Our recent snowfall is melting, and we face a spell of what Environment Canada calls “mixed precipitation” throughout Christmas week. Still, it’s time for the annual report from the Miller family on 2016, a year of some significant developments in the family. Christopher, Kristin and John will be spending some time at Thistle Ha’, and cousins of the extended family will be visiting as their plans permit.

The news of the year (not exactly unexpected, but now a fact) is that Christopher and Kristin are engaged. Although they met in Montreal, Uncle John can claim no credit for the match, and in fact pleads complete ignorance of what was happening. But we’re very happy for both of them, and pleased to welcome Kristin to the family. (She may have accepted Chris, but accepting the family is another matter!) This letter won’t claim to provide details – those’ll have to come from Chris and Kristin themselves – but they’re considering possible venues and dates for their wedding. Obviously, there’ll be plenty to talk about as they make their family rounds over the holidays.

The other milestone (not exactly unexpected, either, though now a fact) is John’s retirement, effective 1 June. Maybe it’s never a tidy date for anybody, but although he taught his last course in the winter term, his replacement as undergraduate advisor was not due to take over until 1 August, and so he continued to see students through the summer, and really was free only by the start of term in September. Retirement’s been a reasonably restful experience so far, though the problem of what to do with his books still defies any rational or palatable solution; writers sometimes have speculated on the most-ignominious fate possible for their books, and John isn’t sure if he hasn’t hit a new low – most of them were claimed by the English Department to provide sound-proofing between the departmental lounge and a seminar room – but at least the books are being used rather than pulped, and some of them may well be pilfered for use by students. The Department held a send-off at the end of August, and John was happy that Jim and Charlotte were able to come to Montreal for the event and a few days, and one of the pleasures of the event was that his Ontario and Quebec lives had an opportunity to meet each other, at long last.

John didn’t know exactly what to expect in retirement. He’s decided to stay in Montreal, at least for the time being, and hasn’t changed his phone numbers, or addresses (both postal and e-mail). He’s enjoyed the chance to have time for activities and events that had to be missed when he was teaching. He didn’t teach in the fall of 2015 (hence the trip to the Rhine and Danube), and had one class in the winter term, a course on the Brontës. He’s been interested in writers from the same family, but had never had the chance to focus on the novels of the three sisters until last winter. The students were generally very good, and the material was fresh for John (i.e., he was scrambling to keep ahead of the students), and his memories of his swansong are happy ones. There are other aspects of his old life that he misses, though he’s been fairly successful in not haunting the halls of the English Department. And he’s taken an odd pleasure in now filing e-mails from former colleagues under “Friends” rather than “Concordia”.

He began volunteering for the Concordia Used Book Sale before retirement, and now is back for the second round. The Co-ordinator of the sale emphasized that one of the perks of volunteering was getting first dibs on the books available, but John had to point out that his motives were basically having first dibs on getting rid of books. He’s proud of the fact that he’s emerged from the first year with fewer books than when he started, but as Jim will attest, he’s got a long way to go before books and shelf-space coincide. Books and papers are of little use in boxes, but at least they’re potentially available, should he need them, and only time will tell whether that’s a realistic prospect, i.e., how well retirement will stick.

He took a longer progress than usual through Ontario over the summer, reversing his usual order to stay at the farm at the end of the holiday rather than the beginning. There were still a couple of days in Toronto, seeing former students and wandering around the city. Then, off to Stratford for the annual immersive binge – a mash-up of Richard II and the subsequent Henry plays, a painful As You Like It, a pleasant Shakespeare in Love and Little Night Music, and very funny version of Molière’s play presented as The Hypochondriac. The bonus this year was a few days staying with Martin and Pam Howley, who moved from St. John’s to St. Catharines a few years ago, an excellent chance to catch up on many things, but also for almost-daily trips to Niagara-on-the-Lake for plays (highlights being Master Harold and the Boys, Sweeney Todd, and a Gilbert-sans-Sullivan farce – Mrs Warren’s Profession now seems outmoded and dull) and some pretty spectacular eating. After two weeks of high-living fun, Montreal meant concentrated office-packing.

After a mid-winter Caribbean cruise, Jim and Charlotte limited their activities to the farm. Both their usual vegetable garden and the Potato Project suffered from the worst drought in living memory, though daily hand-watering meant that both were reasonably successful, with one group of school children getting direct experience of planting and harvesting their own food. The potatoes went to the school cafeteria and were served to the children and Jim for breakfast. He continues to experiment with growing sweet potatoes and Jim is reasonably satisfied with the results.

Charlotte participates in all aspects of the vegetable garden (not to mention the flower and herb gardens, and the orchard and the wild grape vines and apple trees in the fence-rows), but really takes over in managing the crops, processing, canning, preserving, freezing, and in emergencies, giving away, an amazing variety of sauces, chutneys, pickles, jams and jellies, and frozen produce ready for use in the winter. The new orchard is starting to produce a crop (Jim’s beloved Wolf River apple trees actually produced an apple); meanwhile the oldest tree in the orchard, badly damaged by a long-forgotten violent storm, continues to surprise us by producing crops of Northern Spies for cooking.

The farmers continue to devote significant time and effort to Land Over Landings, the organization fighting the renewed plans to construct an airport adjacent to the farm (Mom and Dad were successful in getting Thistle Ha’ excluded from the expropriated lands 40 years ago, but the threat of the airport itself has been renewed). Jim is involved in the research and lobbying strategy undertaken by Land Over Landings, culminating in the commissioning of an independent study of the feasibility of agricultural use of the lands as an economic alternative to the airport and its associated industries. Even under the current restrictive one-year agricultural leases imposed by Transport Canada, which owns the land, there are encouraging stories emerging of people practicing imaginative and innovative ways to fulfill the lands’ potential for abundant food production. All of this has to be kept in balance with the few “traditional” farmers in the area, and the new and exciting possibilities of the Rouge National Urban Park, which ain’t Banff or Algonquin.

In addition, work on the façade of the house continues. Mason Leigh and her dog Maud have been regulars for the latter part of the summer. Maud dashes about attempting to control wildlife while Leigh and her assistants continue to chip out the old mortar and replace it with the various layers to stabilise the exterior walls and to freshen the appearance of the stonework (all at least 140 years old by now). This year, Leigh didn’t have to solve the problems of the recipe for the various forms of mortar, including the black background and the white ribbon, and so she has made decent progress on the east side of the house, the most-visible facades fronting the lane.


Jim, meanwhile, has been restoring and repairing the window frames and the occasional (close to numerous, actually) window sills that badly need to be replaced. The house will look closer to what it was originally (though there is no talk of replacing the window shutters!), and the interior will be snugger in the winter.

That’s where we expect to be this Christmas, and although much has changed as a result of the fire in 1985 and the subsequent renovations, the farm has survived not only those threats, but also the challenge of expropriation. Great-grandfather Miller had an immense struggle to clear the land of trees, thistles and stones in order to build his farm; Dad cleared out several of the old fence-rows which made sense when the land was worked by horses, but no longer made sense when using a tractor, and when he and Mom reached retirement age, they had to fight the expropriation and rebuild the house after the fire. Jim and Charlotte are still working very hard to preserve, protect, and reanimate Thistle Ha’. But our version of the saying about using lemons to make lemonade is that our ancestors built, using the stones that littered their fields. And today’s Thistle Ha’ is the better for all their efforts.

The Millers send warmest Christmas greetings and very best wishes for health and happiness in 2017.