Saturday, December 14, 2019


In a couple of weeks, this decade will have ended.  So much has happened in the last ten years, I hardly know where to begin in trying to turn it into a narrative.  First, I had to remember where I lived in 2009.

During Ivaan's final illness, we bought a house that we never intended to live in. We had quite a lot of money lying around, the proceeds of the sale of our much-loved house on Portland Street.
Our house on Portland Street

I never loved another house like I loved Portland.
We lived in a condo near Bay and Bloor, very close to my university classes. While I was at school, Ivaan was at home with caregivers to look after him. He spent a lot of time on the computer, looking at used cameras for sale on eBay. He already had a massive collection of cameras, but as he had no inventory, he could never remember what he already owned. So he'd buy more. The cameras were always a disappointment, and he'd swear he was never buying another used camera off the internet.  By the next day, the thrill of the chase had exorcized the previous day's disappointment.  Packages were always arriving in the mail, followed by his inevitable disappointment.

So I persuaded Ivaan that we should buy a house from the Arts and Crafts era (1920s) and have it restored. It was a fantastic era for houses.  They were very solidly built, often with heavy oak panelling inside. The trick was to find a house that had not been ruined by a renovation.  We found just such a house near Dufferin and St. Clair and we bought it. It had been occupied by an Italian family for 50 years and it looked like they'd cleaned it every single day. But they'd updated nothing, so it was perfect for our purposes. The project kept Ivaan's mind off cameras, and it kept our money tied up in real estate, rather than wasted on....more cameras.

Ivaan persuaded me that we should hire a couple he knew to do the restoration.  The guy was an electrician, and rewiring the house was essential. I should have been more alert: the guy was skilled at his trade, yet this couple was perennially broke.  But Ivaan felt sorry for them and thought that this might help them get on their feet financially.  "No good deed goes unpunished", goes the saying.  By the time we fired them, we'd wasted a lot of time and money.  I still feel really sad that Ivaan went to his grave knowing that Roman and Malgorzata took advantage of his kind heart.

After Ivaan's death, I decided to move into the house once the restoration was completed.  It was a beautiful house, but a few weeks after I moved in, the house was broken into.  A great deal of Ivaan's jewellery was stolen, along with my nephew's handmade violin.  I didn't feel violated, as people often do following a break-in.  I just felt angry and disgusted, even after the thief was caught, convicted and sent to prison for four years.
Our Arts and Crafts House
I miss that animal print sofa.

I put the house up for sale, and when the buyer wanted to take ownership almost immediately, I moved to a new condo in a church conversion, to see how I liked living in the west end of Toronto.  I didn't. It wasn't just the condo, it was everything.  My father was fast approaching the end of his life, one of Ivaan's relatives had gotten herself into a perilous financial state and - probably channelling Ivaan's kind heart - I decided I would do what I could to turn things around for her.  Again, "no good deed goes unpunished".  My lawyer advised me that it was the wiser course to let her reap the consequences of her actions. I chose not to follow his advice.  It's a decision I still regret.  I wasted so much time I would rather have spent with my Dad.  He died on New Year's Day, 2012.

The following month, a tiny commercial/residential building on Dupont Street came up for sale and this time my heart and my head were in complete alignment.  I could think of nothing else but how much I wanted to buy this building.  So I did, and I spent seven mostly happy years there.  In the ensuing years, much of my time was devoted to settling my father's Estate.  I have siblings who were also executors, but it's pretty well accepted that I have the organizational instincts of a border collie, so my siblings largely got out of my way.  Dad had left his Estate in good order, but whenever real estate is involved, there's going to be work.  First there was the summer house, Croydon, which sat on 92 acres of scrub land in eastern Ontario.  My sister and I put our shoulders to the wheel and in five weeks we'd transformed Croydon into a bit of a dream home - at least the interior.  My sister wanted us to try to sell it privately by placing a weekend ad in The Globe and Mail Personals. It turned out to be the right decision: the very first people who came to see the property bought it immediately for our asking price.
The loft, Croydon

The living room, Croydon
Then there was my Dad's family home, known to all as "84".  One of our brothers lived there with his wife and occasionally their young adult sons. One excellent day, an apartment in a handsome heritage building near Casa Loma came up for sale.  I saw it first and emailed my brother.  He and his wife saw the apartment almost immediately and it was exactly the "coup de foudre" I'd experienced when I first saw my building on Dupont.   They loved it and bought it on the spot. It really is a beautiful apartment and they've done an admirable job of making it into a comfortable, stylish home.  I'm extremely envious every time I go there.

But that left 84 empty. My siblings agreed to let me loose in there for five weeks.  Our family had owned that house since 1966 and it was a lot of work turning it into the "blank canvas" that appeals to potential buyers.  A lot of emotion was involved, too, and I spent quite a few hours crying to my sister on the phone.  In the end, almost all the members of the family contributed some brute labour to the project.  Our niece Justine's partner, Lorne, came over just in time to prevent me from sawing through a live electrical wire in the kitchen that would have killed me.  My youngest brother, Dave, transformed the sunroom.  My nephew Ivor painted the basement and he and his friend Omar loaded up several dumpsters with demolition waste.  In doing so, I think all of us put to rest the many conflicting emotions we had about giving up the house that had been our refuge over the years.
No shortage of space at 84.

Walt Whitman dined at this table, though not recently.

As with Croydon, the perfect buyers were the first to see 84.  The Ginsbergs were everything we wanted in new owners.  "They're just like us, only younger, richer and nicer!" I told my siblings.

I now recognize that my decision to leave Dupont Street was made long before I was ready to acknowledge it, but my decision to close my store was made in a split second last November.  I'd been sleeping in the basement on Dupont Street to take advantage of the absolute darkness.  I woke up one Saturday morning and felt a twinge of annoyance that it was Saturday and thus a working day.  That was it.  I decided on the spot to close the store and put the building up for sale.

That left me for the first time absolutely free to make any decision I wanted.  I could either go and live in an even more urban environment, or I could head the other way entirely, and live a rural life.  I am positive that - at least for now - I have made the right decision.  When I wake up on New Year's Day of 2020, I'm going to be so glad to find myself here, in the centre of my universe.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

NEW IN TOWN: Where There's Smoke...

I like fire.

If you've lived in a city all your life, chances are you haven't developed the skills necessary to create a really good bonfire.  So when I say I like fire, I mean in theory.  One of the first things on my agenda when I moved to Wellington County was to learn the art of the bonfire.  I'd read about Burn Permits. They sounded impressive and responsible, and I decided I should acquire one.

I learned there were rules that must be followed.  I studied those rules so hard, I could have written a doctoral dissertation on the subject.  I drove to nearby Hillsburgh with the application and the fee.  They took my money, stamped the form, and did not ask me one single question about the responsibilities of a Burn Permit holder.  They did point out that the rules were printed on the reverse side of the Permit, in case I forgot any of them. What the rules didn't say was how to build a fire.  I wanted to become adept at fire starting before any of my city friends came to visit, so I picked up a few handfuls of dry twigs on my property, put them on the outdoor fire pit, lit a wooden match and held it up to a twig.  Nothing happened.  I tried again.  Same result.

I tried lighting two matches at once. Nothing.  I began to worry that there was something wrong with the twigs, so I looked around for other things to burn.  Pine cones?  Surely they'd burn well.  I quickly realized I was going through wooden matches at an alarming rate, trying to light pine cones.  It just wasn't working.  I tried crumpled newspaper, but the wooden matches extinguished themselves before the paper ignited.  I was getting desperate.  I remembered my butane torch.  I'd once used it to great effect, toasting the tops of crème brûlée desserts at a city dinner party.  My friends still speak of that dinner party with awe.

I went inside and came out with the torch.  It's the deluxe model, the self-lighting kind.  I should have that fire going in no time, I reasoned.  I unscrewed the butane release, pressed the ignition button, and - nothing.  It seems I had used up all the fuel showing off my crème brûlée skills.  I confess I contemplated throwing some gasoline and a full box of wooden matches on the fire.  But it would mean siphoning gas out of my motorcycle's fuel tank, and that seemed to go against the noble traditions of the Burn Permit.  I reviewed the rules.  

You may not light an outdoor fire if the wind is faster than 10 km/hr. How do you determine wind speed? I couldn't even tell in which direction it was blowing. It seemed like random little gusts from all sides. I recalled having seen a disposable cigarette lighter in the garden shed. I've often seen smokers hunched over, trying to shield the tip of their cigarette long enough to light it. I tried to act as a human shield as I applied the cigarette lighter to a sheet of crumpled newsprint, and to my surprise it caught fire. I fed the flame with more paper. First the pinecones and then the twigs caught fire. A twig, paper and pinecone fire burns hot, but it does not burn for long. I was throwing pinecones on as fast as I could collect them. Each flared brightly as the fire began to consume it, and with every pinecone I felt more and more like an expert fire starter. I ran around collecting more twigs. I knew it was against the rules to leave a fire unattended, so I kept my eye on the fire at all times. By the time I had a small armload of twigs, I was out of breath and smoke was stinging my eyes. I decided to drop the bundle of twigs on the fire from above. I positioned myself close to the fire pit, leaned over and released the bunch of twigs directly onto the dwindling flames. At that precise moment, the wind shifted direction.

I smelled at first. If you've ever smelled burning hair, you don't forget it. I couldn't go inside to look in the mirror because the rules said never to leave a bonfire unattended.

I went to my hairdresser. She looked at the blackened frizzy patch on top of my head. "What happened?" she asked.

"I was making crème brûlée", I replied.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

NEW IN TOWN: Leave It To Beavers

No one told me about the beavers.

I bought my beautiful rural abode in the dead of winter, and moved in on April Fools’ Day.  Well, wouldn’t you pick a day like that if you knew nothing about life beyond the big city?  I’m embarrassed to say I had no idea where my property ended until a month after I’d bought it and moved in.

Whenever I described my new home to my city friends, I’d regale them with its finest features:  five acres, four bedrooms, three ponds, two basements, one swimming pool.  Most people were green with envy.  The smarter ones - those who had ever lived outside Toronto - eyed me with something between amusement and disbelief.

They shouldn’t have been surprised.  I’d been living on a main street in a busy metropolis, and I was beginning to develop what I can only describe as “land hunger”. Last year, I’d bought myself a splitting axe.  Every time I heard of a felled tree in my downtown Toronto neighbourhood, I was out there with my Ochsenkopf (it’s a German axe, and it means oxhead) practising becoming a proficient splitter of wood.  I took up beekeeping on the flat roof of my tiny commercial building.  Once the bees were established, I started growing vegetables in containers:  potatoes, leeks, peas, ginger, garlic, basil, green onions, tomatoes, rhubarb.

I was quite proud of my agricultural prowess.  Raccoons and squirrels were unable to scale the walls of my building to raid the garden, and the honeybees were only interested in the pots of lavender I’d planted.  My urban rooftop farm had an impressive advantage over my neighbours’ backyard gardens:  no known predators.  It was fun to brag about growing my own food, and my pride was only slightly wounded when a out-of-town acquaintance with on-the-ground gardening credentials tartly pointed out: “ You know, potatoes are essentially the cockroaches of the vegetable patch.”

But the beavers. 

Between Ponds 2 and 3, there’s an island.  Soon after I moved in, my brother and sister-in-law came to visit.  We decided to explore the island.  None of us had ever owned an island before and because it was unfamiliar territory, my brother decided to bring the axe, in case anything needed chopping.  

He needn’t have bothered.  Clearly, we were not the first creatures who had ever walked on this island. It looked like a giant had dropped by and whittled all the trees to pencil-like points with his penknife.  We forged ahead, trying not to impale ourselves on all the sharpened stumps.   At the north end of the island, we discovered a lovely two-seater wooden bench set on some flagstones overlooking one of the ponds.  My brother and his wife sat down on the bench in the sun, and my sister-in-law enthused about what a wonderful reading nook it would be on a warm summer day. 

“Look at all that firewood beside you”, I chimed in, pointing to an enormous heap of logs with no bark left on them.  “We didn’t need the axe after all. It’s a shame they’re so far from the firepit.”  My brother glanced over his shoulder at the log pile.  He looked at the axe.  And back at the pile of logs with their sharp pointy ends.  I could hear him thinking.

Now, if you’re reading this and you’ve lived in Wellington County for a while, you can stop reading right now, because you know exactly where this story is going.   But I’m new here, and I’m going to be repeating this story to every single city slicker who comes to visit this year.  

You know how we Canadians think of the beaver as the quintessentially Canadian mammal?  It’s our mascot.  We have them on our nickel.  We regard them as industrious, shoulder-to-the-wheel type of creatures.  I confess that I was quite enthusiastic about the beavers on my island at first.  I even tweeted about them a couple of days later to Toronto City Councillor Gord Perks.

Gord didn’t mince words. You remember that phrase to which I attributed the success of my rooftop garden?  No known predators?  Gord pointed out that Canada sent 20 Manitoba beavers to Tierra Del Fuego in 1947, hoping to jumpstart an Argentinian beaver fur industry. They thrived because they had no known predators.  Today, the Argentinian beaver population is out of control.  Yes, the beaver is taking over the Americas, one small island at a time. 

Starting with mine.


NEW IN TOWN: An Introduction

"Where are you from?"

It's a question I'm learning to anticipate, though when I arrived here eight months ago, it took me by surprise. How did they know that I'm new in town? I'm from Toronto.  I had lived in downtown Toronto for over 50 years when I suddenly decided to pull up stakes and move to rural climes.  The tiny commercial building I owned, on a 640 sq. ft. lot on a main street in the capital city of Ontario, was apparently worth more on the bloated real estate market than a spacious house on 5.63 acres of beautiful waterfront land in Wellington County.  You do the math.  Who wouldn't want to live here?  I breathe clean air, drink delicious well water, work harder than I have ever worked in my life - and I sleep like a log, every single night.  In Toronto, everyone complains about insomnia.  In rural Ontario, people complain about invasive plants on their property.  Perhaps Dog-Strangling Vine keeps them up at night.  I'd never heard of this alarming-sounding weed before I arrived here last April.  But it likely doesn't thrive in concrete, eh?

In no particular order, here are five things I've had to get used to in my new locale:

1. Driving a car. Everywhere. In Toronto, I hadn’t owned a car since 1988. I walked, used public transit, took taxis, rode a motorcycle in good weather, and had a carshare membership if I needed to transport heavy things.

2. Strangers speaking to me. Back in the city, if a man I didn’t know walked up to me on the street and made a personal remark, he’d probably earn himself an earful, or a fat lip, depending on the comment. On the main street in Erin, when a local guy commented appreciatively on my jeans (okay, they were red jeans, but still…) I just laughed and replied I’d think over his offer to go dancing.

3. Propane. It never occurred to me that I would have to phone in a request for a fuel delivery. I’m used to an unlimited supply of natural gas, and I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t even know where my propane tanks were on the cold day I ran out of fuel. But the propane company is on my permanent Christmas card list from now on, thanks to the same-day humanitarian delivery that warmed more than my heart. I now know where my tanks are, and how to read the fuel gauge.

4. Rubber boots. I hadn’t owned any since I was five. Nowadays, I’m worried that my well pedicured city feet, more used to elegant footwear with heels, are going to take on the size and shape of my rubber boots from Budson’s Feed Store. These boots are excellent, and I wear them all the time.

5. Neighbours who come right over to talk to you. I love this. In Toronto, if someone knocks on your door without a formal invitation to do so, it probably means your building is on fire. Here, your neighbours know when you’re home. How do they know? Because your car is in the driveway. And if you don’t answer the door right away, they just assume you’re out on your property somewhere and they go and look for you.

Aren’t you going to feel isolated?” That’s what all my Toronto friends asked when I told them of my decision to move away from what I’d always believed was the centre of the universe. “I’m hoping so”, I’d quip, but in fact I’ve only been here a month and I already have a social life. My immediate neighbours have been generous and welcoming, and I’ve met several other neighbours while selling surplus items on Kijiji. Last week my motorcycle broke down while I was putting air in the tires at a service station on Main Street. While I was waiting for CAA to come to my rescue, a very nice couple showed up and offered to help me get the bike started. Five minutes later, my bike was revving nicely and I’d learned a valuable lesson from Scott and Sandy: “We look out for each other here”.

Did I mention I got another essential item of clothing for my new life? Yes, I bought myself a blue plaid flannel shirt at Budson’s. It’s the perfect fit and I love it….but to be honest, my red jeans look absolutely terrible with it. I won’t be going dancing in that outfit.