Wednesday, January 29, 2014

NO BERRIES LIKE NEWFOUNDLAND BERRIES





This short story was originally published in the September 2009 issue of DOWNHOME magazine.




“Splack!”


“What the heck is wrong with you?” my husband asked upon hearing me spit into the kitchen sink.

“That strawberry tasted horrible!” I said, still gagging on the bitter, tasteless gook that remained on my tongue.

My husband chuckled, and then gave me a look that said I should have known better.

I grabbed the pint-sized plastic container and slam-dunked it into the garbage can. I was disgusted by the aftertaste of that awful strawberry; but mostly, I was disgusted at myself for thinking I could actually buy a ripe, juicy, sweet strawberry at the grocery store. They were most likely picked under-ripe from California, ripened somewhere along the way, and by the time it reached the grocery store here in Brampton, Ontario, were overripe. I got a glass of water, went into the living room, and started to reminisce about care-free childhood days picking sweet and juicy berries down home.

They called it Julier’s Field. It was a huge piece of land at the end of the only road in the community of St. Teresa’s, a fifteen minute drive from the Trans-Canada Highway on Route 403 in Newfoundland. The strawberries that grew there were the biggest and sweetest around, and began to ripen around the first week of June, and even though it was quite a distance to walk in the hot summer sun, thinking about that delicious fruit made the trek worthwhile.

Back then, we didn't know strawberries contained malic acid, a natural teeth whitener (no wonder our teeth seemed whiter then), or that they were an excellent source of vitamin C.  All we knew was that we were supposed to pick them every day and keep picking them until they were gone. They were mostly used for jams, cakes, pies, tarts, and muffins. However, on occasion, I would see my mom washing her face with the squashed berries. She said it made her skin feel soft and smooth.

My cousin, my aunt, and I would start walking to Julier’s Field just before lunch, and we always knew we were close when we caught the sweet scent of those berries riding on a warm breeze blowing in from the bay. We would look at each other for a moment, and then bolt for the field yelling, screaming, and laughing.

The long walk always made us famished. We’d throw the buckets aside and fall to our knees, picking and eating. After the binge, we’d start filling the buckets. Each bucket contained four quarts, and we each had two buckets. It would take some time to fill them because we had to make sure the berries were cleaned. Our fingers would be stained a bright red that lasted longer than the strawberry season did.

When we were finished, we would hide the buckets in the brush and head to the pond. The water felt refreshing and helped alleviate the stiffness in the legs and back caused by all that bending and stretching. After the swim, we’d head home, where dinner would be waiting for us. For dessert, Mom would let us have strawberries, squashed and topped with a little cream and sugar.

After the strawberry season was over, it was time to pick raspberries, which began to ripen the first week of July. We called them “dirty” berries because there were always tiny insects crawling all over them. Mom said those bugs were good for us, and I’m sure we ate them in the jam, but we hated picking them just the same. We never did get as many raspberries as we did strawberries because we were always on the lookout for those crawly bugs.

Blueberries were the best to pick. They began to ripen around the first week of August and were so plentiful we could grab them off the bush by the handfuls. Blueberries grew everywhere, even in our backyards. If we wanted to pick a cupful before breakfast, we could have fresh berries in our pancakes or cereal. We could have them with ice cream or fresh cream; we could have them with milk as a smoothie or just eat them plain. There was no end to the things we could do with that versatile berry.

I must have been on the sofa for about an hour, reminiscing about those days and those juicy berries. I swore then that I would never again buy berries from the grocery store, no matter how good they looked. I jumped up and went to the phone to call my mom. I told her to get the buckets ready; I was coming home for berry season!



My son, Jacob, and his cousin, Kerstin, keep up the tradition and proudly show their bounty.

www.downhomelife.com

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

TIPS ON BUYING A USED VEHICLE

In the summer of 2007 I was involved in a motor vehicle accident in which I was badly injured and my car was deemed a write-off.  I had always had bad luck with vehicles and this was my third car in three years and it took quite some time to save enough money to buy another vehicle. I couldn’t afford a new one, so when a friend told me that he knew someone who was selling a 1998 Dodge Caravan I decided to make arrangements to see the vehicle.  It seemed to be in great shape and I was allowed to take it home for a few days to get a “feel” for it.  Since I valued my friend’s opinion I ended up buying the van without having it looked at by a mechanic. 

Later that week, I took it to an e-test facility to have the emissions checked and it failed. I then took it to my mechanic and told him what happened.  After the mechanic looked at it, he told me that there was a problem with the engine, although I didn’t notice anything.  Well, actually, there was something wrong with the gas needle; it seemed to waver whenever I went over 60 kms.  He then continued to go on about how he needed to take a closer look to find the problem, so I left the van overnight so he could work on it the next day.  

The next evening he called me and told me that the engine was shot and it wasn’t worth the money to fix it. He then went on to say that he had a vehicle for sale that one of his customers was selling.  It was a 1998 Pontiac Grand Prix.  It worked well and it was fully loaded.  He told me that the vehicle was always serviced at his garage and it was a reliable vehicle.  He seemed genuine.  Even though it cost two thousand dollars more than what I wanted to pay for a used vehicle it seemed worth it because it would be inspected and emissions tested and I would just pay for the transfer of plates.

I managed to sell the van back to my friend’s friend and told him what the mechanic had said. He said that he would have it looked at and get it fixed, regardless.  Well, I got the Pontiac on the road and was very pleased.  It seemed to be a smooth ride and even though it had a lot of kilometers on it, it was reliable; for a while.  Five months down the road, I had been coming from the mall when it shifted out of gear and cut out, almost in the middle of a traffic light.  Fortunately, there was light traffic and I was able to steer it safely off the road. I tried to start it again and it started, but there was something wrong with the gear stick. I fiddled with the gear stick until I was able to accelerate. I was glad to be only minutes from my house.  I would not drive it again until I had someone take a look at it.

The next day I had friends take a look at it and everyone said that the transmission was shot.  I was able to drive it in second gear, so I took it up to another mechanic I found who had a shop closer to my home.  I didn’t know him very well, but he was highly advised. After an inspection of the car, he told me that the car had other major problems and that I was lucky that I didn’t get into an accident with it because I may have likely been killed.  The transmission was shot and the framework had been compromised perhaps by a previous accident or wear and tear.  He said that the car should have never been placed on the road and whoever sold me the car had more than likely known about the problems.  

Well, I was horrified.  The mechanic took me into the shop to show me all the things that were wrong with the vehicle and I saw with my own eyes the cracked frame.  I couldn’t believe it.  It was the middle of winter and I had used that vehicle to bring my son to and from school.  I was nauseous thinking about what could have happened to me or my son if that car had fallen apart on the highway or even on a busy street. I was disgusted about being cheated by someone I thought I knew and someone I trusted.  That man had serviced my other vehicles for over five years.  How could I get cheated like this?  How could I have been so stupid, so gullible, so naive?  

The mechanic didn't charge me anything, I guess he felt bad about it. I drove it back home and parked it.  My friend came over with his mechanic and looked over the vehicle; the second opinion reiterated the first.  It was official. I was ripped off.  I called the mechanic who sold it to me and when I told him what happened he said, “Oh, that’s strange…” There was no acknowledgement, no apology.  When I asked my friend about the van, he had said there was nothing wrong with the vehicle that a tune up didn’t fix.  His friend is still driving it today.


So, there was a lesson learned. I was taken as a sucker, and they got away with it because I had driven it for five months and pretty much got my money out of it, and it would have been difficult for me to prove that those guys knew about the damage on the car. I was out three thousand dollars and still no car. 

For all those out there who are thinking about buying a used vehicle here are a few tips I have come up with to help you make an informed decision.

1. Do the research! Check the reliability record of select models before you even begin to shop. Find out which vehicles stand the test of time and which ones have been recalled.

2. If a vehicle is being sold "as is" the owner cannot make any guarantees as to the condition of the vehicle. If something goes wrong after you buy it, you are responsible for the cost of repairs.

3. Check the exterior. Do a walk around the vehicle looking for dents, chipped paint, or any sign that the vehicle may have had body work done which may mean that the vehicle has sustained damage from an accident. One way to tell if there was any filler used on the vehicle is to use a magnet. If the magnet doesn't stick, there may be filler under the paint. Also, check the seals around doors, trunk, and hood. If they do not close and seal properly this may be evidence of previous damage.

4. The state of tires can indicate various problems with the steering, suspension, or brakes. Under-inflated tires wear at the sides, whereas over-inflated tires wear in the middle. Heavy wear on the outside shoulder near the sidewall of the tire indicates a car that has been driven hard.

5. Check the steering for "play" or clunking noises which may indicate a worn steering gear. 

6. Check the suspension. You can do this by pushing down on each fender and then letting it go. It should bounce back softly, once or twice. If there is more than two severe bounces it could indicate worn shock absorbers or struts.

7. Observe what happens when you accelerate. A cloud of black smoke could indicate an overly rich air/fuel mixture, usually due to a dirty air filter, or faulty oxygen sensor. Blue smoke is a worse sign and will cost expensive repairs. If there is a damaged transmission or worn out clutch the vehicle will rev excessively before it accelerates.

8. See what's under the hood. Wet spots can indicate leakage of fluids and oils. Belts and hoses should be unworn and the battery should have little grease and corrosion. Check all fluids. Normal engine oil is brown or black. Gritty oil may indicate long stretches between changes and frothy oil may indicate a blown head gasket, or damaged cylinder head. The transmission fluid should be bright red to light reddish brown. Dark brown or black colored fluid can indicate serious problems. If the fluid has a strong burned smell, that can indicate severe wear.

9. If you do not know much about vehicles then take it to a mechanic to have it thoroughly inspected with attention to diagnostics, undercarriage, structural components, and dents in the floor pan and fuel tank.

10. And, finally, get a second opinion! Also, there is a website where you can check the vehicle's history. www.autocheck.com

Hope this will help you in  your search for a good used vehicle. As for me, well, it's been a few years since I got ripped off. I am currently driving a 2013 Chevy Cruze, and I have to say, it is one smooth ride.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

MERRY CHRISTMAS GRAMMY AND GRANDFATHER



Following is a poem that I wrote December 2012 in remembrance of two very dear people who had a profound impact on my life. I would not be the person I am today if not for them. There were a few families in the community in which they lived, for we were all related, however, everyone seemed to gather at their house. There was a constant stream of people hanging in and around the house; there was never a dull moment. Anything you wanted to know about anything, you learned here. Whether it was from them or from children, grandchildren, and countless cousins who congregated there, there was some tidbit of gossip or some useful information circulating. They didn't have much, but you could always find something to eat, and the house was small, but you could always find somewhere to rest your weary head. You were always welcome, especially at Christmas time. Hope you enjoy this poem as much as I enjoyed writing it.



Merry Christmas Grammy and Grandfather wherever you may be
I went to look at your house today but there’s nothing left to see
The place where your house once stood is filled with a lot of snow
And under all that white stuff, well, I just don’t know

Since my legs were tired from walking in the snow
 I thought I’d stay awhile, I really had no place to go
I sat on a stump and pictured you both there
Grandfather smoking at the kitchen table and Grammy in her chair

Grammy, I remember one Christmas when I came to decorate your tree
Randy was alive then and you got so mad at me
Because I went outside to have a smoke with the boys
And when I came back, oh, you made such a noise!

But I finished the tree and when I turned on the lights
You smiled softly; your eyes were so bright
Even the boys stopped playing poker with the cards
Everyone was compelled to look at the beautiful twinkling stars
  
Another Christmas I remember, I was bogged down with problems
I decorated the tree while you both listened, we talked for hours
I cooked a pot of chicken soup that day
And by the time I left my problems seemed to vanish away
I walked out the door and felt so good
I made a snowman and brought in some wood

Grandfather, you always had such stories to tell
Like the time you pretended to be a bear and made my mother yell
Well, let’s face it, you scared her to hell
You used to say that on a very cold day
Your words would turn to ice and just fall away
Sometimes I didn’t understand what you were talking about
Oh, Grandfather dear, you were such a boy scout

The last Christmas I remember spending with you two
Someone else had decorated the tree there was nothing left to do
But that was okay because I had my hands tied
Trying to take care of your great-grandchild
You said that he was such a great joy
He really is a wonderful little boy

It hasn’t been the same since you both passed away
You were the reason I went home but could never stay
I’ll never forget the things that you taught me
The times that I spent went with you talking and laughing

Grandmother, you were like a mother to me
The kind that would never let me be
When you had something to say you let me have it
 I made not a comment I stood there and took all your judgment
You kept me in check you kept me in line
But it felt good it felt fine

Grandfather, you were like a father to me
You salted my warts and gave me money
And when you told me stories about the old days I made not a sound
I listened as always never horsing around

Grammy and Grandfather you were the pinnacle of the town
Everyone gathered there from miles around
As grandparents you never had a day off
And at Christmastime you always made such a scoff
Puddings and cakes and pies and such
You knew when you went there you would eat too much

And the decorations and ornaments hanging around
It was like going to the North Pole where happiness and cheer abound
Grandfather was like Santa, jolly and quick-witted
Grammy was like Mrs. Claus giving away gifts that she knitted
Sometimes when Grandfather would have a smooch of the bottle
Grammy would say, goddamn fool, I don’t want to snuggle!

 I miss you two so very much this minute
I wish I could open up Heaven’s doors and see you both in it
I pray that one day I will see you again
To find Grammy smiling and Grandfather with a grin

Well, my butt was sore from sitting on that stump
And as I was straightening up I heard a thump
I turned around just in time to see
A large snowy owl looking at me
And I thought for a moment this can’t be
But I knew in my heart it must be Grandfather and Grammy
They gave me a sign to say they were proud of me
Immediately, it filled me with glee
And as I left the place where I once use to play
I realized they are gone but they will never go away

Merry Christmas Grandfather and Grammy
In Heaven you will remain
It will be quite some time
But I will see you again




Friday, January 17, 2014

HOW TO GET RID OF YOUR CAT'S KITTENS


            Every year, in Ontario, thousands of cats end up on the street or in shelters because their owners, for various reasons, neglect to get their female cats spayed.
            It is amazing that one female cat, allowed to breed for ten years, could result in 320 kittens.  Studies show that spaying cats reduces shelter intake and euthanasia.  It also reduces health risks, physical stress, and improves behavior.  Additionally, cats that have been spayed are less likely to roam, reducing the risk of injury, accident, and loss.  Owners of female cats are urged to have them spayed as soon as possible.
            If you haven’t had the chance to get your feline friend spayed, be careful that you do not let her out.  A female cat that is in heat will find any opportunity to get away.  If your cat has managed to escape the house, she is apt to stay out all night and come back pregnant.  Sixty to sixty-seven days later, she will find a quiet and dark place, usually your closet, and give you a pleasant surprise of 4-6 kittens.
            From that point, you have approximately six to eight weeks to find homes for those kittens.  Some experts say that it is best to wait until they are twelve weeks of age, but by then they start to lose their kitty appeal.  Most kittens will start to eat wet food at four weeks, at which time the mother is weaning them.  Once they start to eat wet food, they can be easily litter trained.
            The first thing to do is tell as many people as possible, including family, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and co-workers.  Tell everyone at your doctor’s office, dentist’s office, church, school, local gym, and recreation center; all the places you frequent.  Everywhere you go tell people that your cat has had kittens and they will be ready to go in as little as six weeks.  If one or more of these people are not interested in giving a kitten a good home, then perhaps someone they know will be.
            The next thing to do is to call pet stores in your community and ask if they are accepting kittens.  Some pet stores will take kittens without charge.  Others may charge you a small fee.  It is up to you to ask beforehand.  The Yellow Pages is a great place to start your search for pet stores in your area.  If you are feeling motivated, and don’t mind driving the distance, you can call pet stores outside your community.  The extra effort may be worth it.
            Once you have called pet stores, you should consider putting up flyers.  If you do not have a computer at home, then a trip to the nearest library is eminent.  Handmade posters and flyers are just as good as typed ones; however, you will need to go to the library or a photocopy shop to get copies made.  The most important thing is the information on the flyer.  Always emphasize that the kittens are free in big, bold, capital letters.  The date of birth is not important; just the date when they will be ready to go to a good home.  Also, mention that they will be litter-trained.  Don’t forget the most important thing:  a phone number where you can be reached.  Once you have your flyers ready, you can tape them anywhere and to anything you are allowed.  A lot of department and grocery stores have bulletin boards for your convenience.  Pet supply stores are great places to advertise, as well as bus stops and shelters.
            If you have older children, they can help by going door-to-door to place flyers in mailboxes.  If you have a newspaper carrier on your street or in your neighborhood, then you can offer a small fee to have him/her do it.  Otherwise, be prepared to do a little walking on your own.  There may be designated dog parks in your neighborhood and it would be a good idea to journey to nearby streets, as some dog lovers love cats as well.  You’ll never know who is interested in owning a cat unless you approach them. 
          So, you have the word out, the pet stores have been called, and the flyers are everywhere.  If you've managed to get rid of some of those kittens, congratulations are in order. But, maybe you have a kitten or two left and time is running out because kittens tend to grow fast.  This next idea might be a little off-the-wall, but by now you are probably desperate and will do anything to get rid of those kittens.
You will need a cardboard box for each kitten that you have left.  Make sure it is big enough for the kitten and high enough so that it can’t climb out.  Don’t cover the kitten with the flaps because the object is to let people see the kitten.  On the sides of the box in large letters write, “FREE KITTENS”.  Place each kitten in its box and take them to the nearest plaza or mall.  Go to the most common entrance, where there are benches to sit on, and put your kittens out for everyone to see.  You will be amazed at how fast people come over to see those precious adorable animals.  In no time at all you will have found homes for each of them.
However, do not make the mistake of giving one to a child or teenager; you are simply asking for trouble.  If a child or teenager is interested, tell them to call a parent and ask for permission first.  Also, it is a good idea that the parent come to get the kitten.  That way, you can speak with them to make sure that they are sincere in their intentions; you want to give the kittens good homes.  If a parent cannot come at that point, then you can speak with them to arrange another pick-up time. 
Hopefully, it will take only a few hours to get rid of your cat’s kittens, and by now, you have realized how important it is to get your cat spayed.  You can feel proud that you did the work to give the kittens loving homes instead of dropping them off to the nearest overcrowded shelter. The only thing left to do, when you get home, is pick up the telephone and call your local vet.





Wednesday, January 15, 2014

IPADS RULE

Terror gripped Jacob's ankle and pulled him into its dark depths.  Every hair on his chubby twelve year old body stood on end, his heart seemed to enlarge with every beat, and beads of sweat began to form on his forehead.  Adrenaline shot through his body as if he’d been given a triple dose with an EpiPen and his mouth was suddenly devoid of all saliva making it hard to swallow.

It was hot in the 3x4 storage bin, hotter than the sauna at Eastbourne Rec Center.  For a moment he thought he might faint and fought the impulse to push the lid open and jump out. Instead, he lifted the lid just enough so that he could get a breath of fresh air.  He took a few deep breaths and closed the lid. The lid immediately became his security blanket then he hid himself under the real blanket because that’s what the storage bin was used for.


His mother had just left for her weekly writing class at PAMA.  She didn’t like to leave him alone for too long, it wasn’t because she didn’t trust him, he was mature for his age with good common sense, it was just that there were a lot of shady characters living in the apartment building, and shady characters did shady things.  She had made him lunch and had left him sitting up in his bed happily typing away at his laptop, grilled cheese sandwich in hand.


A few minutes after his mother had left, Jacob heard rattling at the door.  He got up and tip-toed down the hallway, intending to hide in the coat closet and jump out once his mother opened the door.  She must have forgotten something, he thought.  He was almost at the coat closet when he heard strange voices coming from behind the door.  Doesn’t sound like the Super, he thought.  Then he saw the doorknob move; they were strangers and they were trying to get in.


Jacob stopped in his tracks. For a moment he couldn’t move, but he remembered what his mother told him if something like this ever happened, and with his mother’s words echoing in his head he went back down the hallway to his room, to his closet, and to the storage bin. He knelt with his head facing the bottom of the bin, covered himself with the blankets that were inside, and froze.


“Close the goddamn door, you moron!” said a man’s voice.


“Shut-up!” said another man’s voice.


Jacob heard the door close, they were inside.


“Check the living room and kitchen,” said the first voice, “I’ll check the bedrooms.”


Jacob thought he was going to die.  He listened as a man walked past his bedroom and went to his mother’s bedroom.  He heaved a sigh of relief as he realized he had another few minutes before he was found out. 


Suddenly, something sounded in his pocket.  He fumbled for the thing and when he brought it up to his eyes he felt a little hope.  His mini-ipad never looked so good.  He dismissed the Facebook notification and in his status update he wrote: help me i  am home alone n sum1 has broken in call police hurry! He didn’t know exactly how much time he had before the men came in and found him, but he knew for sure it wouldn’t be long so he sent a mass email to every one of his contacts with the same message and hoped that someone would see it.


Jacob grew more frightened as he heard glass breaking in the kitchen followed by cursing, and all the kitchen cupboard doors seemed to be banging at once.  The second man was now in the living room while the first man was still rummaging through his mother’s belongings.  It was getting hotter in the bin.  The air was stale.  Once more he lifted the lid for a few breaths of fresh air.  It seemed like he had been in there for hours.  He called to his mother in his mind’s eye, he screamed at her to come home, he cried and begged, and screamed until his throat seemed to burn.  Sweat seemed to burst out of his pores and his t-shirt stuck to his skin, tears spilled out of his eyes.


A loud bark came from the room his mother used as an office.  Lady!  Oh my god, please don’t hurt Lady! he thought.  The dog began to bark when the second man opened the door to the office.  Jacob heard a loud yelp come from his faithful companion, his heart sank and he felt vomit come to the back of his throat.


The first man was still in his mother’s bedroom and the second man was in the office.  Jacob was surrounded.  He found it harder to breathe, his lungs seemed to be filled with cement, and his intestines were tied in a hundred knots. He was just about to lift the lid again when the second man entered his room. Mom! Where are you! Help me! 


The other man entered the room and both of them were going through Jacob’s dresser drawers and cubby baskets.


“Nothing much in here, nothing useful, anyway,” said the first man.


“How about this laptop here?” said his partner.


“What model is it?” said the first man, sitting on Jacob’s bed.   He examined Jacob’s laptop and decided to leave it.  “Won’t get nothing for this, it’s too old.  Check the closet.”


His partner walked over to the closet and started rummaging through plastic drawers.  “Nothing but cheap plastic toys,” he grunted in disgust. He leaned closer into the closet and lifted the lid on the bin.


Jacob fainted.


Just as the man’s hand was about to grab the blanket that covered Jacob a siren sounded.  Both men dashed for the door.


When Jacob awakened a man in a uniform was kneeling over him, and something was on his face.  Is this Heaven? he thought.  And then he saw policemen, many policemen. 


“Are you Jacob?” one policeman asked as he bent down to get a closer look at him.


Jacob nodded.


"It's okay, son, those men are in custody, and your mother is on her way. You’re safe now.” Lady licked the side of his cheek; he was glad that she was okay.


Jacob closed his eyes; he had never heard such sweeter words. As he relaxed and took a deep breath of the pure oxygen, the ipad he had been clutching fell to the floor.