Seeking a Diagnosis ©2016


I wiped the fog from my glasses, and read the sign on the double glass door. “Sleep Clinic patients please wait by the door and the technician will be down to get you”.

Maybe I was a little early for my 9 p.m. appointment. I raised my wrist to check my watch, but it wasn’t there. The instructions had said “leave all jewelry except wedding bands at home.”

With my overnight bag in hand, I waited. The building cleaner came through to vacuum the doormat and we made small talk about how difficult it is to keep the mats clean in winter. Another few minutes passed. Finally a young woman in burgundy-coloured scrubs pushed open the door.

“Judith?” she asked, referring to a folder in her hands.

“That would be me.”

“Hi, I’m Amanda. Follow me and I’ll take you to the clinic. Do you prefer stairs or the elevator?”

I followed her up the stairs and down the hall.

“This will be your room,” she said, indicating a room on the left. “You can change into whatever you’re going to wear to bed and then come back out to the waiting room.”

I was there in that five-by-eight-foot examining room because my doctor and I were trying to discover the cause of my too-frequent pain and fatigue in various parts of my body. A sleep disorder that would deprive me of adequate sleep, was one possibility. A bed had been prepared, and a camera peered down at me from one corner of the ceiling. I quickly changed into my yellow Bourbon Street t-shirt and yellow cotton pajama bottoms, telling myself that the camera would not yet be turned on.

Through the open door of a room adjoining the waiting area, I saw a man being connected to a number of wires. When he emerged, he had wires protruding from his head, his face, his shirt, and others dangling from a box that hung from a lanyard around his neck.

“I feel like the robot guy,” he said, with as much of a grin as he could muster under the circumstances.

“Judith, you’re next,” Amanda said.

“I’m going to measure your head and fasten some electrodes to a number of spots so we can read your brain waves while you sleep,” said Amanda. “While I do that, Carolyn is going to attach some more to your legs and to your chest.”

The room smelled of oranges, probably the remnants of someone’s snack, and rubbing alcohol.

They had just begun positioning straps, and swabbing areas for the electrodes, when an alarm sounded somewhere and Amanda went to investigate. She came back with the news that there would be a power outage while a problem with an electrical panel was being rectified. The lights weren’t affected, but the room monitors were.

Does that mean I get to go home?

The now-familiar pain was beginning to creep into my neck and shoulders. The desire to sink into the comfort of my own bed to drift off to sleep was compelling, but no such luck. Amanda and Carolyn continued with their work, applying cool gels and other goop onto my skin and into my hair.

Good thing my hair is short!

Before long my wiring was complete, and the power was back on. Eighteen wires were plugged into the metal box that dangled from a black and red cord around my neck. A nose-piece was attached below my nose by a strap that looped over my ears and joined at the back of my head. This was to check my breathing, Carolyn informed me. A band holding a couple of other wires was around my chest and another encircled my waist.

Now I have to confess that when it comes to sleeping I’m like “The Princess and the Pea.” I can’t get to sleep if my nightclothes or sheets are bunched up or twisted, and I don’t like anything but the covers touching me while I sleep.

“Am I really supposed to sleep with all of this stuff hanging from me?” I sheepishly asked Carolyn.

“Sure,” she replied. “I’ve done it. You don’t need to worry about them. They won’t come off, and if they do I’ll go in and put them back”

That wasn’t quite what I was worrying about, but I tried to be positive.

At last I was in my bed and all plugged in. The system check was done. An infrared light was clipped and taped to the second finger on my left hand. The mattress and pillow both felt hard to my sparsely-padded body and they crackled every time I moved.

“If you need me for anything just wave that light three times and I’ll come in,” said Carolyn. “You can go to sleep now.”

Yeah, right.

In the dark and silent room I had no problem closing my eyes, but the rest of my body would simply not cooperate. I switched from my back to my right side, to my left side and back again, ever conscious of the extra, fine appendages now sharing my body. I pulled the covers up high; I threw them all off. My bent legs ached. I stretched them straight out. My nose itched. I scratched it. Something felt tight across the tops of my ears when I lay on either side. How long did that go on? It seemed like hours, but I could only guess. There was no clock in the room.

Suddenly I heard a voice and felt someone touching my hair.

“It’s only me,” Carolyn said. “You’re sweating.” She adjusted the connections on the back of my head and left.

I gave a grunt and squeezed my eyes closed again.

I didn’t know I was sweating. I guess I must have finally fallen asleep. Can I go back there?

It wasn’t to be. The tossing and turning began once again. There were times when I felt my mind drift into nothingness and I was sure I was on the brink of sleep, only to have a leg give a jerk, or another itch require attention, and I was back to the reality of my torturous sleep deprivation.

When Carolyn next came into my room to adjust my heart monitors, I was still awake.

“You’re having a hard time sleeping, aren’t you? You’ve been awake for a long time”

“That I am.”

“Well there’re still two hours to go, but if you haven’t gotten to sleep in another hour, just wave your hand and I’ll get you up and you can go home.” She didn’t tell me how I’d know that another hour had passed. A few tears trickled from the corners of my eyes and I quickly wiped them away before they flowed under the electrodes.

Finally my body and mind relaxed, and I drifted into dreamland.

“Judith, it’s time to get up.” That now familiar voice penetrated my consciousness, and my whole being protested. No, no, I just got to sleep. Let me sleep some more!

Slowly, I pulled myself up and swung my legs over the side of the bed so Carolyn could peel the tape from my face, my legs and my chest. My skin smarted with each tug.

“So what happens now? Since I didn’t sleep much, will any of this have done any good?” I asked.

“We’ll have to see what the doctor says when he reads your results. You did sleep for the last bit so that may be enough. If not, you’ll be back.”

Oh, joy.

“Once you’re dressed, come out to the desk. We have a questionnaire for you to fill out, and then you can go home.”

I picked up the clipboard and squinted through my bloodshot eyes at the questionnaire.

How long did it take you to get to sleep?

  1. How long did you sleep?
  2. How many times did you wake up?
  3. Did you feel rested when you woke up?

Are they serious?

The sun was just beginning to lighten the day when I stumbled out to my car and turned the key. I looked at the clock, 6:00 a.m. As I pulled out of the parking lot the opening words to a Four Seasons song popped into my head. Oh, what a night!

A few weeks later, I was back. This time my husband dropped me off because I was required to stay later into the next day.

“There didn’t seem to be an indication of a night time sleep disorder, but I’d like to give it another try to see if you can sleep longer,” the specialist had said. “I think you should stay for a day time test as well.”

So I appeared at the appointed time and watched while I was once again prodded and poked, and taped and wired. I brought my own pillow with me this time, and some snacks to ensure that I wouldn’t get hungry before the lights went out. Perhaps that helped stave off the pain.

As before, the wires and clips prevented me from getting much sleep. Early the next morning Carolyn was at my side.

“I’m going to take some of these wires off now.  Then you can walk around; go down the hall to the washrooms. Did you bring something to eat?”

Bleary-eyed, I walked down the hall. The scent of toast and coffee drifted out from somewhere and my stomach grumbled. Back in the waiting area, I munched on a bagel and cream cheese that I’d packed into a cooler bag the night before, and wished I could find a toaster to warm it. While I sipped my water (coffee wasn’t an option in the Sleep Clinic) and tried to read my book, the room came alive with the sounds of chatter and doors opening and closing as the night shift left and the day shift arrived.

Soon a new female voice was calling my name.

“It’s time for you to get back into bed, Judy. I need to hook you up to the sleep monitor, and then I’m going to turn out the lights. If you go to sleep within fifteen minutes, I will let you sleep for fifteen minutes. If you don’t I’ll get you up again.”

Well, I was definitely tired, the room was dark and silent, and all that remained of my clusters of wires were a few on my head and the one clipped to my finger. What else would I do? I went to sleep. Fifteen minutes later I was awakened.

“You can walk around, or read for fifteen minutes now,” the technician said. The routine for the next couple of hours was set. Each time I got a little more sleep, until I was finally told that I could go home.

I called my husband. “I’m ready to leave, but I’m going to start walking. I need some air and exercise. Watch for me along the way.”

The sun was warm on my face as I breathed in the fresh morning air.  I ran my hand through my hair and my fingers dislodged a clump of clay, and then another. When my ride appeared, I climbed into the car and flipped down the vanity mirror.

“Good grief, what a sight I must have been to those who’d passed me on the street, a weary looking woman with spikes of gray and charcoal hair stuck together with glue, and a pillow under her arm!” My husband chuckled.

I wish I could tell you that it was all worthwhile; that a cause and cure for my pain had been found. But that wasn’t the case. I was diagnosed with “possible daytime drowsiness” which meant I shouldn’t do any long distance driving, and a slightly irregular heart rate. I was given a prescription for Ritalin to control the daytime drowsiness, despite my telling him that I didn’t understand the necessity. After only three doses my heart rate went into overdrive and I refused to take any more.

My family doctor, following due diligence, then sent me to a heart specialist who, after stress tests, Doppler tests and monitors could find only a very slight, and quite common, heart irregularity. My cholesterols were exactly where they should be. Still he felt he should give me a prescription for something, which he admitted I didn’t really need.

“Will it relieve my pain?” I asked.

“No, but it might prevent you from having a heart attack or stroke in twenty years.”

Sometimes there just isn’t a magic cure. Sometimes you have to listen to your body and do what you can. I’ve figured out some triggers for my pain and have learned to avoid them. Some days I just have to give into it and take the day off, knowing that it will pass and tomorrow will be better.

Book cover2This story is one of 81 chosen through competition to be included in this Anthology of Women’s Memoirs, which was published on January 8, 2016 and was the recipient of an Honorable Mention Award from the New England Book Festival. You will find it in Reflection Pond. The books can be ordered (e-books only) on Amazon.com and Amazon.ca

Through Thick and Thin ©2012 A History of the Audrey and Ernie Victor Family


In 2012 I published my second book.

Through Thick and Thin

“We don’t make much money, but we have a lot of fun.”

This was the philosophy of Ernie Victor, a well-known and loved entertainer in the area of Peterborough, Ontario, from the early 1930s until his passing in 1978.

There are many interesting stories told of people who have become famous for their amazing life accomplishments. There are many more wonderful, untold stories of people whose accomplishments seldom make headlines, but are nonetheless just as interesting and worthy of telling.

This is the story of an ordinary family born from the love of two young and perhaps naïve people who struggled through some hard times times, their love of music and a good laugh binding them together through it all.

This book was published through Lulu Publishing.
It can be ordered at Lulu.com or by contacting the author.

From Landed Immigrant to Proud Canadian ©2008


(published in The Country Connections Magazine, July 2008)

Canada is blessed with many seniors who immigrated to Canada forty or more years ago to become an integral part of our society, and they have wonderful stories to tell. This is the story of Elsa’s journey.

elsa-deruyter

When they married in 1950 in their homeland of Holland, Elsa and Gerrit Deruyter lived in a small house without indoor plumbing, on a dairy farm, where Gerrit worked as a farm-hand. The accommodations were free as was all the milk they needed. They owned a few cows and chickens. Even though farmland was scarce and expensive at the time, it was Gerrit’s hope to have his own small farm one day. He’d been told he would inherit his elderly aunt’s farm, but a change in plans dashed that dream. Disappointed, Gerrit thought he’d have a better chance in Canada, and he suggested to Elsa that they make the move.

“I said no. It wasn’t a good time to leave his mother, who was so distraught over the recent death of Gerrit’s younger brother,” Elsa explained.

They remained in Holland for another ten years, moving twice to different farms as Gerrit changed jobs, and they were blessed with three children.

When, in December 1959, Gerrit suggested once more that he’d like to go to Canada, Elsa agreed. It took nearly four months to get their passports and make all the necessary arrangements.

Their decision was made a lot easier by the fact that the Dutch government, fearful of overpopulation and unemployment, and the limited amount of arable land after the Second World War, had put policies into place to assist those wishing to emigrate.  They were still in effect when Elsa and Gerrit were ready to leave Holland. All transportation costs for the family and for their belongings were paid by the government, and there was no limit on how much they could take with them. Gerrit was even entitled to two weeks of holiday pay from the Municipal Office.

On April 27, 1960 they embarked on their journey with their young children, aged three, five and seven, leaving a large extended family behind. The thirteen hour flight from Amsterdam to Montreal wasn’t a pleasant one for Elsa. Both she and her older son, Herbert, suffered from air sickness. After a nine-hour wait in Montreal they boarded a train to Bowmanville, Ontario where Elsa’s step-aunt was expecting them. It was on the train that they encountered their first challenge.

“We didn’t know how to flush the toilet,” laughed Elsa. “There was no chain like the ones in Holland.  But it wasn’t long before three year old John figured it out!”

waving-goodbye

Elsa and family heading to plane in Amsterdam

Their furniture that had been sent by ship arrived in Bowmanville six weeks after they did, and they moved into their own one-bedroom apartment.

I asked Elsa what her first reaction was upon arriving in Canada. “I looked out the train window and exclaimed at the high clotheslines! In Holland clotheslines are only one strand and hang low to the ground.”

When they arrived, Gerrit could speak a little English, and Herbert could count to ten, but Elsa and the other two children knew none of the language. The children learned very quickly.

“My daughter Reina came home from school three times because she couldn’t understand. I told her she had to go back.  After that she learned and had no more problems.”

When shopping, Elsa couldn’t read the labels and had to look to see what was in the packages. It was two years before she became comfortable enough with the language to go to work doing housecleaning and babysitting.

It took Gerrit only two days to find work. Because they had no means of transportation, Elsa didn’t want to live on a farm again, so he searched for other jobs. He was hired at a Nursery in Bowmanville, and began working the next morning for $1.00 an hour. Although this hourly wage was less than what he made in Holland, they were amazed by how far a week’s pay would go. Gerrit was also surprised at being sent home from work if it was raining, since it rained most of the time in Holland.

After about two years in the Nursery, Gerrit tried a job in a factory in Newcastle, catching a ride to work with a friend, but some days he’d get to the plant only to discover that there was no work for him. He’d walk back home to Bowmanville, a distance of eight kilometres. He soon got hired at The Fittings in Oshawa, and could travel by bus.  It wasn’t until 1965, when they finally had saved up enough money to put towards a farm, that they bought a car, and they both learned how to drive.

In Holland a family could earn a living on a fifty-acre farm, so when they bought their fifty-acre farm on the 6th Line of Millbrook, Gerrit expected to be leaving his factory job and working the farm full-time within five years. They worked hard. Each day began at four in the morning. Gerrit milked the cows before leaving for work at the plant.  Elsa got the children off to school, and then did the rest of the chores. Gerrit cleaned the barn when he got home at night. Ten years later Gerrit was still at the plant, and they switched to beef cattle to lighten the work load. He worked in the plant for twenty years, until retirement.

Despite the hard work and a few disappointments, neither Elsa nor Gerrit ever regretted coming to Canada. By 1969 they knew they were here to stay and applied for Canadian Citizenship.

They made their first trip back to Holland in 1975 for a five-week visit.

“It was too long,” said Elsa. “I couldn’t stand the cramped space. Everything seemed so small.”

In 1987, having lived their dream, they sold the farm, and became involved in the community of Millbrook. Gerrit passed away in 2000. Elsa enjoys life at Millbrook Manor Seniors Residence, and is proud to be a Canadian.

Uncovering a Wartime Love Story ©2007


(published in The Country Connection Magazine, No. 55 Winter/Spring 2008)

In the early morning hours of July 15th, 2004 Jim Victor was awakened by the sound of running water. His first thought was that his upstairs tenant had been using the washing machine and a hose had somehow become detached. Finding no sign of water filtering through his ceiling, he ventured downstairs in search of the source. He was devastated when his feet sank into the soggy carpet, and he saw water pouring in around the windows. The duplex we now share on Watts Avenue was one of many homes that were flooded that day after 14 billion litres of water dumped on Peterborough, Ontario in under five hours. It took months of frustrating work to clean up the mess. Jim’s basement, including his workshop, had to be completely gutted. While removing the wooden shelves that had held various tools and supplies, he discovered a shipping label attached to the under side of one of the shelf boards. It read: To Dora Emmenegger, c/o Doug Metherel, R.R. #6, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. Curious about how it got there and the people involved, we began to investigate. We had no idea that it would lead us to a wartime love story. With the help of an article in The Peterborough Examiner, we tracked down Dora, and she unfurled the mystery.

On August 1st, 1948, while with a friend at the Switzerland National Day Dance in her home town of Aarau, Dora, met Herman Ksander, a young engineering exchange student from Vienna Austria. They shared a few dances, but when Herman offered to take her home she declined.

“I didn’t think it was proper to leave with someone other than the person who’d taken me there,” said Dora.

Herman, however, was smitten. His housemate had also been at the dance, and the next day Herman queried him about Dora. As it happened, this fellow was one of Dora’s friends. At Herman’s request, he arranged a date for them. The next two weeks sped by with Dora and Herman seeing each other often, until Herman’s exchange program ended and he had to return to Austria. They agreed to keep in touch by mail. Through their frequent letter exchanges they got to know each other and their friendship grew into a long distance courtship until, nine months after he’d left, Herman returned to Aarau, Switzerland where he had a job and Dora waiting for him. The couple planned to marry as soon as Herman was able to obtain a permanent visa to remain in Switzerland, but the politics and uncertainties following the end of World War II made it difficult. Finally, after four years of dating, they decided that they’d rather take their chances across the ocean in Canada than run the risk of being forced back to Austria, and possibly even behind the Iron Curtain. So in the spring of 1952 Dora said goodbye to Herman once more when, at Paris France, he boarded a ship for Montreal in search of employment and accommodations for the two of them.

Another letter-writing year passed before Herman had himself established in an engineering job in Peterborough, Ontario and could arrange for Dora to join him.  Dora packed her wedding trousseau in several wooden packing crates addressed to herself, care of Doug Metherel, in whose house Herman had found room and board. Dora’s mother and sister accompanied her by train to Le Havre France from where she and her boxes set sail for Quebec on April 29, 1953.  On May 5th Dora was surprised to receive, at her cabin on board the S.S. Atlantic, another love letter from Herman. Included was an invitation to her own wedding.

“In order to enter Canada as a landed immigrant, I had to prove that I was getting married, and I had to be married within a few weeks of my arrival,” explained Dora, “so Herman had made all of the wedding arrangements, with the help of the Metherels.”

After work on May 6th Herman climbed into his ’49 Chevrolet with a rose in his hand, headed to Quebec City to reunite with his bride. The Metherels witnessed their marriage just a few weeks later.

Dora and Herman Ksander spent their first few years in a small apartment in downtown Peterborough, until their daughter was born and it was time for a house. Herman put his engineering skills to work to design and build the duplex on Watts Avenue. Dora said Herman was a recycler long before it became environmentally correct, so when he was building shelves for his basement workshop, he used the boards from Dora’s trousseau crates. Several owners have occupied the duplex since Dora and Herman moved into a larger home in 1958, but the shelves remained in the workshop, the label undiscovered, until Jim removed them.

Dora was intrigued to have a look at the house again. We were just as intrigued to see pictures of what it had once looked like, and to hear this wonderful love story. Dora also shared with us pictures that Herman had taken as her ship arrived in Quebec harbour, and as she walked down the gangplank. She still has her original immigration papers, and a list of contents for the shipping crates. She confessed that Jim’s discovery had made her a little melancholy while she once more looked through the fifty-three love letters she still has tucked away with her wedding dress and many pictures.

Herman passed away several years ago in a glider accident, but Dora cherishes her mementos of their life together and she was thrilled to have another one. To create a more compact keepsake for her, Jim cut the plank in half and attached the pieces side by side, then put them into a wooden frame. Next to the shipping labels he mounted copies of the photos of her arrival, and a copy of her immigration papers.

dora-and-jim

Dora and Jim with the Board

When I asked her what it was like to leave her family and travel alone across the ocean to an unknown land, she simply smiled and replied, “I was in love. I didn’t think too much about it.”

Never too Old to Learn


(published in Cycle Canada, November/December, 2006)

mybike

My first experience on a motorcycle was at age 46. I had never before had the opportunity, and indeed would never have even considered the possibility a few years earlier.  But my life had been turned upside down by divorce and I was picking up the pieces, learning to experience life with more enthusiasm.  When my new partner, Leo, asked if I’d like to go for a ride on his bike, I jumped at the chance.  To my surprise, I loved it!

Four years later I was standing next to a much smaller bike, on a military base parking lot with twenty other people, all there to complete the course that would give us a licence to ride.  Ages and genders varied.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the majority were closer to my age, rather than much younger.  My presence was partly because my partner’s health was failing and I wanted to learn how to handle the bike in an emergency; but it was the encouragement from my daughter, Ann, that had brought the musings to reality.

“Don’t you remember the day I got a ride home from school on the back of a motorcycle?  You forbid me to ride on a motorbike again as long I lived under your roof,” she reminded me, when she heard that I now enjoyed riding myself.

“I said that?” It’s amazing how memory fails with age!

For my 50th birthday present she gave me the chance to take the Beginner Motorcycle Course.  How could I refuse? How difficult could it be?  Having ridden a bicycle since I was a child I knew how to balance on two wheels, and I had acquired the skill of shifting gears when I learned to drive a standard car.

So there I was, a middle-aged woman with grown children, standing on the threshold of another new adventure.   After three hours of in-class instruction the night before, we had been issued the 150 cc bikes that would be ours for the rest of the weekend.

The first step was to take it off the kickstand.  I straddled my petite 5’6” frame over the saddle, put my weight on my right foot, and pushed my left foot against the stand.  Before I could bat an eye the bike was on its side, and I was scurrying to get out of its way!  I wasn’t off to a very good start.  With the help of a fellow classmate, I quickly got the bike back up on its wheels, ready for the next assignment.  We spent most of the morning riding across the parking lot, powered only by the pushing efforts of our assigned partners.  Before we could hear the engines humming we had to learn how to balance, steer, and brake.  The autumn sun was warm, making me sweat in my black leather jacket and gauntlets, and a full-face helmet. My mouth was dry.  Was it caused by the heat, or by fear?

By the lunch break I was confident enough to move on to the next stage, or so I thought.

When we climbed back onto the bikes, we were told to follow the instructor across the street to a larger lot. Once there, we would be playing a game of follow the leader, turning along the laid out paths.  I started my bike up, pulled in the clutch, kicked it into first gear, and gave the throttle a turn.  The bike leaped forward, then stopped.  I tried again. That time I kept it going.  I followed the crowd across the street and around the perimeter of the lot.  The bike sped up, then slowed down, up and down.  I was not feeling as comfortable with this as I had expected.

After further instructions we started off again, but this time we had to follow smaller circles and figure eights.  I was still having difficulty controlling the throttle and now it was making me really nervous.  As we headed into the first circle I gripped the handles, pushing on the left and pulling on the right like we’d been instructed. Suddenly I found myself shooting far across the lot, my instructor calling to me to come back! When I finally relaxed my grip, I succeeded in slowing down and turned back to join the circle once more, but I was soon off in another direction.  Now it was getting really embarrassing. I struggled all afternoon.  Finally five o’clock came and we were dismissed for the day.  My instructors told me that if I arrived 15 or 20 minutes early the next morning, one of them would work with me. At that point I didn’t think I would ever return.   When I got home, exhausted, I just wanted to go to bed.  I told Leo that I didn’t want to go back, but he reminded me that, because it had been a gift, I should at least complete the course.  I knew he was right, but how could I face another day of humiliation?

The next morning I dragged myself out of bed to arrive a little earlier than the others.  My instructor gave me tips on how to better control my bike, and then led me around the track and through the figure eights.  Maybe the good night’s sleep had renewed my confidence, I don’t know, but we were both relieved that, by the time the rest of the class arrived, I was managing the bike on my own within the paths set out. We spent the rest of the morning practicing the maneuvers, learning how to make quick turns to avoid sudden challenges (the challenge being an instructor standing directly in our path and giving us a signal as to which way to turn at the very last minute!), and how to stop quickly.  By the time we were put through the test in the afternoon, I was able to keep up.  At the end of the day, when the test results were given out, I held my breath. My worries were unfounded.  I wasn’t at the top of the class, but I had finished with a pass, and that was all I needed for now.  Whether or not I would ride a bike again was something I wasn’t going to think about until spring.

Today I have a bike of my own, but I have to admit that you’ll find me more often riding on the back of my partner’s bike where I can relax and enjoy the scenery.

Memories of Sweet Times


(published in The Country Connections Magazine, No. 53, Winter/Spring, 2007)

sugar-bush-3

The weathered old wooden sugarshack is barely visible through the swirls of smoke and steam that drift from the iron smoke stack on the roof.  The sweet aroma of maple hangs in the air. My two girls, Sarah and Ann, run up the path that winds through the forest of maple trees, their black rubber boots splashing through the puddles.  Three-year-old Brendan is less in a hurry to reach the shack.  His attention is drawn to the sap buckets hanging on the trees.  He’s already learned how to lift a half-full bucket from its hook below the spoil, and tip it up to his lips to drink the sweet nectar. But the bucket he’s chosen has only a cup of sap in the bottom.  He tips it up so high that his head disappears inside and only his little round body, dressed in a red nylon splash suit and rubber boots, remains visible.  He reminds me of Winnie the Pooh with his head stuck in the honey pot.

We reach the door of the sugar shack and push it open.  It takes a moment to adjust to the near darkness. Sunlight dances in streams through the spaces between the blackened wall boards. Uncle Ray is leaning over the flat metal pans that are suspended on an iron frame above the firebox.  He has one foot propped up on the stonewall, next to an old sludge bucket. With a flat metal scoop on a long wooden handle, he reaches over the dark liquid in the pan and skims off the foam that is forming on the top.  He adds that to the bucket by his foot.

There’s a rough wooden bench along one wall where guests can sit. Behind it, large pieces of box-board have been mounted.  We each search for a cooled piece of coal near the fire and add our names and the date to this “guest book” that has been there for decades.  New pieces are added as space becomes scarce.

Uncle Ray moves to the front of the box and slides up the battered piece of tin to reveal a pile of red coals. He carries over an armload of split wood and adds them to the fire.  The wood crackles and the flames jump.  The sap in the pan above begins to bubble.  He replaces the tin cover to contain the fire, and then returns his attention to the pans.

There are two large pans, each about four feet long and three feet wide. The fire is built directly under the front pan.  As the sap in that pan boils and evaporates, cooler sap from the back pan is scooped up in a ladle, and transferred to the front pan. The ladle is devised from another sap bucket with a wooden handle. Grey metal milk cans are lined up along the wall. They contain more sap that will be added to the back pan as its contents diminish.

More buckets sit on a table on the opposite wall.  White cotton cloths are draped inside them and secured with wooden clothespins.  When the big tin thermometer tells Ray that the sap has reached the temperature to become syrup, he takes a sample on a soup spoon and lets it cool for a bit. Then he turns the spoon to let the liquid slide around.  If it leaves a nice film on the spoon, he tastes it.  Once he’s given it his approval, he pours the syrup into the lined buckets. The cloths strain out any sediments to make the syrup clear and smooth.

“I’ve brought Johnny Cake, Uncle Ray,” I say and he grins.  “I’ve got fresh maple syrup to pour over it,” he replies with a chuckle.

sugar-bush-4

He reminds me of Winnie-the-Pooh with his head stuck in the honey pot.

By now there are several aunts, uncles and cousins crowding around, all on a Sunday afternoon outing to the sugar bush.  I cut the cornmeal cake and serve it on plates.  Ray adds a ladle of warm syrup to each.

When we’ve all eaten, it’s time to load up the wagon with empty milk cans, gathering pails and the one big gathering tank.  Ray stays and tends the fire while the rest of us head out to harvest the day’s sap. Many of us manage to squeeze into the wagon, slumped between milk cans and pails.

“Don’t sit on the milk cans. We’ll never get the lids off,” Ray calls out to us.

We all hold on tight as the battered red farm tractor pulls us over the bumpy track towards the lower bush. When it stops, we clamber out with our pails and make our way through the maze of buckets that are now overflowing with the clear liquid. I place my pail along side a bucket, holding the tin lid up with one finger, and tip the bucket until its contents pour into my pail. If the sap has run well, I’ll only be able to empty two or three buckets before carrying my pail back to the wagon to be emptied into the gathering tank.

Soon the ping, ping of sap dripping into the now empty buckets can be heard behind us. It takes nearly an hour to gather all the sap from the 300 buckets that have been hung.

Back at the sugar shack the liquid treasure is unloaded. Ray has filled cans and bottles with the thick sweet liquid, ready for distribution. It was a good run so someone will have to tend the fire all night to keep the sap boiling.  Between Ray and his nephews, it will be done out of love for the tradition.

It’s the 1970’s and most area maple syrup producers, as a labour saving measure, have installed plastic pipelines to carry the sap directly to the large, modern sugar-houses.  But they’ve become commercial enterprises.   Ours is a family affair.  We make enough syrup to provide the extended family with all we need. Any excess is sold to long-standing customers who prefer the taste of maple syrup made the old fashioned way.

Celebrating Twenty-five Years at Millbrook Manor©2008


This was my first book, published in 2008

In the spring of 2008, Millbrook Manor will be twenty-five years old.  During those years it has been home to many area seniors.

During the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know the first resident of Millbrook Manor, and her stories inspired me to embark on a project to celebrate the twenty-five years that she has shared with the other residents of The Manor.

In this book, I’ve included profiles of many of the current residents and staff, as well as pictures of both the past and the present. My hope is that this will serve as a keepsake for residents and their families, and contribute to the history of Millbrook.

This book was published through Lulu Publishing.