Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Our dog, Brownie, came to live with us when our children were just about ready to start school. She was barely more than a pup herself at the time and it wasn’t long before she became an important member of our family. She was a border collie/miniature collie cross which meant she was both smart and protective. Her previous owners had moved into town and were looking for a place in the country for her. I happened to be visiting them and mentioned that we were looking for a dog something like her. In moments the deal was done.

I paid close attention as they outlined the important lessons that they had already taught her. Apparently we wouldn’t need to tie her unless we were going to be away for more than a day. If we told her to ‘guard the house’ as we were leaving she would wait there patiently until we returned. She was accustomed to living outside, snug in her insulated dog house even in winter. We were told that if we did bring her into the house she had been taught to stay out of the rooms with carpet on the floor.

On the day she arrived we walked her all around the perimeter of the property to show her the limits of her new territory and she seemed to understand. She accepted her new circumstances eagerly enough and adopted us as though she’d been born at our house. She took her job as protector of the property very seriously though I suspect it was me and the children she was looking after rather than our worldly goods. She became a constant companion on many adventures. Once the boys started school she would wait with them at the end of the driveway every morning till the school bus took them away. The end of the day would find her sitting back in that same spot staring up the road watching for their return.

We discovered she was terrified of thunderstorms and so there were times when she slept in the kitchen rather than the back yard. Eventually, she spent as much time inside as out. She never made a nuisance of herself by coming to the table when we were eating and, true to her early training, she kept strictly to the bare floors in the kitchen and the laundry room next to it. She wasn’t pampered but she was definitely loved.

Brownie was a hunter at heart. Grandpa Livingston would invite us to visit if we’d bring her along to help him hunt coons in the cornfield. She actually turned out to be a good coon dog. She was less successful when chasing squirrels or rabbits or even deer. She would tear off in enthusiastic pursuit, her frenzied barking pitched high with excitement even though she never managed to catch one. Groundhogs were much easier prey. If she caught one of them out in the open the outcome was inevitable. We would come across the gruesome remains of a partially eaten carcass on the front lawn and someone would have to fetch a shovel to give it a hasty burial somewhere far enough from the house to avoid having it dragged back the next day. She also caught more mice than our cat ever did.

She was in the house with me one winter day when I pulled open the drawer in the bottom of my stove to discover that a mouse had filled it with dryer lint and built a nest among my baking tins. Horrors! I could feel my skin crawl at the thought of what might be lurking under all that fluff. Much as I wanted to, I couldn’t just close the drawer again and pretend I hadn’t seen anything. I was going to have to deal with it so I steeled my nerves and leaned down to shout a challenge into the pie plates in the hopes that any resident mouse would die of a heart attack before I uncovered it. I kicked the drawer a few times for good measure and then Brownie sat watching with head cocked to one side as I used a pair of tongs to reach in and gingerly pull the pans out one at a time.

I’d almost reached the bottom when a terrified mouse shot out from under the stove and skittered across the kitchen floor. I dropped the tongs and jumped to one side nearly tripping over the stack of pans I’d piled there.

“Get it, Brownie!” I shrieked. She’d already seen it and the chase was on. Chaos ensued with the mouse finally racing straight into the living room to disappear under the couch. Brownie skidded to an undignified halt at the edge of the carpet and even with me jumping up and down crying, “The rules are off!” she refused to cross over into forbidden territory. She just turned her reproachful eyes on me and I could almost hear her thinking, ‘you’re trying to trick me aren’t you?’ I sighed in defeat and went to fetch the broom. I was going to have to get this mouse the hard way. Furniture got shoved here and there as I chased that pesky rodent around the living room with Brownie watching intently and barking encouragement from the sidelines. It was hopeless.

The mouse got away and I tried to console myself with the thought that perhaps the whole experience was so traumatic for it that it would leave the house altogether and never return. Even so, I found a new home for my baking tins and for the rest of the winter the drawer in the bottom of the stove stayed empty except for the mouse trap we set there. Brownie had to content herself with hunting outside. At least there were no carpets out there to spoil her fun.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Have Bus Will Travel

On one of our trips this past summer we came across two elderly gentlemen in a campsite near ours. They had converted an old horse trailer into a camper by building a couple of cots inside and adding some shelving to store their supplies. They say that necessity is the mother of invention. Certainly, in my family there has always been a ‘do it yourself’ mentality seasoned with both imagination and ingenuity. We often made do with homemade versions of those things that were beyond the reach of our limited pocketbooks.

That was how we came to be the proud owners of our own version of a Winnebago, the latest in RV’s back in the early 70’s. When my brother, Richard, heard about an old school bus that was for sale he immediately saw the potential. It was a short bus, only half the size of the regular buses that we rode to school every weekday. It had been sitting unused for some time so he got it for a very good price. He reckoned that with my Dad’s help they could really make something of it and so in due time it ended up in our yard.

They spent the whole summer on the project. The first order of business was to strip all the seats out of it. The floor was then covered with linoleum and bunk beds long enough to accommodate the tall men in our family were built along both sides at the back with a curtain that could be drawn across in front of them for privacy. The top bunks were set on hinges so that they could be lowered to transform the beds into two couches facing each other across the centre aisle.

Two of the original seats were reinstalled with a table between them. It looked like a restaurant booth set just behind the driver’s seat. They built cupboards along the opposite side to hold the camp stove, ice box and other supplies. It may not have had running water or a bathroom but by the time they were done it could pass for a cottage on wheels. They painted the outside grey and added some detailing in black to spruce it up and give it a whole new look. We thought it was gorgeous.

It did have a few drawbacks though. The first time we took it out on the road we discovered that with most of the seats removed there wasn’t enough weight to smooth out the ride. Every bump was magnified to such a degree that anything not tied down got bounced all over the bus. That included us. Any encounter with a pothole would see us lifted right out of our seats to land on the floor if we weren’t holding on for dear life. We also took to joking about our gas mileage being measured in gallons per mile instead of the other way around.

Nevertheless, Richard and some friends drove that bus all the way to Mexico and back and pronounced the trip a great success even though they ended up having to replace all the old tires before they got halfway. When they finally reached their destination the geriatric bus coughed out its last gasp and they began to think they would have to abandon it in Mexico. Richard managed to find a mechanic who promised to completely rebuild the engine for a ridiculously low price and they decided to take a chance on him. Never was a hundred dollars better spent. By the time he was done with it the engine had a whole new lease on life. The journey back to Canada went without a hitch.

Ultimately, the bus got retired in our backyard and became a sort of guest house. My younger brother, Tom, and I would have friends over to hang out and sleep in the bus and the novelty of it never wore off. It may not have been much fun to ride in but we thought it first rate as accommodations. It was one of a kind, better than a real Winnebago in my mind. It had Landry stamped all over it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Lemon of a Lemon Pie

I don’t really enjoy cooking but I do love to eat. That’s always been a great incentive to me when it comes to getting supper on the table. Occasionally, I’ll get a craving for a certain kind of food and that will be enough to set me searching through cook books to see just how complicated it would be to make. If the instructions alone are not enough to cure my desire to taste something new, I might actually give it a try. Not all of my attempts are successful. The food, even though it may taste fine, rarely turns out looking anything like it does in the mouth watering pictures that tempted me in the first place. I also find it hard to reconcile that there are actually times when, in spite of the fact that I have followed the recipe religiously, the results are a total disaster. We’ll say nothing about my ill-fated attempt at something called Buckaroo Beans…not even the dog would eat them.

I usually do all right with pies thanks to my mother’s recipe for Never Fail Pie Crust. It lives up to its name for the most part and is relatively simple to make. In the second year of our marriage, Bev and I were living in Jamaica and he mentioned that lemon meringue had to be his all time favorite when it came to pies. One day I stumbled across a mix for lemon pie filling that was half hidden on an upper shelf at the local grocery store and I decided to buy it and surprise him by making one for dessert that night.

Bev was out for the afternoon so I set to work in high spirits. The Never Fail Pie Crust rolled out beautifully and I gently placed it in the pie plate, fluting the edges artistically and pricking it with a fork before popping it into the oven to bake. In the meantime I followed the directions on the box to make the filling on the stove top. I had to pause in my stirring to take the crust out of the oven and that was the first intimation that my project was not destined to go smoothly. My once beautiful crust had shrunk so that it only reached halfway up the sides of the pan, the fluted edges shriveled to indistinct lumps. There was no time to mourn though. I was supposed to stir the filling until it thickened and I didn’t want to scorch it.

Twenty minutes later I was still stirring. The lemony concoction in the pot was bubbling softly but it still showed little or no sign of the promised thickening. I began to speculate on the actual age of the mix I’d purchased or the possible effects of Jamaica’s hot and humid climate on the making of lemon pie. Finally, I decided to just go for it in the hopes that it would thicken as it cooled. I poured it into my diminished pie crust, careful not to overflow the edges. It was going to be a thin pie. I took out some of my frustration in beating the egg whites to stiff peaks for the meringue. Once it was spooned on and the whole thing baked, I set it to cool. I watched it closely but as the afternoon wore on hope faded.

Bev arrived to find me in tears. The pie sat on the counter, the meringue floating on the lemony soup beneath it. I wanted nothing more than to throw the whole mess over the fence out back. The disappointment was acute. Bev, however, was not about to give up his lemon pie without a fight. I watched in amazement as he carefully slid the meringue from the top of the pie onto a plate. Then he poured the filling back into a pot to reheat. A few tablespoons of cornstarch had it thickened up in no time. Now why didn’t I think of that! Once he had it back in the pie he simply slid the meringue back to its original place on top and pronounced it ready to eat.

It wasn’t pretty. In fact it was a lemon of a pie altogether. Even so, we ate the whole thing. Since then Bev has had to settle for apple pie when I want to surprise him with a treat. He assures me that apple is his all time second favorite when it comes to pies. He can always have the lemon when we go out.

Never Fail Pie Crust

4 ½ c. flour

1 lb. shortening or lard

1 tsp. salt

¼ tsp. baking soda

1 egg

1 tsp. vinegar

Sift salt and soda into flour. Mix shortening through flour. To 1 egg in measuring cup add vinegar and make up to ¾ c. with cold water. Mix and chill. Roll out.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Skunk Tales

Living in the country means dealing with an assortment of pesky creatures that are intent on foraging in vegetable gardens and garbage cans or building nests in the most inconvenient places. One morning we came out to find an entire section of our lawn chopped up as though someone had taken a hoe and hacked it to bits. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to do such a thing. In the end it turned out that we had a resident skunk digging up the grass in search of grubs during the night. Neither of us was keen on having a skunk as a close neighbor so Bev set out a live trap to see if we could capture it.

It was only a matter of time before the furry little fumigator followed his nose to the bait in the trap and ended up caught. Bev’s theory was that if you covered the cage so the skunk couldn’t see you, it wouldn’t feel any need to spray in self-defense. Deciding to put it to the test, he crept cautiously forward with an old blanket held out in front of him like a shield. He managed to get close enough to toss it so that its folds settled in a haphazard cloud completely covering both cage and occupant in shadowy darkness. He then picked the whole thing up and, careful to make no sudden moves, carried it to the back of the truck with the intent of driving it off to some distant field where the luckless captive could be released with no chance of finding its way back to our house. The theory proved sound as the skunk showed no signs of agitation and endured the entire trip without resorting to its only effective weapon. Bev positioned the covered trap so that the skunk would emerge downwind of him, lifted the edge of the blanket just enough to open the door from behind, and then beat a hasty retreat. He watched from a safe distance until the little creature finally decided it was safe to emerge and waddled off into the distance.

That particular incident ended with the sweet smell of success. My Dad told a different story of one of his own boyhood encounters. He and a chum were walking to school when they noticed a skunk wandering about in the yard of a neighboring farm. School was forgotten with the prospect of much more interesting fun near at hand. The farm was quiet with no signs that anyone was stirring in the house or barn. They set their lunches on the porch in order to arm themselves with the only weapons at hand, a broom and the galvanized zinc washtub they found hanging from a nail on the outside wall. The big square tub was an essential piece of equipment that was a part of every household. It was used for any number of things ranging from laundry to bathing children to carrying vegetables from the garden to the root cellar during harvest time. I am quite certain that it was never used for the purpose it was soon to be employed in.

The boys set about stalking their prey with as much stealth as any big game hunter. They weren’t total fools. The skunk might not be deadly but it was dangerous all the same and what they were doing was risky. Hearts pounding, they managed to edge close enough to make their move. The time for caution was past. Dad darted forward and, quick as a flash, trapped the unsuspecting skunk beneath the overturned washtub. Not to be outdone, his friend rushed in to give the tub a few good whacks with the broom. Bev’s theory definitely did not apply when the skunk happened to be trapped under a galvanized zinc washtub that was being energetically thumped with a wooden broom handle. Predictably, it let loose with its full arsenal and the boys leaped away in alarm when the spray hit the inside of the tub so that the pungent smell came wafting out from under the edges.

There was an outraged shout from the house and they looked up to see the farmer’s wife scowling at them from the front porch where she had emerged to check on the commotion in the yard. She shook a fist at them and they did the only prudent thing in the circumstances. They made a run for it.

The boys never heard how the skunk eventually got released from its makeshift prison. They had no idea whether or not the washtub would ever again be useful for laundering clothes or babies. They judged it best to steer clear of that particular farm for the foreseeable future. Their lost lunches caused a pang or two of regret but neither of them felt inclined to try to retrieve them. All things considered, it seemed a small price to pay.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


I went to a Japanese restaurant once with my brother, Richard, and his wife, June. It was a night to remember for a small town girl. We found ourselves seated with about five other patrons, all of us ranged in a semicircle around a grill that was built right into the table. Each table had its own chef and the food was cooked right there in front of you. The chefs didn’t just cook, they made it an art. Everything was done with a flourish. Knives were flipped and tossed, vegetables juggled and chopped, seasonings flicked from a spoon held high in the air to arc gracefully down on the food below, and everything done at lightning speed to produce dishes that were both beautiful and delicious. It was one of the most memorable dining experiences I’ve ever had.

Richard loves to cook and produces some amazing meals of his own. Even when they are camping or out sailing, he and June eat very well. Years ago they went on a camping trip where they canoed to a remote site in one of our Provincial Parks. They took their time setting everything up. The spot they’d chosen was remote enough to be entirely private and the weather was all anyone could ask for. Richard caught some fish and decided to cook them right then and there. What could be better than fresh fish fried over an open fire? He got the fire going and went to work with his filleting knife while June continued to put their tent in order.

The sun was shining overhead and Richard was whistling while he worked. They’d left the cares and stresses of a hectic life behind and it was going to be a great weekend. In an excess of good feeling he tossed the knife with a flourish that would have rivalled anything we saw in that Japanese restaurant. Perhaps it was not the wisest thing to do when the ground underfoot is as treacherous as the rock he was squatting on at the time. A filleting knife has a long narrow blade that is of necessity extremely sharp. A slip, a fumble, and in the blink of an eye the prospects for the weekend took a drastic turn for the worse. He stabbed himself…in the butt.

June stuck her head out of the tent when the whistling was abruptly cut off to be replaced by a muffled curse. Richard was carefully extracting the knife from where it protruded from his outraged backside.

“What happened?” she demanded, hurrying over to assess the damage.

“I lost my balance,” he muttered. “I guess I fell on it.”

I suppose if you are going to stab yourself with a filleting knife, the gluteus maximus is not a bad place to do it. Nothing vital lurking under the surface. There wasn’t even much blood. The knife had gone straight in so the wound was small but deep. They cleaned and bandaged it as best they could and decided they would be wise to head to the nearest emergency room. The combination of a dirty knife and minimal first aid made infection a near certainty. Of course, getting to a hospital was not a simple matter when you were camping in a remote site and your car was hours away by canoe.

With no other choice the camp was dismantled and packed in record time. Richard hobbled around trying to help and eventually they were loaded and launched. He paddled the whole way back perched precariously on one cheek. By the time they reached the car and ultimately the hospital his entire leg had stiffened up and he thought he would give up sitting for good.

The emergency room was crowded when they arrived and he limped to the desk to register. The triage nurse began her assessment with a question or two about his presenting problem. He glanced over his shoulder at the assorted people filling the chairs in the waiting room and leaned in to speak in a low undertone that couldn’t be overheard.

“Excuse me, I didn’t catch what you said,” she offered with an apologetic smile.

He looked around once more, raised a hand to partially cover his mouth and increased his volume just a notch in an attempt to explain without broadcasting his problem to the entire room.

“I beg your pardon?”

“I stabbed myself in the butt with a filleting knife!” he blurted, huffing in exasperation.

So much for discretion. Ah well, let them laugh. It was an altogether perfect ending to their aborted weekend. He supposed he deserved it.