Author: Karen Stiller (page 2 of 7)

My dad 19229

My Mom and my Dad, who turns 80 today, met a couple of young(ish) RCMP officers on Parliament Hill a few years ago, who were astounded to learn that Dad’s regimental number was 19229. That means, roughly, that he was the 19,229th RCMP officer in Canada. The force was well into the 55 000s at that point, and these particular members had never met someone with such an early number. They exclaimed and fussed and fawned a bit over my Dad. Which he would have enjoyed.

When I heard this story on the weekend, it got me thinking about how special my Dad is, and not just, of course, because of his RCMP number. I watched him dance a little jig (an actual jig) this weekend in front of his wood stove — the main way the log house they built and still live in full time is heated — because my mother gave him permission to build a small fire to take the chill off. I watched him cavort with his great, great nieces and nephew, down on his hands and knees, being funny. I watched him work at a Christmas craft sale because he is the guy who helps with everything that needs to be done in his small community.

I listened to my sister talk about what a fortress of strength he has been for her through the years, and that has been true as she has faced particularly huge and painful challenges. And my Dad spent a lot of time listening to me talk about my life and work and kids,  and about the MFA I’m enrolled in and the writing I am doing. Even the details of a research paper I just submitted. He asked good questions. My Dad wanted to know. And that for me has been one of the most special things about 19229 over the years. He cares. He’s interested. He reads my books and articles (and when you’re a writer, someone can love you very, very much and never, ever take the time to do that). Dad is an encourager. When I was 9 he told me I could do anything I set my mind to. He would still say that to me, and to anyone else who needed to hear it.

This weekend we drove to and from Truro, in that special Nova Scotia mist, talking the whole way back and forth like old friends. And one of the most beautiful things about having a Dad like mine who is 80, is that you do have a very special, and quite funny, old friend.

Tumble in the cranberries

This weekend I sat at my dining room table and consumed a pie recipe. It was almost a poem. Especially when I reached this line: Tumble in the cranberries. That is what cranberries do, as anyone who made sauce this weekend knows. They tumble. They are so fat and firm at the same time, they have no choice. They are berries packed so full of themselves in their tight little red skins, that they bounce off each other into the pot, or the pie.

I loved this recipe that I will never, ever make. I  can’t imagine ever having the time or the patience to individually rub each pea-sized piece of butter between my thumb and finger, flattening them into little discs that will help make the best pastry ever.

My pie, I know, would not turn out as if it had been made by poem. But just being reminded of the richness of words, and how with just the smallest of efforts you can make cranberries tumble, instead of plain old pour, or stir, or the boring everydayness of just adding them into the pie filling, made me smile.


It was around the second half of the first verse of “One Day at a Time…Sweet Jesus,” a solo sung with gusto by a woman at my parent’s small rural church, when I heard the first chirps of a renegade songbird joining in.

I knew that voice immediately. And I knew exactly where it was coming from.

Second row, centre seat of the small choir perched on the other side of the church. My mother, a soprano of remarkable enthusiasm, didn’t join in on entire lines, because she didn’t remember all the words.  She chimed in on “….teach me to take, one day at a time.” Then, seconds later, “ me the way, one day at a time.” Patsy Cline, belting it out to the left of the baptismal font seemed unaware of my mother’s contributions. But she did seem like a pro, who had probably sung this song in 100 bars before this joint. She had probably dealt with usurpers before.

After all, it is hard not to join in. And  each time my mother did, she moved her head slightly to the side so she was no longer obscured by the little old ladies in floral dresses sitting in front of her. So she could see me. And so I could see her. She was singing those fragments to me directly. Or so it seemed. She likes it when I am home and attend church with them. She had already announced to the congregation, from the choir pew, that I was there.

I looked away. I rattled my bulletin. I glanced at my father to see if he had noticed. He sat stiffly, eyes glued to the main performance. She fired on all cylinders as she entered the final lap, finish line in sight “….Well Jesus you know if you’re looking below. It’s worse now, than then. Cheating and stealing, violence and crime…”

I glanced back to my mother. Looked away again quickly. I wanted to both shush my mother and applaud her for refusing to let one singer hog this great old song. And then I just felt grateful that these things still go on, that country singers still pop up in country churches built entirely of white wood. That passionate sopranos sometimes just can’t sit quietly. That the small congregation broke into applause. That the singer leaned into her mic and said “Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you,” when she was done, and that soon, very soon, we’d all get to eat sugar cookies left over from the funeral on Wednesday. But over all, grateful for my mom.

Used books

The other day I found exactly what I was looking for in a used book store. It was The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

The store owner, sitting behind his desk pecking away at an ancient computer, jumped to his feet when I asked for help. He zigzagged through the store, zeroing in on the one remaining copy, perched high up on a shelf somewhere in the back, sideways, all the while remarking he didn’t think he had any copies left. But boy, there were a lot of them around a few years ago, weren’t there, he said.

But there it was and I think we both felt we had won a little prize. We had a chat about used books and their stores, and how they always smell so comforting. I told him how I used to work in a tiny used book store right beside Peddler’s Pub downtown, which is now a shiny, metallic looking gym. I asked him if he knew Neil, the owner who hired me way back then, whose last name is gone forever from my mind. I was a woman expecting her first child and expecting only to be back in Halifax for six months or so, while her husband became more Anglican.  He hired me anyway and he and I and Brent would have fun, warm talks. He thought we were weird I think, but he liked us, especially Brent I remember.

Neil had a lovely wife with long blonde hair and a pet ferret. She and I became friends and I remember going to visit her on a long bus ride. She died, the book store owner, told me. Of cancer, he thought. And this news triggered off a long ago memory of knowing she was not well, even back then. I remember that Neil carried a sad burden. I remember him buying her earrings from the Pier One that also used to be on Granville Street. And I remember him saying she probably wouldn’t like them, because he was one of those husbands who never could pick out things his beautiful wife liked. I took the book I had bought for my new friend, and one I picked up for myself too, and headed back down Inglis Street, thinking about the treasures you find in used book stores.


Unexpected pleasures

For a simple trip from Toronto to Halifax, it certainly involved a lot of cancelling, delaying, waiting, boarding, fretting and running. It was easier to fly home from Cambodia. But happily, last in is first out, or so I learned about luggage. I also learned that even, nearing 50, I can still show up with my shirt on inside out.

So far, during this trip to Halifax, I made a point to step inside King’s College Chapel, where Brent and I married 26 years, one month and one week or so ago. It was the same beautiful, dusty, churchy, old, quiet, lovely spot. As I stood there watching the light flow through the old windows, remembering, a young couple walked quietly in. They asked if I worked there. I smiled and said no. They explained they wanted to marry in this very chapel. I told them I already had. And that they definitely should.

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