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Wrench, 24 x 12

When my kids were tiny, we lived in a small village. After growing up in Toronto and feeling utterly untethered, Clayton seemed like a location I had been waiting for.

The village is a cluster of 20 or so houses, half of them owned by artists, set on a lake, about 45 minutes from Ottawa.

Clayton General Store is where you can pick up your mail, buy screws, milk, or camo. You can sit on the front porch of the store where they have a pew, grab a free book off the outdoor bookshelf and look over the lake.

My husband and I checked out the house in winter. The owner greeted us at the door. She weighed about 80lbs and had a cigarette hanging out the corner of her mouth, Rene Levesque style.

The wood floors were covered in sheets of thick linoleum designed to imitate carpet. In the basement beside the furnace was a 5 ft hunk of granite that someone figured was too much work to blast out. Wainscoting had been covered with sheets of pressboard designed to look like pink tile.

The woodstove in the kitchen worked. The big pump beside the sink did not.

With 5k down, we could afford it.

The week we moved in I remember being stunned by how loud the frogs could be, how vast the stars.

Our son was conceived that week.


Velma and Howard Bolger lived on the farm down the road. I would fasten kids into a buggy and walk the 1.5km to buy eggs. Velma had a valley accent and spoke at lightning speed.

This still seems impossible to me; that the scots of this area were so isolated they had their own accent. I understood 20% of what Velma said.

Straining to understand, I was certain there was something wrong with my temporal lobe.

Velma finished her sentences and would look at her husband saying “Isn’t that right Howard?”

The rim of Howard’s ball cap would tip one inch.

Self-expression needs to be seen in cultural context.

I’d spent four years in university taking feminist courses; lightly scratching the English language for evidence of patriarchy.

In hunting season my neighbour had a deer hanging upside down from a tractor outside my living room window. Some of the cross-cultural challenges would have been easier in Saudi Arabia, where I would expect it.

Velma and Howard celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at the community centre. I had so many questions. It seemed i had seen that many divorces that year.

Daringly, I asked Velma; "What is that like, to be married 50 years?".

“Never a harsh word! Isn’t that right Howard?”

Velma proudly showed me her spotless knick knack cabinet. Wedding anniversary plates, pink swirls and silver edged tea cups no one uses. Ceramic ballerinas, Princess Diana memorabilia.

I would scramble for words that were both appreciative and authentic.

This was before we used the terms free-range and organic.

A decade later now and every night my husband sits at the table on a chair we bought from the Bolger auction. I put my feet on our coffee table; a refinished Bolger trunk which I put on wheels. Never a harsh word.

Howard’s working days ended when he fell from the mow of the barn. This was followed by three languising institutional years before he died.

Velma, like us, moved to “town”. I believe she is still alive. I haven’t seen her and I don’t visit her. She has an army of Bolgers in town and she is likely related to half the staff if she is in supported living.

She doesn't need me.


This past summer my teenage daughter Frankie and I biked the back roads to Clayton. I watched her glide past the Bolger farm well ahead of me.

She wouldn’t remember Velma’s bright smile from the bike trailer view or buying eggs.

We stopped at the General Store to fill up on water.

Of course she remembered the store. Frankie’s first free-range outing would have been to walk get the mail with her older brother, maybe four years old.

I would have weighed the risk of abduction against 5 minutes of maternal sanity.

I took my chances.

I did this painting of a wrench reminding me of Howard. He had a tightly stacked woodpile a field long. What did he need language for?

Velma made the decisions and seemed to use up all the words.

Stuff that works.

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