Monthly Archives: November 2010

Only Child prepares for Christmas

Christmas tree looking for an angel

Looks like December is shaping up to be a busy month socially – and that’s from a hate-winter freak who wants to hunker down inside (except for forays outside to shovel snow – yeck, get groceries – although I’m stocking up, and go for walks).  There are four Christmas parties/gatherings, a birthday dinner (mine, tomorrow), coffee with an old school friend, and of course, Christmas Day. I’ve been preparing for all this bit by bit – perhaps taking the longest to get the Christmas decorations up – still have a few more to get outside. Weather and time-restraints are the culprits here. Heck, yesterday, an unusually warm day, I roared around finishing up the garden and yard clearing. And complaining loudly about it – not the doing but the timing. As I wound down to the finish, I smartened up. This was probably my last chance to do any garden/yard stuff until next spring and here I was outside on a beautiful day complaining.

So I started to think about Christmas activities and Christmases past and to come. I don’t recall it being a big race at Christmas when I grew up. It  was more pleasant overall and my parents and I didn’t just sit at home for the Christmas season. Sometimes we went for Christmas dinner at an aunt’s and uncle’s on Dad’s side. Sometimes my mother’s youngest sister, my godmother, and some of her kids came down between Christmas and New Year’s for a short visit and dinner. And my mother was adventurous in her Christmas cooking – goose or duck,  instead of turkey. Then there was the alternate visits with the Armstrongs – the neighbours across the street – our family and theirs took turns annually for an evening of talking, watching Christmas movies on TV and stuffing ourselves with “delicate” sandwiches with the crusts removed. And of course, there was the tree and Christmas Mass. Mom wouldn’t let me open the presents until we returned from church but she did let me raid the stocking. Among other things, “Santa” always brought an orange.

But I think it was Mom, Dad and I doing things together, like wrapping the presents and decorating the tree that hit the core of what Christmas meant to me as a child. As I write in my memoir, You Can Go Home: Deconstructing the Demons:

When Dad drags the Christmas tree into the house, I inhale the pine fragrance. It fills me with anticipation made longer and harder to hold inside as Dad attempts to fit the tree trunk into the stand.

“Get in there,” he mutters in between loud grunts and even louder bangs with the hammer. “Julia, can you hold onto the end for me?” This to my mother.

I can’t watch the agony, so after Mom and I haul up the boxes of lights and ornaments from the basement, I sit in the kitchen and listen to the wall clock tick away time. “Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells,” but it is only the green radio. I poke my head inside the living room.

“Is it ready yet?”

“Patience,” Mom says, handing Dad a screwdriver.

“It’s coming along.” He twists the red tree stand. “Okay, Julia, let’s push it up.”

And my parents heave the tree up to its majestic six feet, spreading dark green bristles in the corner by the archway and just brushing the mantle. Finally. I crouch down and dig into the box of ornaments.

“Wait a minute,” Mom says. “The lights come first.” And she and Dad twine the lights throughout the tree and I hold my breath one-two-three until I think I’ll pop, as Dad plugs in the lights and . . .

Nothing. One light has burned out and the only way to find the culprit is to remove each light, one at a time, and try a light that you hope might work. It is worse than waiting for Santa Claus. But when the miracle occurs, when the lights shine red, blue, white, yellow and green, throughout the tree, Christmas leaps days closer. Mom and I tackle the ornaments. I’m like a dog given the “yes,” for a walk, prancing around, reaching my paws down and up, and placing big coloured balls, small bells, and white plastic icicles on the sharp branches. Mom and I wrap tinsel – thin wavy light and big gold, which almost hides the lights, but they sparkle through. Then, I suck in my breath and look way up while Mom stands on the stepladder and places the angel in the top spot.

(Excerpted from You Can Go Home: Deconstructing the Demons, Copyright 2010 Sharon Crawford).

I’m still looking for an angel for my tree this year. The angel from my childhood is long gone, long broken. Its replacement, a glass one, fell to its shattering finale at the end of last Christmas season. So my tree (all two feet of it) sits on an end table with a long top branch reaching up to the sky as if hoping an angel will fly down and land on it. It has bright red LED lights and miniature decorations and yes, it is a fake tree. But it’s the intention and what  it symbolizes that count.

What it doesn’t symbolize is rush-rush-rush-rush. I need to turn on my Hayley Westenra Christmas CD Winter Magic because that’s what it is all about – the magic of Christmas – yes, getting together with family and friends, but also savouring the in-between silence.

What says you? How do you spend the Christmas season?



Only Child Writes

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Only Child learns from teaching memoir writing

Sharon reading and teaching

Only Child teaching workshop

The past couple of weeks I was immersed in teaching memoir writing workshops at several Toronto public library branches. One workshop was a straightforward memoir writing gig; the other was called Blogging Your Memories and involved a PowerPoint presentation. Both have roots in my childhood, particularly with one thing about my mother – she showed me how to teach and that I could teach.

In my February 12, 2010  post, I talked about teaching my Mom to play the piano when I was 13. But that same year I had a grade 8 history class project and Mom was instrumental in  helping me make it a success.

As I write in my memoir, You Can Go Home – Deconstructing the Demons:

I decided my lesson would tell the story about how each province entered Confederation and I was going to make it more interesting than a history book. I wanted maps, drawings and background history of the history. As she usually did with my school projects, Mom dug in and accumulated some of the research materials, a habit she’d picked up when I needed information about other countries for school projects. In those Internetless days, Mom visited consulates in downtown Toronto as well as travel agencies. In grade six, she had ordered the whole collection of the World Book Encyclopedia, from a door-to-door salesman. But World Book was no scam – it had detailed coloured maps and detailed text. I used it as part of the background for my Confederation lesson.

After I put the whole lesson together, Mom and I do several dry runs.

I prop up my maps on the dining room table. Mom stands at the other end in the living room and I start my spiel. We also do the dry run in the kitchen, where I go through the whole lesson, using my illustrated props and pointing with her long dressmaking ruler. She doesn’t tell me to talk slower or speak up; she listens, nods and smiles. When I am finished, she doesn’t need to say anything. I know I’ve done a good job and pleased her.

(Excerpted from You Can Go Home – Deconstructing the Demons, Copyright 2010 Sharon Crawford)

Thanks to Mom’s patience and encouragement, the lesson went over very well in class. I think that’s where I got my love of teaching, although like my Mom I didn’t go into the teaching profession per se. I got into it via my writing and editing. I continue to learn lessons as I teach.

Each of my Memoir Writing Workshops had either a father and daughter duo or a mother and daughter duo.  Each daughter was helping her parent write his or her memoir and came to the workshop for some direction on how to do this. My approach here was to focus but also to remain open enough to be creative – a fine balancing act which I’ve had to learn in writing my memoir. The child/parent duos reminded me that without our parents there might be no family memoir and also showed me (and also reminded me) the beauty of parent and child working together on a project.

I also learned that there are many circumstances that evoke memoir – from the funny situation of two friends posing with a big wooden bird to a woman who lived through the Holocaust and had no family pictures except the ones inside her head. When we did the picture exercise, she had to go within  for hers and taught me that not all picture memories are in print or electronic. Many live on in our hearts and souls.

I also learned that there are different approaches to writing a memoir. One participant went in for the more creative way to write her memoir. Many wanted to write their whole life instead of focusing on one area but I hope I at least showed them how to focus on that, rather than change what they write about.

The Blogging Your Memories workshop was a whole other situation. First, I had to relearn Power Point and then how to do a presentation. I followed the old journalist’s rule – ask, ask, ask. Three experts, including my computer techie son, got bombarded with questions but I listened. And I put together my workshop and did a trial run at the library with the librarian’s help. At the actual workshop only one computer glitch occurred. Fast fingers here tried to go back too fast in slides and the program shut down. Fortunately Auto Save came to the rescue and I could proceed.  But my students taught me much with their rich range of topics to blog and all their questions kept me on my toes. One participant gave me a real workout with categories and tags for your blog posts.

Each workshop had around a dozen participants and the librarians were also pleased with the workshops. They want me to come back in the spring and do more.

I will oblige. Besides sharing my knowledge I will also learn more. All thanks to my Mom’s incentive and encouragement.


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Only child deals with foggy trust

The elusive streetcar

Trust – that should be a four-letter word and that can go either way – good or bad. With me it is rocky. I admit I have trust issues and with good reason stemming from my only child childhood. However, walking through fog late last Friday night may have taught me something about trust.

It was a dark and foggy night last Friday. I had spent the evening until after 11 p.m. in a pub at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto. My son and his country/bluegrass band, The Sure Things, were playing there, so after wandering through the fair during the afternoon, I stopped by the pub for dinner and to catch the show. So it was sunny when I arrived at the fair. When I left it was a different matter.

The matter was dense fog and trying to get through it to a streetcar stop on the grounds which turned into an exercise in trust. Everyone was helpful from my son’s girlfriend and another of her friends walking me partway towards an exit, to the security guard who gave me directions and showed me the way out of the building.

When I exited the building I found myself encased in a white misty blur with a few yellow lights popping up here and there. And it wasn’t my bad eyesight. So, I got turned around. If I could have seen the building I would have known to turn left to walk to the streetcar stop where I had come in. That way I could just follow the buildings but I could barely make out the buildings. So I struggled along towards the other streetcar stop where the security guard told me to go.

It was like walking blind. Parked cars and cabs kept materializing but I couldn’t afford a cab. I asked the few people I did see where the streetcar stop was. All were helpful. What they and I didn’t know was that the gate to its entrance was closed, locked. I did find it but ended up walking along the sidewalk outside the fenced-in area where you boarded the streetcar. I finally gave up on this walk and returned to a parking lot where an attendant was directing traffic.

I asked him the way to the streetcar stop and got the same answer as from everybody else.

“The gate is closed,” I replied. “How do I get to Strachen Avenue for the other stop?”

“Just take this road right here and it will take you right to Strachan.”

“This road” seemed to be part of the parking lot, but I kept walking on it, facing the  traffic – very little, including a police car. If my wits hadn’t been all fogged up from the weather, I would have flagged the police down and asked, “Am I on the right track?”

The buildings on my right appeared like generic blobs,  but I could see the walkway and the fence on the left where I had been before. At one point I just followed the streetcar tracks, not difficult when they came close to the road and I could actually see them.

Yes, I got out and fortunately saw two streetcars going the other way so knew they had to come back soon from the nearby loop. Then I looked at a sign posted on the streetcar stop – something about certain streetcar lines detoured between what looked like 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. but it could have been a.m. I had trouble reading it – not because of the fog or even the print size. The notice  was just hanging too high for someone barely scraping five feet in height to see.

The wait for the streetcar was longer than expected and the streetcar that arrived wasn’t the one I thought had been at the front of the two heading for the loop. Maybe the front runner had done a detour (although where?) No matter. The streetcar that showed up was the one I wanted and when I got on and sat down I breathed a sigh of relief.

So what got me through this? Yes, perseverance, but more so trust in myself. Trust, that despite feeling frightened, stranded and alone I could get out. I had the wits to do it myself. I knew enough to ask for help as I tried to get out, but I also discovered I had to trust that I could get myself out.

And I think that’s what I learned. As an only child now alone in the world (so to speak), the bottom line is to trust yourself. Who else can you really trust not to let you down at some point?

What do others think?



Only child writes

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Only child contemplates manure

Only child's autumn garden by the tool shed

This is not going to be something like the TV show **it My Dad Said. The manure refers to the big bag of it sitting on a shelf on my patio, waiting for me to put it in my garden. This job is one of many of the fall garden clean-up and finish-up ones I am doing and need to do before the real four-letter word (snow) falls from above and covers my garden. I’ve been doing these garden jobs a little at a time, in between too cold and/or rainy weather and my time working, tending to the house, and socializing with family and friends. I am enjoying collecting fennel seeds, digging up and/or pruning dead plants (depending whether annual or perennial), even raking all the leaves. But I can’t seem to get to that bag of manure.

When I was growing up, my parents used to order half a truckload of manure every fall. The truck would back up into our driveway and dump the manure. Then Dad would get busy shovelling it bit by bit into the wheelbarrow and spreading it on the grass. I don’t remember if he put some on the vegetable garden or not, but considering Mom’s attachment to this garden, my guess would be  “probably.”

So why can’t I do the same for my vegetable cum perennial cum herb garden?

Perhaps deep down I figure that by spreading this manure  in my garden I’m just adding to the crap already in my life. Do I really want more money problems? Computer problems? Health problems? Time problems? Etc. etc. I am connected deeply to my garden – you might say it is me and I am it, so does that connect the  garden manure to that in my life? There is also the perspective that I hate winter with a passion – the garden is dead and buried then and any gardening is inside with plants and planning for next year’s outdoor garden. I’ve already brought plants in from outside with surprising results. The carnation plant that refused to flower the last few months outside is doing so inside. The parsley continues to thrive – and it is in my face to remind me to actually use it. The  petunia and begonias in pots are still flowering indoors. And my rosemary hasn’t died…yet.

Perhaps this manure spreading is a reminder that not too many warm sunny autumn days will occur before winter sets in. If I spread the manure, that’s it; the snow can come.

Or maybe it is just the thoughts of moving that heavy bag of manure from the patio to the garden. I could just do as Dad did, use the wheelbarrow. Ah, but that means another difficulty – getting it out of the small tool shed (the wheelbarrow stands behind the push lawn mower) but worst of all, trying to shut and lock the shed door afterwards. The door is warped and it’s a struggle to get it closed tightly.

I’m waiting until the last minute of fall to open the shed because I have the patio furniture to move in. Once the chairs and end tables are inside the shed, that’s it. Winter can arrive. Oh well, I guess I can dream about next spring, look at gardening magazines and books and my garden photos. And tend to my indoor plants.




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Only child sees helping others come full circle

East End Writers' Group 10th anniversary readers. Teresa Petrie photo.

They (whoever “they” are) say that if you get off your rear end and help another person it will all come back to you. I saw that happen last Wednesday evening when my writers’ critique group, the East End Writers’ Group, celebrated its 10th anniversary. Group members came out of their personal writing zone to help me put it all together by brainstorming what the heck we were going to do, designing the PR flyer and distributing it, suggesting a pub to go to afterwards, bringing refreshments to the celebration, helping me set up at the venue, introducing me to read (after I introduced the other readers),  and driving me and all my stuff to and from the celebration (One member even showed up at my house without asking to take me, but I already had someone on her way). We caught up with her in the library-venue parking lot and the three of us marched in with all our stuff to find another person already there who had set up the chairs.

But the highlight for me was seeing and hearing some of the group reading their creations on the library auditorium stage. Some were new writers, recently published, some since they joined the group and benefited from the constructive criticism. Readings included a travel piece, an inward look at visiting India, a humorous but positive look at the neighbours, a novella excerpt, an essay on life expectations, an historical  novel excerpt, an op/ed piece on looking out for your children, and perhaps the most unique – an interview with a novelist’s main character about his situation. Some readings brought tears, some anger, and some laughter. Afterwards, eight of us walked or drove to a nearby pub and stuffed ourselves with food, drink, writing wisdom and stories. One writer even mentioned that the first story he wrote for his now published collection of short stories came from a freefall writing exercise at one of the monthly gatherings at my house. The incentive: a small straw witch which I had held up for everyone to write about for 10 minutes. It might be significant that this witch dangles front and centre in my Halloween decorations on my veranda railing.

The whole experience  has made me think that sometimes by doing something that you need you actually are helping others. I started this writers’ critique group because when I moved back to Toronto I couldn’t find one near me. Over the past 10 years I’ve learned as much as I’ve given – not just about writing, but about helping others. You don’t have to do something big like organize a walkathon or charity gala – just the little things can help. And choosing something your are interested in can motivate you.

I am also realizing that for me the helping could have started with my late Mom. One of her sisters had seven kids and her first husband died when the youngest was a baby. Until this aunt remarried, Mom regularly mailed them clothes that no longer fit me (and I suspect some new ones she bought). And this family of cousins and an aunt also received plenty of neighbourly help on their farm.

Does it all go back to family environment? Something you pick up as you go along in life? I think it’s a little of both. What do you think?



Only Child Writes

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