years after WWII.  My mom was very, very good in keeping his memory alive by showing me pictures and telling me how he died.

My husband started researching Uncle Russell's movements from 1939 onwards. He contacted the Canadian Government and various internet sites dealing with Operation Market Garden. Uncle Russell was part of the Canadian Royal Engineers 23rd Field Company. My husband has been in touch with various people who have helped him with his research through the last several years.  One gentleman from one of these sites suggested my husband should contact another gentleman named Lt. Russell Kennedy who was also part of the Royal Canadian Engineers 23rd Field Company. As it turned out, Lt. Kennedy lived in the same city that we were living in! My husband called him up to make an appointment to meet with Mr. Kennedy. You must realize that this was more than 60 years after the end of WWII. My husband asked Lt. Kennedy if he had known Lt. Russell Martin. What a gift to us it was to have Mr. Kennedy (who actually had retired from the military as a Colonel) say that Uncle Russell was his best friend!!

After reading and researching, my husband was contacted by a lady in Holland who was also researching the seven men from the Royal Canadian Engineers 23rd Field Company.  She is trying to make sure that these seven men who died during Operation Market Garden are not forgotten.  She is trying to give each man's name a picture and story to go with it.  To make a very long story a little shorter, she offered to be our "host" if we ever came to Holland.  So for the last two days, Alice van Bekkum has very generously and graciously been our guide as we wanted to visit the various places where Uncle Russell had been.

My husband found a house to rent for 10 days. It is surrounded by a conservation area which during WWII saw intense fighting as the Allied Forces clashed with the German forces to try and take control of the area. My Uncle Russell was not involved with this part of the campaign. The living room in this house has a complete wall that is one huge picture window.  As I sit inside the house, I feel like I am outdoors.  I can see the various coloured birds flitting around and I can hear their chirps and bright songs.  I can hear the breeze rustling through the leaves of the trees. These same trees have witnessed the fighting that took place here 70 years ago!!  But I digress from my adventures of the last 2 days. Two days ago, Alice arrived at our location to pick us up and lead us on a very grand and emotional adventure.  My husband had been in touch with her via email but he'd not met her or talked with her on the phone before. I was a little nervous but very quickly was at ease with Alice. What a delightful woman with such an abundance of energy and drive!  Our first stop was at the Nationaal Bevrijdingsmuseum 1944-1945 (Liberation Museum). This museum is divided up into three sections which told the story of Holland and how the Germans invaded and occupied Holland, then how Holland was liberated by the Allied Forces and then post war Holland.  This museum has a Memorial Hall that is a separate building.  It has been built to look like a parachute and contains all the names of those men in the Allied Forces who were killed during the liberation of Holland. There was a book with the emblem of the Royal Engineers mounted on the wall above it.  Alice's husband went into the Memorial Hall, while my husband and I were still in the museum, and opened up the book to Uncle Russell's name.  This hall had soft classical music playing in the background which was very soothing. There was a place to leave a message on a piece of paper. As I sat at the table to write my message, my heart was overcome with emotion. I had a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes as I hung my message on the hook with the other messages. I was overwhelmed because there were so many names in all the books in this room. These are not just names but each name was a person and has a story with family behind the name. Each name has generations that have not been able to know them. Each name is an "Uncle Russell"!

After the Bevrijdingmuseum, we drove to a road called Klein Amerika (Little America) where there was a field with a monument showing the dropping zone of the 82nd Airborne. The day was wet and gray so we were unable to get good pictures of the monument. My husband and I may return there in the next couple of days to get a picture as it isn't far from where we are staying.  Alice had a wonderful itinerary set out for us. Due to the amount of time we took in the first museum, we had to forego the Airborne Museum.  My husband and I will go there on our own in the next couple of days. Alice then took us to Oosterbeek where we enjoyed a nice lunch before continuing on our way to Westerbouwing.  This was an area of very high ground on the Neder Rijn (Rhine River) across and down river from where Uncle Russell died. Alice showed us approximately where Uncle Russell's boat would have been launched from on the other side of the river (but upstream). As I looked at the view upstream, my heart was full with emotions. The rain had stopped briefly but it was overcast.  All I could think was that Uncle Russell had been doing this in the dark of night, in very wet, windy and cold conditions.

Next on our itinerary was a visit to an old church where the British and Polish paratroopers had hidden waiting for the Royal Engineers (British and Canadian) to rescue them and help them evacuate. The stone walls on the outside of the church still have the bullet holes that were from the Germans shooting at the paratroopers. The house beside the church was owned by a woman who helped look after the wounded British and Polish paratroopers. Alice mentioned that this lady died a number of years ago as she was hit by a car while she tried to cross the road in front of her house.  The road is a highway and there are some very tight curves right at that spot. We had to be careful ourselves as we crossed the road to get back to Alice's car. Before we left the church/house, Alice showed us the path that the paratroopers would have taken to run through gunfire to get to the rescue boats that came to evacuate them.

Our next stop was to the Engineers Monument in Driel/Arnhem. This was a very emotional time for me!! At this location, is where my Uncle Russell would have helped unload the storm boats and carry them across the fields and two dikes in order to get to the Neder Rijn (Rhine River).  I stood on the road where the truck carrying him would have driven and stopped. As I looked downstream, I could see Westerbouwing where I had just been on the high ground. This is also where the Germans had been (at Westerbouwing) and where the mortar or 88mm shell (no one will ever know for sure which one was used) was launched from that made the direct hit on Uncle Russell's boat. As I write this I again feel the very strong emotions of grief but also a close feeling to Uncle Russell as I stood where he walked and worked.  It was time to move along as the drizzle started to get a little heavier.  Our next stop was in Elst which is a small village downstream.

We went to a small Dutch General Cemetery (community cemetery) in Elst. On the edge of the river at Elst is where Uncle Russell's body was found. He was then buried in this General Cemetery for a brief time before he was moved to Holten Cemetery.  Alice showed us the space where Uncle Russell had been buried. It is an area where there are is a military grave, then a space (big enough for another grave) filled with flowers and an evergreen shrub and then another military grave.  So the garden area is flanked on either side by 2 military graves. Near the graves was a very old tree and again, I had a moment of emotion as this tree would have witnessed my Uncle Russell being buried. Thus ended our first day with Alice.

Yesterday morning, we met Alice at her home.  The only thing on the agenda was a visit to Holten Cemetery to see Uncle Russell's grave and then a nice dinner out with Alice and her husband.  A small way to thank them for their wonderful hospitality.  We left their home and drove to Holten via a route into Germany. We had a small lunch in Holten at Bakkery Nijkamp and then I bought some flowers (red and white roses) to leave with Uncle Russell. In preparation to visit Uncle Russell's grave, I had contacted my mom, uncle and aunt to see what messages they wanted left on Uncle Russell's grave.  The Dutch Legion sells wooden poppy crosses that you can write a message on and leave on the grave.  I had bought a Canadian flag at the National Bevrijdingsmuseum so that I could leave that at the grave as well. After buying the flowers, off we went to Holten Cemetery.  It is located outside of the village and to get there we drove through a beautiful country lane/road that meandered through the woods.  The cemetery is very impressive.  We found his grave.  I had six poppy crosses with messages. Five of these were from Uncle Russell's immediate nieces and nephew. I inserted them in the ground along the base of his headstone. My own cross with the message, I placed in front.  I felt that I am a great-niece and should be that one generation removed, hence my cross was not place right next to the headstone.  I inserted the Canadian flag on the left beside the headstone.  I pushed the stems of the red and white roses into the dirt on the right beside the headstone so they looked like fresh flowers in a vase.  Alice had brought along a beautiful candle in a red pillar holder with a gold metal top.  I lit the candle and placed it in front of everything else.  After all the various pictures were taken, I took a number of moments to sit and pray and "commune" with Uncle Russell.  How I wish I had been able to know him. I felt close to him at that moment.  With my throat tight, my eyes full of tears, it was time to go.  I was off to the Visitors' Centre at Holten Cemetery to meet a gentleman named Gert Jan van Holt who is attempting to collect pictures and the family story of each soldier that is buried in Holten Cemetery.  I met Mr. van Holt and have promised to write as full an account of Uncle Russell as I can.  Not so much his military movements, which my husband has researched, but more the personal, family background. After meeting Mr. van Holt, we toured the Visitors' Centre and watched a movie which was narrated by Mr. van Holt.

We ended our day with Alice and her husband by taking them out to dinner to a restaurant of their choice.  Alice is very involved with the Legion and has just joined the Canadian Legion in Holland as well.  She has been to this restaurant for meetings but had never been for dinner.  It was called Canadian Restaurant Mondani and is located in Lochem.  We enjoyed a lovely dinner and the food was excellent.  The two husbands had buffalo steak, Alice had Pacific Cedar Planked Salmon and I had a venison steak with Saskatoon berries.  It was all very good and we shared much laughter.  A new friendship has been born these last couple of days with Alice.

I can now put a big check mark beside "Trip to Holland" on my Cathy Conquered Cancer Living List.  It might be interesting to now do a trip from Normandy where Uncle Russell landed and travel in his footsteps up through Belgium into Holland. Hmmmm....I think I had better add this to my Living List.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Arrival in Holland

We arrived in Holland yesterday.  Our house (it is listed as a cottage but it is definitely a bungalow house) is located beside a conservation area.  We have neighbours on one side but the other three sides of the house are surrounded by woodland.  It is a haven of calm and peace.  The woodland surrounding us saw fighting in WWII.  Apparently, the trees still have shells in them and local people do not like cutting them down as it wrecks their chainsaw when the chainsaw hits a leftover bullet.

Last night we went for a brief walk in the woods just as dusk was settling in.  This morning we enjoyed our breakfast on a patio that surrounds three sides of the house.  The weather has been hot and hot that it was difficult to sleep last night.  It is so humid that you are immediately drenched just by sitting. Apparently, this is out of the ordinary for this region.  Anyway, this morning we were enjoying sitting and chatting after breakfast, when I heard rustling from the woods in front of us.  There was a young male buck (deer) ambling through the bush, grazing on the fronds of ferns that he came across.  I had my camera close by and managed (with the zoom setting) to get a beautiful shot of him.  He looked fit and his antlers were not very big yet which makes me assume he was young.  What a beautiful start to the day.

As I sat on the patio this morning, I could imagine the ghosts of soldiers flitting from tree to tree and quietly advancing through the forest.  My imagination was probably enhanced by the fact that we visited the Mook War Cemetery last night.  This is a Commonwealth cemetery and I felt a heaviness of heart as we looked at all the stones with the names, rank, age and regiment listed.  It is so sad to think that these men died so far from home and so alone.  The Dutch look after the graves so well.  There are lavender bushes at each end of the rows.  I couldn't help but think that lavender is used to help us rest well.  There are flower gardens all along the row of stones and are tended regularly as there are no weeds to be seen.  There was a guest book to sign.  I was so overcome with emotion that it was hard to put my thoughts into words.  I thanked "them" (the Dutch) for looking after our men so well.  This was especially important for me as I realized that none of these men have family nearby who would be able to come and visit regularly.  LEST WE FORGET.

This trip to the Netherlands is not just a vacation but an opportunity for me to be close to where my great-uncle battled and was killed in 1944.  I never knew him but my grandmother and my mother made sure I knew about him.  My mother and her brother do remember him.  I'm looking forward to seeing his grave, the memorial that is in place near where he died and the various museums in the area.  I'm not a huge history buff but I do feel emotional when I think of my great-uncle.  I must confess to feeling that my grandma, my great-grandma (who I did know) and my great-uncle are close with me in spirit.  I felt their closeness before I even left Canada.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Travelling Adventures

Vacations are always times to look forward to travelling and planning your trip.  Everything was planned out and we left the house to catch our flight to Toronto and then our connecting flight to Edinburgh.  The day we left, the sun had been shining all day but with storm warnings for later in the day.  As we arrived at our home airport, we discovered our flight was delayed 3 hours.  This mean we were going to miss our connecting flight to Edinburgh.  Air Canada was very good and booked us on a later flight from Toronto to Dublin, Ireland where we switched flights and flew from Dublin to Edinburgh.  Our original itinerary had us arriving in Edinburgh at 7:00 a.m. on Wed. July 9.  Our adjusted itinerary had us arrive in Edinburgh at 2:30 p.m.  We had also pre-booked and paid for our rental car so that we could just arrive and pick it up at 7:00 a.m. (our original itinerary).  When we actually arrived at the rental car desk, we discovered that they had given our car out to someone else....they only hold it for 3 hours despite cancellations and weather interruptions!!  After some discussion and scrambling (because they didn't have any small cars in the lot at all now), we ended up with a larger Mercedes Benz.  At this point we had been up for 30+ hours!  So we got the car, packed our luggage in and off we went.  My husband wanted to drop in on his uncle and aunt so we did that before going to the cottage that we had rented for our time in Scotland.  We had a lovely dinner with family and then made our way to our rental cottage.

My husband found the cottage online on a site where you can rent homes and cottages for days at a time.  I love this cottage.  It appears to have been built sometime in the late 19th century. I much prefer accommodations such as this to a hotel or even a bed and breakfast.  As I am at a stage in life of  not sleeping well through the night, the cottage affords me the luxury of being up and able to read in another room without bothering anyone else.  The cottage has a dishwasher, stove, modern double door fridge/freezer and a washer/dryer combination machine.  The backyard of the cottage has some lovely gardens along with a clothes line.  There is a rustic gazebo which gives a beautiful view across the fields.  There is also a large patio as well with loungers, a table and chairs and also an umbrella.  Beyond the back gate at the end of the garden path, there is a path that wanders throughout the woods and brings you to various campsites.  The inside of the cottage has the original wood floors and wood doors.  There is a wood/coal combination fireplace but we haven't needed to use it for heat at all.  There are also radiators throughout the cottage for heating during the colder weather.  The radiators' heat is provided by the fireplace as well.  If the fireplace is on and the doors are kept closed, this will cause the radiators to heat up.  If we keep the fireplace doors open, it will only heat the sitting room.  There is a space heater in the full bathroom to take the chill off the air during the night and early mornings.  So we have been very happy to call this our home base while in Scotland.

We've been to Edinburgh on the train and visited Holyrood Palace as well as the abbey ruins and the gardens.  We've been to Edinburgh before, so we did not visit Edinburgh Castle this time.  Instead we wandered The Royal Mile and enjoyed a pub lunch.  We always enjoy a visit to Princes Street Gardens.  It bring back memories for my husband of previous visits with his mother when he was young.  This visit, we sat on the grass and enjoyed watching young couples and families relax in the park.

About 2 months ago, we booked tickets to go on a 3 hour dinner cruise on The Firth of Forth.  What an enjoyable evening this was!!  The evening was very calm or as the captain told my husband "it was a cracker night".  Our dinner was barbecued beef on a bun with salad.  There was also a live Scottish folk band that played all night long.  Not only did we see some stunning views, we even recognized some of the tunes and we were able to sing along, clap our hands and enjoy the evening.  I would love to do that again sometime.  The company also offers a similar tour but with jazz music.

We went to The Falkirk Wheel the other day.  I had not heard about this before but it is an amazing feat of engineering which brings boats from the lower Forth/Clyde canals to the upper Union Canal that leads to Edinburgh.  There are many paths to walk and climb in the same area.  When we arrived, we bought our tickets for the next tour boat to go through the Falkirk Wheel.  Then we had time to go for a walk through the paths.  The skies looked threatening so we had our raincoats with us "just in case".  Good thing because as we were walking a mist started.  That was fine, we continued to walk along.  Then the mist turned to a drizzle so out came our raincoats.  But then the drizzle became a steady rain.  So we retraced our steps and went into the gift shop to wait for our boat ride.  It was enjoyable even if it was raining.  I forgot to mention that when we first arrived, we saw a swan with 5 cygnets (babies).  The cygnets were getting fairly large but they were still covered in their fine, fluffy and brown down.  The Falkirk Wheel runs on hydraulics and use the same electrical energy as 8 tea kettles.  My husband tried to explain to me how the wheel worked but I had trouble understanding it until I saw it in motion.  It is truly amazing!  The Falkirk Wheel spins on a central tube.  There are two chambers one on each end of the wheel where the boats are moored while the wheel moves them from one canal up or down to the other canal.  The boat chambers are also on rails with wheels so that they stay horizontal throughout the trip.  I thought for sure that the boats would feel some sideways movement from the water as the chamber slowly moves.  But there is no feeling of movement in the boat at all.  If you closed your eyes, you wouldn't even know that your boat was being turned around the wheel.  I really believe this must be seen in order to fully comprehend how it works.

Yesterday, we went for a drive up into the Highlands in order to see a second cousin on my dad's side.  When I was a child, I would see this lady with my parents fairly regularly as she and my father were more like brother and sister rather than cousins.  She moved to Scotland several years ago.  I called her up to see if she and her husband would like some visitors from Canada.  I hadn't seen her in over 30 years!!  We made the drive up towards Inverness.  I had forgotten how much I love the Highlands.  If I were to move to Scotland, I would live in the Highlands for sure.  In order to get to my cousin's home, we drove on major highways (4 lanes), two lane highways and highways (more like country roads) that were barely two lanes.  Some of these more remote roads had sheep that were grazing right beside the road and could even wander across the road.  We toured the Dallas Dhu Historic Distillery on our travels this day as well.  It's always nice to have a dram of whisky at the end of a tour.  We spent a lovely afternoon with my cousin and her husband.  It was a time of much laughter and very good food as we ate at The Mosset Tavern.  Much too soon, it was time to head south back to our cottage.  My heart was truly warmed and bursting with love as we finished our day.

Today, I believe we will head for St. Andrews and perhaps have another pub lunch there.  Every time I visit Scotland, I always feel like I have returned home.  My great-grandfather emigrated to Canada from Edinburgh when he was finished university.  It almost feels like his blood runs through my veins and when I visit Scotland, I really do feel a warmth and the comfort of returning home.  I always feel settled here.  I love the rural feel of Fife and north into the Highlands.  The area does remind me of the area of Ontario where my great-grandfather settled which was also where my grandparents lived.  I was even born in that area of Ontario.  It is very, very similar to Scotland.

In addition to visiting St. Andrews, we also want to make our way to Loch Lomond.  When we came to Scotland for our honeymoon many years ago, we visited Balloch and really enjoyed it.  We returned there on our last visit when we had our children with us.  It would be nice to make a trip to Balloch again before we leave to continue our travels.  This holiday is not overly scheduled and we have a list of wants that we are working through but at a leisurely pace.  We are also visiting with my husband's uncle and aunt on an almost nightly basis.  They are always such fun and again we leave their home with our hearts full.

Monday, 23 June 2014

And the Celebratons continue....

A dear friend of mine, who has accompanied through the highs and lows of the last decade, travelled with me to the Kitchener/Stratford area.  We decided back in the late winter that we would celebrate our decade birthdays together by attending the Stratford Festival.  We ordered our tickets back in March, made arrangements to stay with my brother and his wife in Kitchener and eagerly awaited the arrival of this past weekend.

What a glorious weekend it was!  The warmth of friendship made the drive very delightful as we travelled.  When we arrived at my brother's home, we were met by the joyous tail wagging bundle of energy called Maxi.  She is 11 years old but she still has the energy of a puppy.  Next to meet us was my sister-in-law with a huge smile on her face as she welcomed the weary travellers into her home.  This is what I love about my brother and sister-in-law.  They welcome friends and family into their home with grace, laughter and love.  My brother had met my friend once before about 10 years or so ago.  My sister-in-law had never met my friend but that didn't matter.  Her arms were open wide to receive us with all our belongings.  Due to my brother's work schedule, we didn't see him when we arrived.  Regardless of this ,my sister-in-law took us downstairs where we enjoyed some snacks, water and getting to know each other.  The television was on as we started watching an old movie with Errol Flynn and Maureen O'Hara.  I was so tired, I don't even remember the name of the movie!  And you know what?  The movie didn't matter.  What sticks in my memory is the warmth and love of friendship and family.  As my friend and I were quite tired (I was nodding off during the conversation and movie watching), we retired to our beds earlier than I normally would.

Saturday morning dawned nice and bright.  We three women again enjoyed each others' company as we had our cups of tea and coffee and then breakfast.  My friend and I then enjoyed a leisurely walk with Maxi around the neighbourhood.  We heard the birds singing, saw lots of other people walking or jogging with their dogs and children playing at the local playground.  All the happy sounds and bird songs made for a very relaxing start to the day.  Unfortunately, there was a phone call from my mom with some sad news.  A good family friend had passed on in the night from a heart attack. Outwardly, I continued on but inwardly, my heart was burdened.  This family friend was a man of great faith and I have no doubt that he is with his Saviour. He is also reunited with his own parents and his daughter who tragically died many years ago when she was in her early twenties. My heart has been aching for his widow although she will also be comforted with her own faith in Jesus. My prayers continue to be with this family. As I said, outwardly I continued on with my day. My friend and I drove to Stratford for the matinee showing of "King Lear" starring Colm Feore as King Lear.  As we arrived at the Festival Theatre with time to spare, we enjoyed a stroll alongside the Avon River and over the pedestrian bridge to the island and back.  We thoroughly enjoyed our time together and the show was spectacular. The time passed very quickly.  Then we hopped in the car and drove downtown to the Avon Theatre where we found parking.  A quick walk of a block or so and we were at our dinner destination which was The Annex Room.  I loved how our day was entwined with threads of affection, friendship and appreciation of the "finer things in life".  We enjoyed lots of conversation and laughter as we dined on some fabulous food.  Within, I had decided that I would not have dessert.  But....when the dessert options were listed from memory by our friendly waiter, I could not pass up my favourite dessert of crème brulee.  I have not found one that comes close to the crème brulee offered up at Chez Piggy but at The Annex Room it was just as good. This is a huge compliment!  My friend and I enjoyed our desserts (she had a trio of sorbets) along with cups of peppermint tea.  We did not feel rushed but our waiter was certainly unobtrusively attentive.  After our dinner, we made our way to the Avon Theatre.  We still had time so we browsed through the Theatre Store.  Then off we went to see "Man of La Mancha".  Again, it was a tremendous show.  Just before the first act ended, there was a scene that was so intense, it shot like an arrow right through to my core.  I felt anxiety, fear, and worry about the female lead.  What a well done job of acting and choreography.  As the lights went to black and then the house lights came up for intermission, I felt very unsettled.  I truly believe it is a true compliment to all who work on the or in the show that I would feel so deeply.

My friend and I were both weary and tired by the end of the day.  Thank goodness, my brother's home was only a 30 minute drive away.  As we drove down the highway through a rural area, we could see an orange glow to the right. Oh no....this is never a good thing to see in the country!  My heart plummeted.  Then I remembered that we had seen a controlled brush fire on the way to the Stratford Festival earlier in the day.  I've watched the internet for new regarding a barn fire but there's been nothing.  I hope it was only the brush fire which had raged out of control.  As we drove by, I could see the silhouette of the barn back lit by the flames.  There were fire trucks and personnel there battling the flames. My friend was driving, so I was able to see all this in an instant as we drove by. We arrived at my brother's home and again we were welcome with open arms, warm love and the excited wagging of Maxi's tail.  My brother was awake and it was the first time we saw him.  My friend had a cup of peppermint tea and I shared a glass of red wine with my brother and sister-in-law. It was an emotional day and I was glad it had started with the love of family and friends and then ended with the same positive warmth of love.

Yesterday, we all had a leisurely start to the morning. As we all arose at various times, we congregated on my brother's deck. It is a wonderful oasis of shade, birds and privacy. As we sat around my brother's patio table, we sipped on coffee and tea as well as just chattered and enjoyed some more warm fellowship. At one point, there was a chickadee hopping around the railing of the deck as we sat and admired him (or her?). Next we were visited by various sparrows. Nearby in the the neighbour's tree, a cardinal sang with a clear beautiful voice. We then decided to rouse ourselves from this beautiful location and go out for breakfast where we enjoyed more laughter and conversation.  The kernel of the idea of celebrating our birthdays by visiting the Stratford Festival, grew and popped into a full fluffy popcorn filled with love, appreciation and so much more than "just" going to a play or two.

My friend and I drove home feeling weary but I was filled with an inner joy and was sad to see the adventure end.  However, now I will be looking forward to the next adventure on the road of life.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

"Companions on the Road"

My church has a theme this month called "Companions on the Road".  For me this has so many meanings!  Of course, there is the physical companions of family, friends and pets who always are there during our times of darkness and brightness, grieving and celebration.  As I thought about this, I realized that my memories and the essences of my deceased family members and childhood friends who I've lost contact with are always companions with me as I travel this journey through life.  Whenever I bake a pie, I truly feel my grandmother's presence as I mix the dough and work it.  I used to watch her when I was a child and she would get working the dough with her hands in her metal enamel-lined bowl.  Her essence travels beside me as I'm an adult and she is physically long gone from this world.  But as I work the pastry dough, she's there beside me, travelling with me.

I don't know if it is turning 50 this year, but I am missing my dad more than ever.  He died of lung cancer when I was 26.  I find his memory is at the fore of my thoughts as I go through each day.  Of course this happens every year on Father's Day but this year, my dad's essence has been with me constantly since just before the anniversary date of his death.  He's walking beside me and I am not alone.  Perhaps this is also God's way of reminding me that I am never alone.

I know that it is much easier to "feel" God's presence when I've had the rough times in life. But when life is going along with no particular bumps in the road, I find it more difficult to keep God close.  That's when I tend to take God for granted.  Just like we do our friends and acquaintances.  As I ponder why I'm being inundated with memories of friends from long ago, I realize that it may be because of the two anniversaries that I went to in April.  One for my Senior Public School and one for my church.  Again, I have "companions on the road" in the form of memories of a former ministers and even student ministers who obviously impacted me as I remember them many, many years later and wonder where they are now or are they even still alive.  Again, various companions that walked physically with me over the years and who may not even know how their lives intersecting with mine made such an impact.  Likewise, I've been remembering friends from my childhood.  I have reconnected with a high school friend in January and we keep in touch sporadically via email.  I also reconnected with another childhood friend from church in April.  I need to call her!  Just this week, I found another childhood friend who I haven't seen in 20 years!  We will be starting to reconnect through email.  These are all friends and people that I have fondly thought of over the years and wondered how we grew apart and lost touch.  Companions.  The warmth of friends, family and people we have known over the years is such a gift.

As we travel through life, we collect "things" and we work hard to afford "things".  In the process, we get caught up in working that we forget the importance and warmth of the intangible "things".  A life altering experience, such as illness or the death of a loved one, can make you change the priorities.  I find that now my focus is on maintaining relationships and enjoying each minute of my journey on this earth.  My challenge is to spend time with all my friends and family either in person or via the internet and spend time enjoying this beautiful planet that we live on.  Companions on the road.  I certainly enjoy this phrase literally with my husband and our friends that have motorcycles.  It is exciting to ride on the back and smell the fresh rain, the fishy smell as we pass by a lake, the smell of fresh cut hay in the country or the smell of somebody barbecuing their dinner as we ride by.

I think that God has provided us with memories and opportunities to meet people so that we have constant companions on our road through life.  Sometimes these companions are there for just a short time such as the lady that I met on our street when we first moved into our neighbourhood 13 years ago.  She invited my children and me to go for walks with her and her children.  She showed me around the neighbourhood.  She showed me where the library was.  She showed me the shortcuts to take to get to the mall.  She showed me the various parks and playgrounds for the children.  Then she  moved away.  She was my companion on my road which led to a new place where I'd never been.  I truly felt like God provided an opportunity for me.  I could choose to take it or ignore it.  In accepting an invitation to go for walks, I had a companion who assisted me on my own road of transition.

Do you have any "companions on the road" from your past who helped you then and maybe inadvertently help you now?