Category Archives: Lisa’s Story

Currying Favour

Books are full of surprises, aren’t they? Sometimes, it’s not what you’d expect. There was that time I opened a book from my grandmother, four years after she’d died, and found a note along with a delicate pressed rose. Another time, inside a library book, I discovered a handwritten recipe for curried ackees (which I kept, of course. You never know when ackees might go on sale at the local veggie stand).

More recently, I was browsing for bargains in the books section of a secondhand shop. When I flipped through one particular volume, I discovered a small envelope with “To Mark” written on it. Curious, I opened the envelope and pulled out a small notecard. It read: “Dear Mark, we love you very much. It’s such a delight to have us sharing this day together. Oooo mushy. Anyhow, Happy Birthday!” It was signed. And so was an as-yet-uncashed cheque for $60.

Oh, the inhumanity. A gesture of kindness, almost lost forever in an old book. Lost since July 2010, anyway.

Luckily, there was a phone number printed on the cheque. Feeling rather pleased with myself, I pocketed the card and made up my mind that when I got home, I would call the kind couple who loved Mark so dearly. Maybe they could issue him a new cheque, since he never cashed the one they gave him. Maybe they could send the card back to him, or replace it with another, since he took the one they’d lovingly written for him and carelessly stuck it in a…

Oh.

I chickened out. What if it hurts their feelings, I pondered, to know that Mark misplaced the card, and never bothered to spend the money? Sure, it may have been an honest accident. And maybe he really did turn his house upside down afterwards looking for the gift, before calling his doting friends in anguish, and maybe they have long since replaced the cheque for him.

Yet on the off chance it turned out Mark just didn’t care as much as they did, I didn’t want to take that risk.

Anyhow, I’ve since Googled our friend Mark. He was easy to find. He’s got a respectable job, and he looks happy, if a little scruffy (Mark, if you’re reading this, consider giving that weird beard a trim). So he’s doing okay, really.

I think I’ll let well enough alone. Would you?

P.S. As my replacement good deed (and because I’m sure you’re dying to ask anyway), here’s the recipe for curried ackees:

Red or yellow pepper and onion, diced small
Sauté until soft in butter
Scotch Bonnet to taste
Add half can coconut milk
Add 1 tbsp curry powder
If too thin, thicken with a little flour paste
Add ackees, warm and serve warm

Sixty bucks: More than enough to pay a barber.

Sixty bucks: More than enough to pay a barber.

Power Hour

Did you observe Earth Hour on Saturday night? How did you choose to mark the occasion? In my city, some people spent the time between 8:30 and 9:30 p.m. enjoying an acoustic music performance at a downtown pub. Others demonstrated their commitment to the planet with a candlelit yoga class (I imagine there’s something to be said for downward dog in the dark).

In fact, millions of people were expected to participate around the globe, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Here in Toronto, our use of electricity dropped by a somewhat shabby six percent. That’s not quite as much as last year’s Earth Hour, although on my own street the rate of participation seemed unnaturally high – I noticed several darkened houses, displaying a high respect for energy conservation in my ’hood (unless, of course, those folks were simply out somewhere, dancing to pounding techno-pop under strobe lights).

Sure, turning off the lights for an hour is a symbolic gesture. But that doesn’t make it less meaningful. Or less fun. As far as I’m concerned, we’re all more attractive by flickering candlelight. And by the same token, everything’s a little more interesting.

At 8:30 in my house, the family – including the dog – gathered together in one dim room for a snuggle and deep conversation. We passed the hour (quickly, it seemed) with several rounds of “Would You Rather,” each one sparking a spirited three-way discussion. Likewise for two other games we invented on the spot, one I’ll call “What Would Your Happiest Moment on Earth Look Like” and another called “If You Could Have the Answer to Any Mystery on Earth, What Would It Be” (contenders were “what’s beyond this universe?” and “who borrowed that book from me back in the seventies?”).

You know, when your kid is 14 and life is a whirlwind, having an hour to talk together as a family, with no electronics, noises or distractions, is pure gold.

So as much as observing Earth Hour was a sincere gesture of goodwill, I have to say, the privilege was all mine.
Globe

A Custodian, a Banana Peel, a Tennis Ball (or Two)

Maybe it’s because my high school reunion is coming up this month (spoiler: I’m not going), but I’ve been thinking a lot about those old public school days. I grew up just outside of a tiny, remote hamlet. When our meager population was finally deemed robust enough to justify the construction of a modest elementary school, I was among the first students.

There are many things about that fresh little K-5 school that stick in my mind. Like the brightly painted foursquare and hopscotch patterns. The shiny, 1970s-modern play structure (poor Marnie E., who fell from it and broke her leg). The proximity to the candy store.

I also remember Mr. Hamilton. He was the small school’s one and only custodian. He was cheerful, skinny and (I thought at the time) incredibly old. He smiled often and wasn’t perturbed by much.

So there I was, a fifth-grade, ostensibly goody-goody sort of student, under the influence and the thumb of my best-friend-at-the-time, Christine M. Christine was smart and creative and bold. In grade five, a person with that special constellation of qualities was considered a troublemaker. (Unbeknownst to me, a teacher had already contacted my parents to suggest they try and break up the friendship.) When, at lunch recess, Christine dared me to throw my banana peel onto the one-storey building’s flat roof, I complied.

I got it in one shot. Unfortunately, I also got caught – by the teacher on yard duty.

She sent me inside to the custodian’s office to apologize forthwith, since he’d be the one stuck cleaning up my roof garbage. I hadn’t thought of that. And truth be told, I had very little experience owning up to my misbehaviour, since I didn’t display much of it in the elementary school setting.

I nervously went down the hall and, trembling, approached the janitor. “Mr. Hamilton?” I said in a tiny voice. “I’m very, very sorry, but I threw a banana peel on the roof.”

Good old Mr. Hamilton (who probably wasn’t all that old). He grinned broadly at me. “Oh, that’s okay,” he said. He reached for his desk. “Do you want a tennis ball? Here, have two tennis balls.” He handed me the treasures and sent me away. Seems Mr. Hamilton didn’t collect only garbage from the school’s flat roof.

I don’t remember much else about that incident. But I remember how relieved I was that the janitor wasn’t mad. And puzzled that he’d rewarded me with a gift.

I’d like to say that it was a major turning point, that Mr. Hamilton set me on the straight and narrow with his simple act of kindness. It would make for a great story. It wouldn’t be true, though. I would have continued to more-or-less behave no matter what. Christine M. and I drifted apart as we got older (she’s all grown up now with three beautiful daughters, which shows what you can do with intelligence and creativity). I got good grades and got into the regular measure of trouble that most teenagers manage to find. No, Mr. Hamilton didn’t do anything earthshattering that day. He was just nice.

But I think it’s enough that I never forgot it.

“Hey, something’s wrong – my wi-fi connection is down!”

“Hey, something’s wrong – my wi-fi connection is down!”

A Holiday that Isn’t Just for Turkeys

Now that this blog has been around for more than three years, it’s safe to say there’s an established annual tradition. Every year, right around this time, I’ve written about Thanksgiving and thanks giving. Of course, thanks giving should happen on more than just a day in October. And for most of us, it probably does. (Who you thank, of course, is your own business. I just try to wallow in a cloud of general appreciation.)

Still, it’s important to have a designated day to focus on our good fortune. (And eat pumpkin pie. It’s important to have a day to do that, too.) This month, my little family has been challenged with a couple of significant problems, plus a few assorted minor ones. And when these trials hit, I’m reminded of how easy it is to slip into frustration, host a pity party, fantasize about the runaway life.

Yet when I try to dwell on the positives in my life – the health and happiness of my child, the warmth of my marriage, the roof over our heads, the close community we live in, the taste of pinot grigio (my friend and oft-advisor firmly believes that no pity party is complete without a glass of wine)… it never, ever fails to make me feel at least a little better.

So that’s what I did this Thanksgiving. I felt thankful. And it’s helping. It’s no reason to give up my glass of pinot grigio – let’s not get giddy about this – but it truly makes a difference.

P.S. I had the pleasure of sharing my enthusiasm for good deeds on CBC Radio yesterday afternoon. Here’s the link to the 7-minute interview if you want to check it out.

I tried to take a picture of a pumpkin pie that WASN’T half eaten, but that’s an endangered species around here.

I tried to take a picture of a pumpkin pie that WASN’T half eaten, but that’s an endangered species around here.

Not as Powerless as You Might Think

This past Wednesday was a significant anniversary, at least it was for anyone who lives along the northeast seaboard of North America. That’s because August 14 marked ten years since a historic, sweeping power failure blacked out big cities and small communities alike, affecting 50 million people for up to four days.

On Wednesday, many of us reflected back on the experience (while others, apparently, partied like it was 2003).

Ten years ago, on August 14, my family and I had just moved into a new house in a new neighbourhood. We hadn’t yet met anyone – more on that later – and our bungalow was a mess with the dust and debris of renos.

When the lights went out on the afternoon of August 14, my husband and I were downtown at work. We were both in office buildings with elevators. Right after the power loss, my colleagues and I carried a co-worker in a wheelchair down the stairs, in the dark – unbeknownst to me, my husband’s colleagues were simultaneously doing the same for him. Hence the good deed marathon had already begun.

I then walked over to my young daughter’s daycare. I mentioned to another parent that I couldn’t reach my husband to find out if he was trapped, and she promptly packed both our kids in the back of her car, scooting us off in the direction of his workplace. (“I know a back route,” she bragged, zipping through side streets to avoid the jammed intersections with failed traffic lights.)

My little family eventually reunited and made it home. In an inspiring feat of resourcefulness, my husband’s personal care attendant made it to our home for the evening shift after first prying himself out of an elevator that had stalled between floors. He did his work by candlelight.

And so on.

I have two favourite memories from that week. The first was stepping outside after dark that first night to look at the stars, an impossible treat for an urban dweller. It was a rare, breathtaking view.

My other favourite moment involves yet another act of benevolence. In the morning, I walked on our new street with my daughter and discovered, to my surprise, a makeshift coffee stand. A couple across the street had rolled out their barbecue and put on an old-fashioned percolator, and were now grandly brewing coffee for any neighbours who gathered. I was delighted to stop for a cuppa, and even more pleased to receive introductions to a wonderful new community of people.

That kindness of spirit we first experienced on our street that morning has endured for a decade. Ten years later, I still think of the 2003 blackout not as the time our air-conditioning failed in the heat of summer, or the time we drove around looking for batteries… but as the way by which we first met our new neighbours.

Were you affected by the blackout of 2003? Did you witness moments of grace and generosity? I’d love to hear from you.

Recent moving truck on our street: Let’s assume Joe is happy with the free publicity…

Recent moving truck on our street: Let’s assume Joe is happy with the free publicity…

Planes, Trains, Automobiles, etc., etc., etc…

Whew! We’re back to the regular routine this week after a good deal of lovely time off. Much of our summer vacation involved day trips, but we also travelled out of town. Returning home yesterday involved no fewer than seven modes of transportation – we know this, because we counted: car, plane, ferry, streetcar, subway train, bus and trusty little feet. Nevertheless, the trip was straightforward and included few surprises.

It did, however, remind me of how frequently I witness good deeds on or around public transportation. (I’ve touched on this before – here, here and here are a few examples.)

So, here goes another account of a moment of kindness that didn’t happen yesterday, but did happen recently. I’ve been saving this story to share with you because it made me grin. And because it’s the little things that sometimes perk us up the most, don’t you think?

It happened when a heavily tattooed, muscle-bound, shaved-headed guy came close to running right into me. He was barrelling towards the same subway station entrance that I was just about to walk through. But instead of colliding with me, the man came to a sudden stop and backed up to let me in the door. And as he did so, he gifted me with both a big, lovely smile and a sweeping arm gesture to wave me past him – saying sheepishly: “Sorry, sweetheart!”

Unexpected overwhelming decency. Yup, I think it’s wonderful.

Here’s where I was yesterday. Remind me again why I came back home?

Here’s where I was yesterday. Remind me again why I came back home?

Floods of Generosity

If you live in or near Toronto – or you don’t, but you know of Toronto, or you can pronounce the word Toronto – then you may be aware that we recently experienced what weather experts are calling a “once-every-hundred-years” phenomenon.

In layman’s terms: We were drenched. In just a couple of hours on Monday, we got more rain than we’d received in the entire day, ever. In fact, we collected more rain during rush hour than we normally get in the whole month of July.

What did that mean for those millions of us who live here? Spin the roulette wheel and take your pick: power failures, flooded basements, washed-out roads, evacuated homes, phone outages, stalled transit, swamped vehicles, trapped train commuters, damage to house and yard. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to has experienced loss in some form or another. And yet they’ll tell you, too, of the kindness they witnessed amid the devastation, the neighbours, friends and families who helped each other. I’m not hearing tales of woe. Instead, what I keep hearing is: “We were lucky.”

We were lucky. Our basement – not known for being impervious – wept somewhat during the worst of the downpour, but it was a slow leak that was easily contained with towels. Same with the rainwater that washed in under the front door. Our power was out for over 40 hours, leaving us with no means to operate my husband’s essential disability equipment. But we were able to literally recharge our batteries (and have a rewarding doggy visit) at a family member’s home. We had no A/C, but the weather was pleasant (fickle as it is). We threw away hundreds of dollars’ worth of perishable food, but we had great fun sharing a meal with neighbours, eating some stuff up before it spoiled.

And we were safe. We checked on folks in our community, and they checked on us. We fielded calls, texts and emails from people farther away who cared. I had the best coffee I’ve tasted in a long time, thanks to the neighbour who brewed it for me in the camper-trailer in her driveway. (Incidentally, I also had the worst coffee I’ve tasted in a long time, thanks to the enterprising local café that did the best it could with a gas burner and candlelight.)

Events like these remind us that in case of disaster, we have each other covered. We will pitch in. We will come through.

It’s a comfortable way to weather any kind of storm.

Hold on to your rainhats, folks, here comes a product endorsement … our coping-with-the-dark ability was boosted by our three terrific Lanterna “Touch On” LED table lights.

Hold on to your rainhats, folks, here comes a product endorsement … our coping-with-the-dark ability was boosted by our terrific Lanterna “Touch On” LED table lights.