Archive for March 25, 2016

The Unitarian Fire Communion


We all bring baggage from our families of origin into our adult relationships. Our role as children determines our behavior throughout the rest of our lives. In my family, I got the message that I was responsible for keeping everybody happy. My job was to prevent emotions that weren’t “nice.” The problem with this role was that, predictably, I was attracted to a man who had no trouble expressing his anger and articulating his unhappiness with me. In our couple’s dance, I shrank in his presence, an ineffective attempt at restoring harmony in our home.

Outside in the wider world, I was a different person. The people around me mirrored respect and caring. I liked them and they liked me. I found I had skills that made the world a better place. I functioned using all of my self.

The following excerpt from the memoir I’m writing describes one of my attempts to change my part in the dance. As a psychotherapist, I know that if one partner varies the steps, the other must also change. That’s basic couple therapy theory:

It was cold and bright that Sunday morning in January when I entered the First Unitarian Congregation for the annual Fire Communion. We Unitarians have four communions a year. This one asks that we explore the qualities we wish to leave behind with the old year, as well as the ones we want to embrace in the coming months.

Ushers hand out a small candle, a piece of flash paper and a stubby yellow pencil. During the service we will write on the flash paper the quality we wish to burn in the flame of the lighted chalice at the front of the room. I’m determined to stay as big as I am with Harvey. I no longer want to shrink in his presence. On my little square of flash paper I write ‘the shrinking wife.’

I follow the line of people getting out of their chairs and approaching the chalice at the front. When it’s my turn, I touch my paper lightly to the flame and watch it disappear. Whoosh! It’s gone.

In the second part of the communion, we are asked to bring forward our candle to add to the lighted candles already in the sand surrounding the chalice. As we place our candles in the sand, we’re to proclaim to ourselves the quality with which we want to connect in the New Year. For me, it’s ‘being all that I am.’

The story of my attempts to stay “big” in my relationship keeps changing. You’ll read a lot more as my story unfolds.

Staging: Making Your House Look Like a Palace


 As I write this blog post, I’m sitting on a bench in the shaded garden called   El Jardin in the centre of picturesque San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. After all that moving, I really need a holiday. This is the perfect place to recover from months and months of selling a house, decluttering, downsizing, buying a smaller house and then – moving for a final time to my own apartment.

What follows describes making our house irresistible to prospective buyers. There’s some good advice to be found as I struggle to make our home look even bigger, more spacious and light-filled.

Here’s a piece of advice. If you should find yourself involved in downsizing and moving, be sure to plan a nice vacation at the end of this period of inevitable chaos, turmoil and darned hard work.

Here, from my new memoir is a taste of what happens when you put your house on the market:

Today’s the day we started preparing to sell the house. First thing in the morning, Ann turns up. Ann is a large-boned, sensible, blonde. She has her own company dedicated to de-cluttering and downsizing. Since we’ve never felt the urge to clear away the clutter in our ample closets and large cupboards, Ann’s help is vital to the sale of the house.

I give Ann the tour. She follows, wordless, keeping her shock to herself as we open cupboard after cupboard stuffed full with balls of bedding and towels. We move to the bathroom. It’s worse.

Ann turns to face me. ‘Everything falls into one of three categories.’ She raises three fingers. ‘Things we’ll keep for showing the house,’ (she lowers one finger) ‘things you want to keep but will store during the showing,’ (another finger goes down) ‘and things you wish to donate.’ (third finger goes down).

I’m pondering the meaning of ‘donating’ when I hear the sound of sails whipping in the wind. I turn to find Ann magically reducing a fitted sheet to a small, neat pile. That’s my signal we’ve started organizing the linen closet. Ann pulls out all my rolled-up balls of bedding, drops them to the floor and replaces them with neatly folded sheets.

‘I’ve never known what to do with a fitted sheet,’ I say.

‘My mother taught me long ago,’ says Ann.

‘My mother taught me to send my sheets out to the laundry,’ I look to see if she’s amused. She isn’t. I feel the need to add, ‘I came of age before the advent of fitted sheets. Our sheets needed ironing.

She and I look over piles of bedding. ‘Which of these do you want to keep?’ she asks. I’m looking at sheets I didn’t know I owned. They’ve been at the back of the closet, probably for decades. We end up with neat shelves of folded sheets, duvet covers and pillowslips. And sure enough, there’s space between them. The closet looks huge.

By now Ann, still smiling, has moved on to towels. She pulls them off their messy shelves. ‘We’ll have to decide which set we keep out for staging,’ she says. Suddenly my towels look decidedly shabby. She manages to find two presentable sets of hand towels and four bath towels. By the time she finishes this cupboard, too, looks twice its natural size.

‘We never fill shelves,’ Ann explains. ‘We want it to look as if there’s plenty of space. Anything that makes the cupboards and closets look full goes into storage. Mike the Mover will be here tomorrow. He’ll take away everything we don’t want when we show the house. The idea is to create a look of space. Space filled with light. We’ll be moving out quite a lot of furniture.’ Ann pats the folded linens for a final time.

‘Let’s do the kitchen now,’ she says. Together we enter my kitchen with its white countertops and sunflower yellow trim. ‘Oh, oh, we have a lot of de-cluttering to do here.’

‘Pretty messy, eh?’

‘It’s the same principle. We need to create space. There can be nothing on the counter tops. We need to get rid of the dish rack and drainer. The mixer has to go.’ She begins hiding all the machines: the can opener, the coffee grinder, the toaster and the blender: all go underneath and out of sight. ‘It’s the same with kitchen cupboards. They must not look filled to capacity.’

This is the fourth installment of “Aging and Staying in Control of Your Life.” I hope you’ll return next Friday to catch the next step of selling, buying and moving to another city.



Our huge library of books dates back to 1961, the year Harvey and I brought together our books for better or for worse. Since then, in addition to my grandfather’s library of leather bound classics I’ve inherited massive family antiques. The walnut breakfront stands eight feet high with deep, wide drawers at its base. In my childhood, the top displayed The Complete Works of Sir Walter Scott behind its glass doors. Today these shelves show off my grandmother’s china. Her ornamental platters are safe behind the stalwart giant’s glass doors. The breakfront’s been in my life for as long as I can remember. In my early days, it stood outside my bedroom door in our upstairs hall. With the breakfront standing guard like a faithful sentinel, I felt safe throughout the night.

Then there’s my grandmother’s ornate cabinet. Delicate gold rimmed, paper-thin china coffee cups and saucers, a creamer and a sugar bowl are on display behind its delicate glass doors. As everything else I’ve inherited from family, it comes with a story.

Before their 1891 wedding in Amherstburg, a small Canadian town near Detroit, my grandmother, Josephine Brown, was given a wedding present of tiny china coffee cups. Her husband-to-be, John Henning surprised her with the cabinet to hold the cups. Today, sitting in the brocade-covered chair where she held me on her lap, I look at her cabinet and feel close to her. She truly loved me and I loved her.

Weekends meant trips to Kingston in search of the perfect house. Alas, it was a sleek little modern bungalow that finally felt just right to both of us. It was within walking distance of our offspring. Alas, there was no room for Victorian antiques. Gradually, gradually, I began to imagine myself without all those family treasures. My energy is limited. I think of it as money in the bank. If I spend it polishing silver and hand washing Grandmother’s gold-rimmed china, I won’t have that energy for yoga, working out, walking Sammy and writing.

Enter the relatives.

And so, my nephews with their wives and daughters arrived one Friday afternoon to view the pieces they too had grown up with. It was exciting for them to see the artwork they associated with their grandparents and great grandparents. By the time they finished deciding what they could make room for in their lives, every family heirloom found a new home. There’s almost nothing left from my original home.

And how does that feel? Strangely, it’s like a purge, a shedding of excess baggage. Or maybe it’s like losing twenty pounds. I want to simplify my life. Anything that won’t go in the dishwasher gets passed to younger women in the family. It’s their turn now. I’m just glad they’re interested. Most of today’s young people wouldn’t be interested in their grandmother’s sterling silver place settings that require polishing. Nor would they find desirable the huge collection of Bridal Wreath china that must be washed by hand. In the spirit of my new, very modern house I’ll be saving my energy for my new way of life.

The Story Keeps Changing: Aging and Staying in Charge of Your Life


When I started writing, my new memoir, I had no idea where the story was going. Even now, I don’t really know how my life will unfold. I’ll let you know each Friday when I post blogs to update you on the process of writing my memoir. At some point in your life you too will need to de-clutter, maybe sell a house and move to a smaller place. You might move, as we did, to be nearer your offspring. You can learn a lot from my struggles.

Originally, I planned to move to Kingston with the same man I married 55 years ago. Moving in your later years is exhausting, to say the least. Together, we went through downsizing, giving away our stuff, and hiring an expert to prepare the house for sale. Anything that made the house appear smaller or darker went to storage. After numerous weekend trips to Kingston, three hours away from Toronto, my husband and I bought a small, charming bungalow in our new city. I fully intended to continue life in that little house. Alas, it became clear that, if I were to stay in charge of my life, I needed to leave and live on my own, an unusual move for a woman who’s nearly 80.

Here’s a taste of what’s to come in my new memoir:

There was something troubling me, keeping me from enjoying my luxurious train trip. I don’t usually travel first class. I should have been happy. I had the whole two seats, with nobody beside me. A drop down table in front and adjustable footrests made this feel more like business class on an airplane than a train. The woman conductor – or was she a hostess– interrupted my thoughts. She wanted my ticket. There was no clicking of a paper punch as in days of old. Instead, she scanned the pattern on the printout I’d made at home. Like modern women everywhere, I’d bought my ticket online, choosing my time and class of travel.

The purpose of my trip? I was about to spend a few days with my four-year-old granddaughter while her artist mother prepared 40 canvases for an art show. Why was I tense? I still hadn’t told Harvey, my husband of 55 years, that I intended to move to Kingston – with or without him. (At this point, I wasn’t yet able to acknowledge to myself that I wanted to leave him.)

Maybe you think I’m hard-hearted. Please put yourself in my place. I don’t know how many years I have left as an able-bodied woman with enough energy and memory to function competently. I want to spend whatever years remain, near my son Frank, his wonderful wife Julie and their little daughter Abi. I don’t want to miss more of my granddaughter’s early years and I really miss my son and daughter-in-law. The way I see it, I’m the only one able to guarantee that the rest of my old age is peaceful and fulfilling. I intend to live as fully as my aging body and mind allow. Who knows how much time I have left. If Harvey comes with me, that’s fine. If he doesn’t, I’ll probably be the country’s only seventy-eight year old to separate from a marriage that predates most people’s births. I’m in good health and thanks to yoga and a personal trainer, I’m fit, have only a few aches and pains and might have twenty years left. My mother lived to almost ninety-four.

Don’t get me wrong about my husband. He has many fine qualities. He’s given a lot to the world. In fact, he retired just before we moved to Kingston. Living with a newly retired husband is hard enough for many women. I was accustomed to six or seven hours a day to myself while he saw patients. Now we were overwhelmed with too much of everything in this small, sleek bungalow. There was no privacy. Our relationship deteriorated rapidly. I was losing control over my own life. It was time to do something drastic – move to my own apartment.