The Sweetest July Ever

Photo by Miikka Luotio on Unsplash

July in Quebec is always an idyllic time. It’s a month to savour the sun, warmth, a more relaxed lifestyle and daylight until almost 9 pm.  But those aren’t the things that made it so special this year.

We spent July 1st , Canada Day, at a BBQ with friends. That may not sound special, but with COVID safety measures finally relaxed in Quebec, it was the first time in almost a year that we could be together.  And it was perfect. The air was warm and dry, the crickets were chirping and our hosts’ garden was beautiful.  Although not yet at its peak, it held the promise of blooms to come. The day lilies were growing tall and elegant, like ballerinas poised for a performance. The leaves of the black-eyed Susans were a deep, restful green and the white and green stripes of the hostas were like festive ribbon wrapped around the front yard.

As I sat, quietly sipping my wine and watching my life-long friends, I felt like I had been holding my breath and I could finally let it out in a long, slow exhale.  It felt like coming home after being away for a long, long time.

A few days later, my kids came to the house for  lunch for the first time in more than a year. I never thought I’d see the day when my own kids couldn’t come into our home. I still get a lump in my throat when I think about it. I’m not judging but I know families who felt safe enough to gather throughout the pandemic.  But I have a 94-year-old mother who lives in a residence. The first wave in Quebec swept through seniors’ homes and left death in its wake. I knew I couldn’t live with myself if I was the one who exposed my Mom – and consequently others at the residence – to the virus because I flouted the rules.  My son and daughter understood. So we went for walks or did driveway visits but it wasn’t the same. 

It was a beautiful, hot, sunny day so we ate outside. But I kept finding excuses for them to come into the house. As they sat on the deck, I called to them from the kitchen, “Erik, could you come and get the plates to set the table please?” Or “Luce, can you come in and help me with dessert?”  Then I’d watch as the patio door slid open and they stepped into the house. And there they were, standing in my kitchen. It was a something I’d seen hundreds of times before. But this time it was a precious gift I’d been wanting for so long.

I could tell you about other great things that happened in July like taking my bike out for a spin or Ben and I riding the trails on our horses. But, really, they wouldn’t hold a candle to having the people who are most special to me back in my life. So, good-bye, sweet July and hello August. I hope you have more wonderful things in store for us.

A perfect day for dogs, horses and humans

My baby girl, Heidi.

It’s a hot, dry day – perfect for a ride.  When we get to the barn, our horses are with the rest of the herd at the bottom of a very big field. They seem happy – heads bowed, chomping on the grass, fresh and verdant from yesterday’s rainfall.  But it’s a long walk to get them. I grab my mare’s halter and lead line and start walking down the field. Ben stays behind and tries a strategy that worked the last time we were here. He stands by the fence, puts his fingers to his mouth and whistles, a shrill sound that pierces the air.

Last time, all the horses raised their heads high and pricked their ears, bodies alert to potential dangers for a prey animal.  Then one, a gelding the color of espresso, began trotting toward home – and me. Mane and tail flying behind him, he gathered speed. The other horses quickly followed, understanding that if he perceived danger, their best bet was to follow him back to the barn. There’s safety in numbers.

I stopped in the field as they thundered past me.  I raised my arms sideways and waved them up and down. The movement was enough to keep them from getting close enough to run me over. When the last horse ran past me, I turned and headed back to the paddock near the barn where they had gathered.  I slipped Heidi’s halter over her head, gave her a carrot and brought her into the barn for grooming.

This time, though, the horses are wiser. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.   Again, I walk through the field with Heidi’s halter. When Ben whistles, I stop and wait for them to come running. But they keep their heads to the ground, grazing contentedly on the grass. As I get closer, Heidi spots me. She knows I pose no danger. On the contrary, I come bearing treats and she will do almost anything for a treat, so she walks amiably to me. Ben’s horse, Sting, looks on with curiosity. They spent 18 years together alone in their own paddock. They were – and still are – like an old couple. But with a recent change of barns, they have become part of a bigger herd. Their adjustment was smooth, but there is still a strong connection between them, so he watches to see where Heidi goes.

When he hears her crunching on the carrot I feed her, he comes to join us.  As I walk with Heidi on a lead line, he follows for a short while. Then he decides to return to his friends.  Back at the barn, Ben is still at the fence, whistling to horses that are paying no attention whatsoever to him. “Good luck,” I say.

Fifteen minutes later, Ben arrives with Sting in tow. “Did he play hard to get once you went into the field?”  I asked.  Sometimes Sting waits until Ben gets close to him, then darts away just for fun. Ben shakes his head. “Ah, he’s just messing with you, it’s a game to him,” I say.

Soon we are tacked up and ready to hit the trails. Abby, the sweet, energetic chocolate Lab at the barn, joins us. We enter the woods with Abby in the lead, her tail pointing straight up like a flag for us to follow. 

It’s cooler in the woods and puddles the size of small sink holes remain on the trails from the recent heavy rains. Abby zips in and out of the trees, sometimes going deep into the woods before rejoining us on the trail. We hear a rustle of branches and leaves before she bursts back onto the trail panting and tongue lolling, then rushing ahead of us again.

The trail opens to a field dotted with wildflowers – white Queen Anne’s Lace, yellow goldenrod and purple clover.  Their scent is cloying and sweet as the flowers brush up against our thighs.  Bright orange Monarch butterflies flit around us, occasionally landing on a flower.

We cross the field to another patch of woods and a trail that leads back to the barn. The horses know we’re going back and step up their pace, anxious to return to the security of their herd.  We lose sight of Abby for a while and find her lying in a puddle in the middle of the trail to cool off. Then she is off again.

Back at the barn, we dismount and Abby lies on the ground with a contented sigh. It’s as if she is saying, “That was just perfect.” My sentiments exactly, Abby. My sentiments exactly.

Weeping for the Weeping Willow

I was the one who nearly wept the day the tree came down.  Every morning when I looked out my bedroom window as a kid, the magnificent weeping willow was there to greet me. Rain or shine –  winter, spring, summer or fall – there it was, rising majestically skyward like a gentle giant just behind the fence that separated our yard from our neighbour’s.

Its supple, whip-like branches arched upward then floated down making it look like a mammoth umbrella. The leaves were a silvery green that danced like tiny ballerinas when the wind rustled through them. Then one morning, I heard the grind and whir of a saw. I looked out my window to see sections of the tree being crudely lopped off bit by bit. The sound amplified in my ears and I imagined it was the tree screaming in pain.   “Why are you doing this to me?”

“The roots are damaging the foundation of the house so they are taking it down,” my mother explained.  I was outraged.  The house had been built way too close to the tree, which had been there well before! 

It didn’t occur to me then that hundreds of trees had probably been cleared to make way for the development we lived in. It was a neighbourhood of modest, cookie-cutter bungalows with pristine lawns. Each front lot was adorned with a single maple tree planted by the city. Most back yards were devoid of any trees at all. I don’t even know how the weeping willow survived in the first place.

Now I live in what used to be a semi-rural area. Older developments like ours have large lots and care was taken to protect as many mature trees as possible.  I imagine that city officials and contractors found a way to build homes while preserving as many trees as possible. Unfortunately, the current administration hasn’t taken the same care with new developments and I can’t understand why because trees do so much for us.

They protect us: We’ve all sat under the cool shade of a tree on blazing-hot summer days. They give us beauty: Year-round, we look out our windows at the cardinals, bluejays, robins, doves, chickadees and other species who flit around the branches of the trees in our yard. They offer entertainment: Squirrels and chipmunks playfully chase each other up and down tree trunks, sometimes performing feats of athleticism. They do magic: In cold weather, tree branches twinkle and glisten with ice and snow. On the night of a full moon, our street looks like a winter wonderland. Most important of all: They help to fight pollution and soil erosion.

Our lot has several  birch trees, evergreens, a crab apple tree, maples and until last year, an enormous tree that had to be taken down when a storm badly damaged it.  I won’t pretend that co-habitating with so many trees is always positive. There are hours of raking to be done over several weekends in the fall. Wind and snow storms damage the trees and they, in turn, wreak havoc with power lines.  It’s not unusual for our power to be out for three days in a row.  The trees need to be pruned regularly or their branches become uninvited guests at dinner on our deck. 

So, yes, sometimes (often) our property looks messy because it’s littered with broken branches or fallen leaves.  But these are minor inconveniences compared to what the trees give back to us.

LITTLE WILLOW / Paul McCartney

I can’t verify this , but it has been said that McCartney wrote this song after Ringo Starr’s first wife passed away in 1997.