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The Most Chilling Thing I’ve Read All Year

montrealmassacreTwenty-five years ago. It was twenty-five years.

I was a young woman then too: I was twenty-four. Unlike the victims of the Montreal massacre, I was not studying to break into a male-dominated field; I was already working in a traditionally feminine career. The day after the horrible news of the murders broke, I sat at the cafeteria table at lunch as we shook our heads over the thought of something like this happening in Canada. My male co-workers expressed amazement and disgust, not at the shooter — that went without saying — but at the male students who left the room on the shooter’s orders, rather than trying to “take down” the man with the gun. To them, this was a problem to be solved by male heroism, rather than prevented by men recognizing women as equals.

And of course, OF COURSE, it’s #notallmen, it was #neverallmen. But men like my co-workers, who would never have dreamed of committing acts of violence against women, didn’t talk about the fact that this was about one man’s twisted resentment of feminism, of women in traditionally male space. And part of the reason they didn’t talk about it was that they didn’t really get it themselves, and they weren’t entirely comfortable saying the word “feminist” out loud.

Already in 1989 when the Montreal massacre happened, women’s place in the world had changed so much from our mothers’ time. Brave feminists in previous generations had won us the right to vote, the right to get an education everywhere and the right to work for equal pay in every profession. From there on in, young women like me thought, it would be smooth sailing to full equality.

The horror of December 6, 1989 shocked me, shocked a lot of young women like me, but I think we thought of it as an anomaly. I did, anyway. The disturbed, violent man who killed those 14 women at Ecole Polytechnique projected his own inner demons onto women he identified as “feminists,” with tragic results, but one violent psychopath didn’t threaten the inevitable forward motion of feminism.

Flash-forward twenty-five years. I’ve spent the last two decades in my traditionally-female career. I’ve seen more women, including my husband’s engineering colleagues, entering traditionally male-dominated fields. I’m raising two smart young feminists — my strong-willed, independent daughter, and my son who has no problem identifying himself as a feminist, which was not usual for sixteen-year-old boys when I was growing up. We’ve come a long way, baby … and we’re still going.




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Real Choices

The issue of childcare — who gets it, who needs it, who pays for it and how much — is a huge political hot potato in Canada right now. And for once, I find myself enraged not only by the perspectives and rhetoric of people on the political right, but also by some of the things said by people on the left — my people. I think both sides are missing the point of what we really need to achieve with childcare in this country. While I’m now past the years of needing or providing childcare, I still have strong feelings about it from my own experience as a mother of young children.

Travel back with me in time, if you will, to the spring of 1997. Great changes were afoot in my life. The school where I’d taught and been part of a close-knit community for five years was closing. My job was about to change in a big way. My husband was a year away from finishing his engineering degree. And I found out I was pregnant.

January, 1998: Chris was born. I had been transferred to a new job in a different school, which was OK, but I wasn’t crazy about it. In January I went on maternity leave, earning less than half of what my teaching salary had been. Jason was in his last semester of university. I found, a bit unexpectedly, that I really enjoyed staying home with a baby. Though stay-at-home parenting definitely had its challenges, I enjoyed it more than I’d enjoyed teaching for that last semester, and I was actually getting more writing done than I had when I was teaching. I was well aware that full-time stay-at-home parenting wasn’t for everyone, but it was working for me.

August 1998: Jason got an entry-level engineering job making almost as much as I’d been making after ten years of teaching. I informed the school board that I would not be coming back to work in September. For the next three years, which included the birth of a second child, I managed to hold onto my position with the board through a combination of family leave and educational leave, both unpaid (I was taking part-time classes, usually one per semester, towards a Masters in Education). Finally, realizing that whatever happened in my future life I did not want to go back to teaching high school within the school district, I gave up my full-time position.

From 1998 – 2005, I did not work full-time outside my home for pay, though I did earn some money freelance writing and did some part-time work through the university for a few months when Jason was between jobs. He had two stints of full-time parenting, about three months each, while he looked for a job and I went to university, but for most of those years he was working and I was the at-home parent. When Emma started Kindergarten in September 2005 and I no longer had any child at home full-time, I started teaching at my current, wonderful, non-school-board job, and have been here ever since.

Why do I bother giving you that not-very-riveting sketch of my past life? Because as I look back at the choices I made in those years, I am happy. I did the things I wanted to do — got out of a job I didn’t love anymore, spent seven years at home caring for my kids, did some freelance writing, earned a university degree, and eventually went back to work at a job I liked better than my old one. At every step, I made the choices I wanted to make, and it was wonderful to be able to do so.


The reality is, a huge proportion of Canadian families don’t get to make those choices on the basis of what works best for their kids and their families. Instead, their childcare choices — does one parent stay home with the kids? If so, which one and for how long? Do you put the kids in daycare? When, and what kind? — are constrained by economic necessity. There are parents in the workforce who would rather be home with their kids, and parents at home who would rather be working, because their financial situation doesn’t provide them the flexibility to choose what works best for them. That’s a crying shame.

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My Berlin Wall of Regret

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Berlin Wall lately — you know, as one does — because just as I finished reading a novel that dealt (among other things) with the creation and eventual destruction of that wall, the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall rolled around. My newsfeed filled with those iconic images from November 1989, and my heart filled with envy.

Because I wasn’t there.


I did get to visit Berlin eventually; in 2011 we stayed at a hotel where a metal line ran down the street in front of the door, commemorating the spot where the Wall once stood. I got my picture taken, like thousands of tourists before and since, in front of a fragment of what was once the most infamous and sinister border in the world. And I wished then, as I did this past weekend, that I could have been there when the Wall began to come down.


I could have been there.

I mean, my level of “could have been there” falls somewhere in between people who literally could not have been there because they weren’t born in 1989, and people who are like, “Aw, geez, I was in Berlin on November 8 and I just missed it!!” I wasn’t anywhere nearby, but I still feel like if life had shaken out a little differently, I could conceivably have been part of that giant street party that started on November 9 when Berliners from East and West began taking apart the Wall.

See, what happened was … I went to Europe for two weeks in the summer of 1987 with a friend (an eventful trip I have written about elsewhere). Unlike many of the young people we met in crowded train compartments on that trip, I was not taking a “gap year” or just “bumming around.” I had the summer off from my teaching job and could afford a return plane ticket to France, a Eurail pass, and two weeks of cheap travel that would get me home just in time to start the new school year in September. I was as responsible and practical as you could possibly be while travelling in Europe at the age of 22.

The friend I travelled through Europe with was there in November 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. I can’t remember now whether she stayed in France when our trip was over or went back a few months later, but I know that she had previously studied in France and spent another year or two living there, learning the language. So she was there in November 1989 when she and some friends (as I recall the story) basically turned on the news, said, “Wow, something amazing is happening in Berlin!” hopped on a train, and went to Berlin to see it first-hand. She told me, later, about being among the crowd at the base of the Wall as people were climbing over it, sitting on it, chipping away at it. She described being hauled up onto the top of the Wall by a crew of somewhat drunk young East German men, all laughing and celebrating the thing they had spent their whole lives hoping for but never believed would happen literally overnight. She brought me home a few pieces of the Wall in a plastic baggie. I kept them for years, though I’m not sure where they are right now. It was my tangible connection, at one degree of separation, to one of the most momentous events of my lifetime.

It’s not like my friend asked me to move to France with her and I said no, or even like I seriously considered sticking around, or going back to Europe later. What strikes me, a this remove of 25 years, is how remote that possibility would have been from even my wildest dreams at the time. I knew lots of young people kicked around Europe, and other places, in their twenties, but that was never within the range of options I considered for myself. I graduated high school at sixteen, got a five-year degree in four years of college and was teaching just before my twenty-first birthday. It never occurred to me to take a year off between high school and college, or during college, or between college and starting work. I was hard-wired to do things the responsible way, to see Europe on a two-week vacation, to have a steady job with a reliable paycheque rather than go wandering aimlessly around the world.

If I had been wandering in Europe in the fall on 1989, or even if I’d come up with some legit excuse to live there like my friend did (“improving my French” in my case would have been improving on almost nothing) … I could have hopped on that train too, and joined her when the wall fell. I could have had memories of being pulled up on the wall by drunk German boys, rather than just having a baggie full of concrete Wall-chips that I can’t even find now.

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Aunt Gertie: My Tribute

I know a few people were interested in reading this, so I posted it here: this is the tribute I gave to Aunt Gertie at her memorial service.

gertieathomeSo many of you gathered here today knew my Aunt Gertie, Gertrude Charlotte Ellis, only as an elderly woman. I want to take these few moments to give you a brief sketch of her life, the life that we celebrate here today.

Aunt Gertie had just celebrated her hundredth birthday a few weeks before her death. She was born on October 14, 1914. To put in perspective what it means to live a live that spans a century, she was born ten days after the Florizel sailed out of St. John’s harbour carrying the First Five Hundred, the volunteers known as the Blue Puttees who left Newfoundland to fight in the First World War. Her life spanned that war and the next, the Great Depression in between the two, and a hundred years of social and technological changes so great that the world in which she fell asleep last Thursday was radically different from the one she had been born into.

Gertrude Ellis was one of eight surviving children of Joseph Ellis of Hant’s Harbour and Mary Jane Porter of Elliston. Her parents married in St. John’s and raised their family there, and Aunt Gertie never ventured far from the St. John’s streets where she grew up, except for occasional trips to visit family and friends in Bonavista, and a single trip to Toronto in the 1950s. While all her siblings and, eventually, her nieces and nephews lived and travelled all over North America and sometimes beyond, Gertie seemed content to be the one who remained at home.

But she was not contented about every aspect of that life at home. She always told me when I was growing up that one of her greatest regrets was that she had not been able to continue in school beyond Grade Eight. Of course, Grade Eight was considered a good level of education to have attained in the 1920s, but Gertie was a good student — especially in Math, she used to tell me — and would have liked to learn more. She was an avid reader throughout her life and always followed the news and kept up a keen interest in current affairs. When I was a teenager and the magic of cable TV came to St. John’s, there was a period of several years when I used to come to her house after school to find the TV regularly tuned to the Parliamentary channel so that she could enjoy a few minutes of Question Period while she went about her daily chores.

Those daily chores formed the backbone of Gertie’s life from the time she left school at thirteen to become her parents’ housekeeper, until she was no longer able to keep up her own home in her nineties. In addition to caring for the family home, Gertie received an unexpected responsibility when she was just twenty years old. Her sister Flo’s infant daughter Joan, and her brother Sam’s four-year-old son Joe, were sent home from New York to be raised at home. While they were officially in the care of their grandparents, as was not uncommon in those days if parents were not in a position to look after their children, in practice it was the children’s Aunt Gertie who took over the responsibility of raising two young children. She took on the role of mother to my mother, her niece Joan, and her nephew Joe, raising both children till they were grown up. As a result, my mother, who never got to know her own mother well at all, was always very close to Aunt Gertie and in later years their roles were reversed as Aunt Gertie grew older and more frail and my mother took on the role of helping and caring for her.

When my parents were first married they lived in Aunt Gertie’s house until I was seven years old, and even after we moved out, I went to her house every day after school until my parents got off work. She was my constant caregiver and companion, my inspiration and the person who taught me so many things — some successfully, like baking, and some unsuccessfully, like knitting. Most importantly, I think, she taught me that even a woman of her generation whose life choices and experiences had been very limited by circumstances outside her control could still have a lively interest in and engagement with the world around her. She taught me that a life spent mostly in serving and caring for others could be a well-spent life and that there was little time to waste on regret over missed opportunities. She enjoyed the present moment and taught me to do the same.

Aunt Gertie was warm, gracious, generous and hospitable, as well as being opinionated and very funny. She always spoke her mind, regardless of who was around to hear it, and she had an opinion on everyone and everything. It was not unknown for her to greet a visitor she hadn’t seen in several years by saying something like, “Oh, I never would have known you, you’ve got so fat!” Her door was always open to family, friends or neighbours. There are dozens of people, some of them my mother’s friends from her generation and many of my friends from the next generation, who called her “Aunt Gertie” and knew that a warm welcome and a tasty snack would await them at her kitchen table. All those people who came through the doors of our home remember Aunt Gertie for her sense of humour, her hard work, her love for animals, and her readiness to make everyone welcome at her table. To me Aunt Gertie’s kitchen was not just the heart of the home but also the heart of the world, the place where, more than any other, I learned that the world was a good place to be, and I had been lucky to be born into her family.

I don’t know when exactly Aunt Gertie’s family joined the Seventh-day Adventist church, but I know that it must have been sometime in the 1920s, during Gertie’s childhood, because she often told me that she began her education at Centenary Hall, which was a Methodist school, and finished it at the Seventh-day Adventist school. She was the only one of her siblings who remained a Seventh-day Adventist throughout her adult life, even though, for reasons I never understood, she stopped attending the Sabbath morning church service sometime when I was a small child. It certainly had nothing to do with either personality or doctrinal differences with anyone in church; I think it might have had something to do with her dislike of dress-up, formal events. All during my growing-up years, while Aunt Gertie went out to do her shopping and other messages, I never knew her to attend a wedding, a funeral or any kind of formal occasion. She particularly disliked funerals and anything that reminded her of funerals, including white lilies,  white carnations, and the hymn “Abide With Me” — which we will not be singing today!

Although she hadn’t been to church for many years, Aunt Gertie remained a committed church member, listening religiously to the church service on VOAR, paying a faithful tithe from her small income when she began getting the old-age pension cheque, and strictly ordering any workman doing work around her property that no work would be done during the Sabbath hours. Among the many things that helped form the foundation of my faith was the songs Aunt Gertie used to sing to me as childhood lullabies — mostly old hymns, though not “Abide With Me” or anything she considered too much like a funeral hymn! She loved gospel songs, a favourite being “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” the song that, when I volunteered at radio station VOAR, she used to always ask me to play for her while I was on-air. When I was little she liked to sing “Someone Will Enter the Pearly Gates,” “Give Me the Bible,” and, “When He Cometh, When He Cometh, to make up His jewels, all the pure ones, all the bright ones, his loved and his own.”

Aunt Gertie’s life was not without its hardships and challenges. When I was too young to fully understand what was happening, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which was far more often a death sentence forty-five years ago than it is today. At the time my parents and I were still living in her house, and I’m sure there were times when she wondered whether she would live to see me grow up. Not only did she do that, but she lived long enough to see my children, Chris and Emma, grow up in the house next door, running in and out of her house in search of the forbidden junk food she loved to give them. She survived cancer a second time at age 90, and still had more life and energy left in her. Aunt Gertie valued her independence greatly and it meant so much to her to be able to go on living in her own home, which she was able to manage until she was almost 97. I remember thinking that having to go to a nursing home, something she had always dreaded, would absolutely crush her spirit. Instead, I saw her adapt to her limited mobility and new circumstances with grace and good humour, her cheerful spirit quickly making her a favourite with the nurses who cared for her and the friends and family who visited her.

Aunt Gertie suffered a stroke on Sabbath afternoon, the first of November, and died just a few days later. The last time she was able to carry on a conversation, with some difficulty, was on Monday afternoon, when I sat by her bedside and she told me over and over that she was feeling much better. “I’m feeling fine, you go on now,” she said several times, showing over and over that same spirit she always had — not wanting to be a bother or cause anyone any trouble. At one point on Monday she said to me, “I’m just tired. If I get some rest, I know I’ll feel better in the morning.” Now she is at rest, and I am confident that she will, indeed, be better in the morning. She taught me to look forward to that day when Jesus would come to make up his jewels, and now we who loved Gertie look forward to that as the day when we will see her again. I know that, like the stars of the morning, she will shine as a bright gem in His crown.





Gertie Ellis, 1914-2014

Last month, we celebrated my Aunt Gertie’s 100th birthday with a very happy gathering of family and friends, which she thoroughly enjoyed. Though her mobility was limited and her memory was starting to fail her, she enjoyed company and was bright and cheerful right through her birthday celebration.


On Saturday of this week she suffered a stroke that left her unable to use her only good hand, able to speak only with difficulty, and, most importantly, unable to swallow. Despite this, the last day she was able to talk to me, on Monday, she spent most of my visit telling me, “I”m feeling fine,” and “I’m feeling much better,” and “You should go on now” — not wanting me to worry about her.

She slipped mostly into sleep after that, and when I visited her both yesterday and today she didn’t wake up when I or the nurses spoke to her. Finally, just after noon today, I was sitting by her bed when I realized that her light, shallow breathing had stopped — it happened so gently it took me a few minutes to realize she was gone. If only we could all be blessed with 100 years of mostly healthy, happy life and such a peaceful passage out of this world!

I’m very tired now and I’ll share more about Aunt Gertie and my memories of her later. Right now I’ll leave you with this blog post I wrote several years ago, about making blueberry pie with Aunt Gertie, and this video of Christopher interviewing her for a heritage fair project when he was eleven and she was 95.

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Writing Wednesday 86: Launch and Landing

After two years of more-or-less weekly Wednesday videos about the writing process and the writing life, the launch of my new novel also marks the end of the vlog series. Vlogging was a lot of fun and I’d definitely consider doing another vlog project in the future. In the meantime, I’ll still be blogging here in the good old-fashioned way, reviewing books over at Compulsive Overreader, and updating my author website with news about upcoming book signings, readings, and everything book-related.


Course Correction

So I posted last week about the joys of family vacations. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I love planning trips. When it comes to travelling as a family, I don’t believe in too much spontaneity; I think you need an agenda and that when you tumble off the train in a strange city, there should be a hotel reserved in your name so you know where to go. As a result, I plan our trips pretty thoroughly and well in advance. What happens each day may be a lovely surprise but I always know where we’re going to sleep at night.

However, there are drawbacks to too much careful planning.

Five years ago, after the 2009 Pathfinder Camporee in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, our family rented an RV and drove west, exploring some of the US. Our plan was to drive all the way to Yellowstone National  Park, where we would see Old Faithful and go white-water rafting. I had booked ahead campsites in most of the places we planned to stay, up to and including a short stop near Mount Rushmore and then onward to Yellowstone, where we would stay for a couple of nights.


Driving an RV was much less fun than we had imagined. I know a lot of people love their RVs and have made great vacation memories in them, but my main impression was that just to keep on target with our travel schedule we were spending seven or eight hours a day pushing this giant box along the highway, not spending much time stopping to see interesting things. It drove more slowly and guzzled more gas than we had imagined, and I didn’t dare attempt to drive the thing so Jason was behind the wheel hour after hour. As we approached Mount Rushmore I dared to say to Jason, “What if we didn’t go on to Yellowstone for the weekend? We’d miss out on Yellowstone, sure, but we’d spend a lot less time driving and a lot more time relaxing and doing fun things.”

I’m such a hardcore trip planner that it actually took me a couple of days on the road, in the RV, to think that one through and realize that I could change our plans. And yes, I’m sad we never saw Old Faithful, and didn’t go whitewater rafting (although this past summer we did it right back home in Newfoundland and it was awesome). But some of our kids’ best travel memories are from that KOA Kampground in South Dakota where we spent four lovely, fun, relaxing days. As soon as I called ahead to the campground in Yellowstone to cancel our reservation, I knew it was the right decision. I felt lighter, safer and more relaxed when we made a course correction and scaled back our  plans.

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