Odds & sods

I work very hard to be a positive person and put goodness out into the world. So I feel like this isn’t what I want to say, but I have no other description than this past month felt heavy.

I miss Baxter. My Dad. Matt.

Father’s Day, the anniversary of my Dad’s death and a few other occasions weighed on me.

Matt’s Dad is part of the Optimist Club, a service organization in Matt’s hometown. The Club bought us a tree to plant at the farm. I chose a sugar maple, to honour Matt’s love of making maple syrup, and selected a spot near Ellie’s playground overlooking the fields.

Standing by Matt's tree

It was lovely and special and generous and kind. But it was also sad and harder than I expected.

The last class of kids that Matt was able to teach graduated last week, and the school organized a scholarship in his honour. Lovely and special and generous and kind. But also sad and hard.

Obviously, the world is grappling with some very, very difficult issues, and we felt the impacts of that here at the farm.

Slowly pandemic restrictions are lifting (sometimes it still feels too fast). We have been getting together more with family and friends, but still staying outside and still being cautious about going out very much.

I have been thinking about race and biases and racism and what part I can play, both for myself and for Ellie.

And in the realm of first world problems, we had no internet for about two weeks, which sent work, connecting with family, my Zoom grief counselling group skidding sideways. I’ve been working hard to get caught up.

But we had beautiful warm (sometimes sweltering hot) weather. Our fields had their first cut of hay, and we took Ellie’s annual picture with the bales. (You can see the flashback on my Instagram.) And last night as I walked up the driveway after closing the gate, thousands of fireflies were sparkling all around me as far as I could see.

Ellie standing on the hay bale

Every single day has good in it, and that is some of what I am sharing today in my monthly round-up.

“Two of the fundamental facts of being a person are 1. Whether we can walk or not, we must go on. And then also 2. None of us ever walks alone.”

My new favourite Instagram account (and an inspiring One Room Challenge transformation)

The One Room Challenge wrapped up last week and I’ve been having fun looking at some of the rooms

Expansion plans for Ellie’s playground

Three tips for how to make choices that will make you happy

Pandemic financial habits that are worth keeping

A thought-provoking comparison

I found my design inspiration for our main bathroom

How was June for you? What were your bright sides this month?

 

Like dandelions in the wind

A couple of weeks ago, our two oldest nephews came up to the farm to help with the grass. The oldest one got the tractor and started mowing. The youngest one got balls and toys and played with Ellie while I ran the push mower.

At one point I looked over to see him blowing dandelions with her. My breath caught. The last person to do that with her was her Dad. And now, one of her “big cousins” was doing it with her, and Matt will never do it with her again.

Matt and Ellie blowing dandelions

Today, Father’s Day, I am sad. So, so sad that we don’t get to celebrate Matt and my Dad in person.

It’s easy to let sadness be the only thing I feel today and to focus on everything that is missing.

But I’m choosing to be grateful. Grateful that her 18-year-old cousin is willing to blow dandelions with her, juggle balls and toss them in the air as high as he can, run up and down the barn ramp, collect pinecones to throw in the pond and spend a morning doing whatever a little two-year-old girl wants to do. Grateful for these two generous, helpful, kind young men. Grateful for the fathers and father figures in our lives.

Ellie has one Dad, and we celebrate and remember him every single day.

But today is Father’s Day, and we have many father figures. From cousins to uncles to friends to her Papa, Ellie is loved. And so am I. And that is what today is about for us: celebrating love of fathers and children in all their forms.

What ever this day means to you, Happy Father’s Day.

 

Bonfires at the pond

Bonfire beside the pond

The sun is going down. The air is warm. Frogs and birds are chirping. The water of the pond ripples as bugs, fish and beavers paddle around. Within a circle of stones, the flames of the bonfire dance in the gentle breeze.

This is the idyllic night by the pond that I have imagined since we moved here. And it has finally happened.

For many years, I have proclaimed that clearing the pond shore is my one and only outside project for the summer. And for many years, I have failed to fulfill my dream.

Overgrown brush on the shore of the pond

You might recall that earlier this year I burned the shore. This cleared all of last year’s brush and grass. In a couple of weeks, the grass had started to regrow, but it was small and and soft and green—very mowable.

Controlled burn beside the pond

Matt’s Dad went through with his heavy duty loppers and chainsaw. He did battle with saplings, suckers and the beaver lodge (not dismantling it, just climbing around on it). It was brutal for him, but more brutal for the brush.

Burning all of it took two more big fires.

I mowed, our nephew mowed, my cousin mowed. Ellie and I added benches and moved rocks to make the firepit.

Soon, Ellie and I were making daily visits to the beavers and then friends came for a (social distancing) bonfire. It was as wonderful as I imagined.

Last weekend, Matt’s Dad, his oldest brother and our two nephews waged another battle. This time with the stumps. Once we started mowing, we discovered a few stumps sticking up high enough to catch on the mower. With axes, pry bars and shovels, they dug them all out—another brutal job, but one I appreciate so, so much.

Digging out stumps by the pond

We celebrated on Saturday night by gathering for a bonfire. It was the first time we’ve all been together since Matt’s birthday in March. At the start of April, I wrote, “maybe, maybe in a few months the shore will be green, quarantine will be over, and we’ll be able to walk down and sit by the water.”

Though restrictions are lifting across Ontario, we are still being cautious. But the shore is green and we’re able to spend time together.

I often sit by the pond for a few minutes in the afternoons when Ellie naps or in the evenings after she goes to bed. We still visit the beavers at least once every day. And bonfires have become weekly events.

Evening at the pond

All of this gives me joy and peace, even more than I imagined.

Our backyard playground & tips for buying a used playset

Backyard playset

As winter waned this year, Ellie and I developed a habit of adding a playground visit to our daily outings. Then the pandemic arrived full force and by the first day of spring all of the playgrounds in our area were closed.

Ellie looked out the window as we drove past and said, “Pwaygound?” When I explained they were closed and we couldn’t use them, she cried.

When I told her that we might get our own playground at the farm, Ellie’s first question was if it would be closed. I was happy to assure her that her playground will never close.

Backyard playset

The idea of adding a playset was easy. It’s something I’ve planned since last year.

We received a lot of generous donations from the Go Fund Me campaign to honour Matt. And I felt like using some of that money for a playset for Ellie was something Matt would have enjoyed a lot.

But finding the playset was not easy.

Matt and I had visited a local builder that makes playgrounds last year. The quote for a small, old display model at the end of the season was $4,000. I was tempted, but Matt set me straight.

This spring, I started my search on kijiji (the Canadian Craig’s List). Playsets came up, but they disappeared within minutes–not hours, minutes. I think with all of the kids out of school, parents were looking for things to keep them busy at home. Competition was fierce.

But I finally managed to be first in line for one. It has everything I was looking for and is perfect for our girl. She loooooves it. It’s always open… except at bedtime. And it’s a lovely gift from her Dad.

Backyard playset

Here are my tips for buying a second-hand playset:

1. Search often. Search everywhere. It took me a few weeks to find our playset. I spread the word with friends and family, hoping that they might know someone who wanted to get rid of a playset or that they could keep an eye on various buy and sell groups they’re part of. My primary market was kijiji. New sets were listed everyday, but they sold within minutes. I learned that I had to check the site a few times and day and be prepared to act fast.

2. Know what you’re looking for. Our girl loved climbing and sliding when we went to the park. She was also getting more comfortable on swings. So I knew our set needed swings, a slide and some kind of climber. The size of the playset didn’t matter to me, but if you have a smaller yard, you may want to know what dimensions your set should be.

The playset didn’t need to be perfect. I was prepared to do a bit of work fixing it if necessary. Playsets have been outside for years. Kids have played on them. They may be weathered and worn. Think about what repairs you’re willing and able to make.

Building a backyard playset

Also, know what price you’re prepared to pay. Most of the playsets I saw were less than $500, though a few went up to $1,000–still big savings over the $4,000 we were quoted last year. Thinking in advance about what’s most important to you means you can quickly evaluate a listing and decide to buy it or not.

3. Arrange transportation. Playsets tend to be large and awkward. They’re not something you can throw in the back of your car easily. But prompt pick-up is important in a competitive market. I knew I’d need help bringing it home, so I had Matt’s Dad with his pick-up truck and trailer on standby. I also had other friends and family for back up if needed. I wanted to be able to act fast once I successfully found a playset.

4. Be prepared to disassemble. A lot of the playsets I saw online said, “You take it apart.” They were fully set up in people’s backyards. I’ve noticed this changed a bit as people became more sensitive about social distancing. Fortunately, the seller disassembled our set and carried out to the curb, where we picked it up. However, there were still a few pieces that we took apart to make transportation easier. Bring some tools to the pick up, so that you can take care of whatever is needed. A toolbox would be the most basic, but if you have to do a full disassembly I’d recommend a drill, wrenches, a socket set, pry bar, saw and sledge hammer.

5. Be prepared to reassemble. Once you get your new-to-you playset home, you’re going to have to put at least some of it together. For us, there was a fair bit of reassembly needed. Matt’s Dad and I spent about 4 hours building the playset. Or, as Ellie says, “Papa fix playground.”

Building a backyard playset

6. Find the manual. Perhaps the seller has kept the manual and passes it along to you. This was not the case for us, but he did supply the brand name for our playset, so I was able to find the manual online and print it off. We could not have put the playset back together properly without it. This is a case where you definitely should follow the directions.

Tips for building a backyard playset

7. Sort the pieces. If you’re like us, you’ll receive a big bag of bolts and screws from the seller. Inside the bag were more than 12 different sizes of bolts and screws, plus all of the nuts and washers. Each is meant to be used in a very specific place, and for strength and safety it’s important they’re installed correctly. Before we started putting anything back together, I sorted all of the hardware into labelled plastic cups . Then, it was a quick grab for the C3 screws, rather than a frustrating search. You can also sort the wood, but I found that was less critical. Note that the pieces of wood will likely be stamped with a part number somewhere (it took me awhile to notice this, and made life much easier once I did).

Building a backyard playset

8. Inspect. Once the playground is set up, check it over carefully. Make sure all of the screws and bolts are tight. Look for any damaged boards. Find any spots where bolts are missing. The upper deck was in one piece when we picked it up. But I discovered that some bolts underneath the platform weren’t installed. Also make sure to anchor the playset into the ground so that it never tips over.

9. Play! The playset has been a great addition to the farm. We spend time there pretty much everyday. We eat lunch on the built-in picnic bench, and swing and slide and climb. I put it right by the garden, and I’ve been able to do a bit of work while Ellie plays.

Backyard playset

Do you have a playset at your house? Are you a swinger or a slider or a climber? Have you added any new features to your property during quarantine?

 

Our golden boy

Baxter at sunset

Last week, on a warm sunny day, under the shade of a big maple tree in front of the house, Baxter died. I held him and told him what a good boy he is and how special he is and how well he had done at everything.

And I told him Matt was waiting for him and would be so, so happy to see him. I can see Baxter wagging his helicopter tail and singing his woo-woo howl when he sees Matt.

Baxter hadn’t felt up to singing or wagging for awhile, so it will be nice for him to return to himself finally.

Baxter's last walk with Ralph and Ellie

As soon as we moved to the farm, Matt and I knew we would add a dog to our family. Baxter was with us through so much. He tolerated renovations, followed the tractor around and lay in the sun as we worked outside. He went along with whatever we were doing and we were a unit.

When Ellie was born, Baxter was uncertain. But he watched over her and made sure she was taken care of, even through his early uneasiness. She became part of our unit, and he became rock solid for her.

Ellie and Baxter sitting on the grass

Ellie reading to Baxter

I am so grateful that he was in her life. Ellie’s love for animals and her gentleness with them is rooted with Baxter. She will carry the lessons he taught her through her life.

Ellie laying on the floor beside Baxter

Feeding Baxter

Matt and Bax had a special relationship. Their little routines or sayings are unique to them. As Matt’s illness progressed, there were many nights Baxter stayed with him. He stayed close to Matt and watched him carefully.

Matt with Baxter

And after Matt died, Baxter was there for me, asking for very, very little as we went through each day and giving patience and comfort through tearful late night conversations and cuddles.

There is another hole in our lives.

But, our lives were fuller because of him, and we hold him with us.

Our family

Happy Victoria Day

Ellie walking in the field

Happy Victoria Day.

We have been having a wonderful weekend so far. There has been tractor time, picnic lunches, animals, hikes, bonfires and lots of other fun.

Picnic lunch with the barn cat

And I want more.

So I decided to grant myself a three-day weekend and take today off. I’ll be back next week with a new blog post.

I hope you are doing well. Take good care.

A Mother’s Day tree

Planting a tree for Mother's Day

You know those fantasies you have as you’re growing up, where you envision your home and your family and your life someday when you’re an adult?

One of mine was very specific. I think this was when I was a teenager, even before I met Matt.

I would live on a farm. There would be a big house, a big barn, beautiful property and trees. Lots and lots of trees. We would grow our own Christmas trees. And every Mother’s Day, we would plant a few new Christmas trees.

I had forgotten about this plan, but it came back to me the other day. Ellie was playing outside and I was digging a hole in preparation for planting a tree. I had come up with the idea that I wanted to transplant a tree for Mother’s Day. That it would be a fun, life affirming, long-reaching thing for us to do together.

Planting a tree for Mother's Day

As I was digging away, the memory of my childhood vision came back to me. I am so grateful that I got to make it real yesterday with our girl–and our furry children as well.

Planting a tree for Mother's Day

Planting a tree for Mother's Day

Ellie swinging on her playset with Baxter and Ralph behind the new tree we planted for Mother's Day

Matt was forever teasing me about my “sticks.” If a maple tree shows up somewhere I don’t want it, you can bet I’m going to transplant it, rather than dig it out and throw it away. This has led to a lot of spindly trees, but they usually survive their relocation and hopefully someday this stick will be a big beautiful reminder of this special time with our little girl.

How did you mark Mother’s Day?

 

Upgrading our leaky hot water tanks to fibreglass

“So you find that ominous puddle of water beneath your hot water heater. As you thoughtfully mop up the floor, … you are faced with one of two courses of action. The first, and… most soul-satisfying action would be to tear the unit bodily from the fittings and heave it lustily into the trash heap. But as your arms flex under this thought stimulus, you question your physical ability to perform this feat with all the zest and spontaneity the occasion requires. After all you are not as young and husky as you once were.”

Alfred J. Taylor in Popular Home Craft, February 1945

I received a copy of this magazine over the weekend, and it contained the article “Make That Water Heater Last.” The article talks of the demands of the Second World War and the impossibility of finding a plumber or buying a new heater when the old one starts to leak. It gives practical advice about how to “fortify your resolve” and “fix it yourself and make do.”

But beyond all of that, it is so well-written. The sentences are beautiful and funny. I couldn’t resist borrowing some of Alfred J. Taylor’s words to start this blog post, even if we did not have to make do when our “faithful old tank[s]” started to leak last year.

I’ve scanned the whole article to share it with you, in case you want a glimpse into home repair circa 1945 (don’t miss the last line… or the last two paragraphs… you know what? Just read the whole thing).

When we moved to the farm, we upgraded pretty much every system in the house. As part of our new geothermal heating and cooling system, we got two new hot water tanks. But within a few months of installing them, our hot water got super stinky. We didn’t want to shower it was so bad.

After a bit of online research I was able to figure out that the anodes in the tanks had likely become home to some malodorous bacteria. We decided to have the anodes removed, and our odor problems went away.

But a new problem arose. Without the anodes, the tanks were more susceptible to rust and likely wouldn’t last as long.

Last summer, we noticed some seepage around the bottom of the tanks. They had lasted just over 7 years before rusting out.

Leaking hot water tank

We started investigating our options and getting quotes.

Ultimately, we decided to go with one of the options our geothermal company had offered when they were fixing our stinky water issues: two new anode-less fiberglass tanks.

Rheem Marathon hot water heaters

Not the cheapest solution, but hopefully the longest lasting one.

(For those asking, “What about tankless?” I don’t like tankless water heaters. I’ve used them a few places and the water never gets hot enough for me. I like my showers to be scalding. Also, our geo system generates some excess heat, which is captured by our dual tank system, so we feel like we’re pretty efficient and environmentally friendly right now.)

I often joke that we have a science experiment in our utility room between the water treatment system and the geothermal. Now we have two spacecraft as well with these capsule shaped tanks.

(And for Mr. Taylor, with his iron cement and assorted wrenches, thank you for your encouraging, educational and entertaining article.)

Odds & sods

Last week I talked about looking forward to joy in the garden. On Saturday we found it. Sunshine, warmer temperatures, some cooperative worms, a bit more progress on weeding and our happy girl.

Weeding the vegetable garden with Ellie

I think a lot of people are using this time to reconnect with what’s most important. Family, nature, making, growing. I hope that among the juggle and the difficult, you’re able to find the joy.

Here are some other things that have made me happy over the last little while:

“The ultimate day of running and fixing and making and being.” Lots of lessons for living, prioritizing, working, feeling, thinking and accomplishing. (Also LOL at 10:05)

I watch a fair bit of HGTV most weeks. A new favourite is Celebrity IOU. It feels genuine, generous… and of course there are some beautiful makeovers.

I’m noticing a bit more diversity on HGTV. A few episodes have highlighted accessibility needs for people with mobility challenges and they’re branching out beyond the nuclear family with multi-generational households.

Thinking of hiring a designer? I’ve followed Jen at Rambling Renovators for a long time. Her style is beautiful, and I’m so proud of her for taking this step. But more I love the positive hopeful attitude she’s promoting in launching her business now.

Cookies with no chocolate, no peanut butter, yet everyone I gave them to asked for the recipe (Tip: This makes a huuuuuge quantity of cookies. I cut the recipe in half and still had more than 50. Hence, the giveaways.)

How to brush a toddler’s teeth. I feel like we’re making some progress toward a truce in our nightly battles though we’re not yet as peaceful as this demonstration. I welcome any tips.

Shelf isolation

The royal wartime radio address updated and reimagined

My writing elsewhere:

I wish you joy and health. Take good care.

Gardening philosophy: See how it goes

Earth Day is this week, so it seems like a good time to talk about vegetable gardens. It also seems like a lot of people are planning gardens this year. Whether it’s a desire to be more self-sufficient, or looking for an activity to keep kids busy during quarantine, or the joy that comes from watching things grow, there are a lot of up sides to gardening.

I’m not sure what our garden plans are yet. I think the best description of my philosophy is “see how it goes.”

It’s hard to overstate the mess that was the vegetable garden last year. I had high hopes of weeding at least the outer raised beds, but only made it about a quarter of the way around in the spring before I gave up.

I blame the baby.

Ellie gardening at 1 year old

One year ago this week

We spend plenty of time outside–that’s our favourite place to be–and Ellie is pretty good at amusing herself while Mama works.

But the garden ground was too uneven for her a year ago when she was still unsteady on her feet. She spent most of her time in the garden frustrated. She took two steps and tripped. She fell down and couldn’t get back up. She got caught in weeds or plants. I felt like I was torturing the baby every time I tried to work.

We both found joy when the raspberries ripened. Ellie very quickly learned that any red berries were good to eat, and I loved seeing her reach for berries one after another. She still got tangled up, but she persisted because nothing comes between this girl and her fruit.

Red raspberries

In the fall, I really, really wanted to prune the raspberries. I didn’t do it the year before (again, blame the baby), and I knew we’d have a bigger crop and easier picking experience this year if I could get it done.

Between some early mornings, naptimes, and one baby-free day, I got the raspberries done. There were major weeds, many dead canes, multiple wheelbarrow loads, a lot of careful realignment of canes behind the wire trellises, and of course my favourite furry sidekick.

Baxter laying beside the pruned row of raspberries

But they got done and they’re looking great. Seeing the new leaves sprouting on the tidy rows brings me joy.

Some asparagus is starting to poke up–maybe this will be the year we finally pick some–and the rhubarb has emerged. A sandbox has also landed in the garden. Thanks to its arrival (and some temporary pet worms), the asparagus is already weeded.

Ellie playing in her sandbox in the garden

There’s more to do, but I’m adhering to my “see-how-it-goes” philosophy. No matter what, I’m anticipating more joy this summer with our girl.

Are you planning to grow any vegetables this year? Do you garden with your kids? Any tips for keeping toddlers occupied while working outside?

 

(For anyone looking for more garden tips, Amanda at Life at Cloverhill is doing an IGTV series where she answers reader’s vegetable garden questions.)