John’s message:

As the world lurches toward the end of 2017, preparing to lunge into 2018, it’s time for the annual taking-stock known as the Christmas letter. Montreal is just getting introduced to snow at the end of November, after a long and sweet Indian summer (which followed an especially cool and rainy summer), and we’re being told to brace for a “typical” Canadian winter, i.e., plenty of snow. I’m in the fortunate position of not really being at the mercy of the winter winds, but am still afraid to go south for winter warmth, since I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t come back, though I doubt that my stay in the south would be politically untroubled.

Overall, I’m both very pleased to see the end of 2017, and rather sad. Retirement is taking more adjustment than I had anticipated, since early attempts at finding volunteer opportunities fell into official neglect – phone calls never returned, business cards and contacts never materializing. I’ve turned to known opportunities, though, and I’m working with Concordia’s Senior Audit program by which folks over 55 can sit in on courses for a greatly reduced fee; and I’m also working with the Concordia used book sale, though that participation has been limited for reasons that I’ll get to later. I’m not sure whether this is a sufficient load of outside commitments, but it will do for the time. I have mixed feelings about being back in an academic advisor’s chair again, but this is a new perspective, and it’s been interesting to re-centre on the interests and needs of a group of students who until now had been peripheral in my experience.

My travelling this year was framed by two commitments: the English Department’s retirement present was a gift certificate for the Stratford Festival, and the three graduate-school housemates agreed to a get-together once Graham Caie told us that he and his wife Ann planned a trip to Canada for Thanksgiving. Around these I fitted trips to the farm and my nephew’s wedding at the end of October.

During much of July, I was bothered by sore ribs (not sure whether the case was a break or a bruise, not that there’s a difference in practice), and had to be satisfied trying to sleep upright in a chair, and I was still feeling the consequences when I made my trip to Stratford. (Note: hotels don’t give discounts to guests who can’t use the bed in their rooms.) It was a solid year at the festival, with “Timon of Athens” and Anne Carson’s new performing version of “Bakkhai” being most memorable.

When Graham and Ann were in Canada, we assembled in St Catharines where the other former housemate, Martin Howley, now lives with his wife Pam. Since St Catharines is a short drive to Niagara-on-the-Lake, we were able to see several plays mounted by the Shaw Festival there, including a highly stylized “St Joan” and a contrastingly rambunctious “Androcles and the Lion”. When we weren’t sitting in rows in the dark, we benefitted from some glorious late- summer weather to visit wineries and other sites Martin had planned for us. The intention was for the other four to adjourn to the farm for Thanksgiving, as we’d done in the past, though those plans had to be abandoned. I rejoined the others in a second (brief) trip to Stratford, after which we went our separate ways.

The five of us hadn’t been together since Graham and Ann came to Canada on sabbatical about twenty years ago (I would guess), though I’ve obviously be able to see Martin and Pam more regularly, having established guest privileges in St Catharines last year. But it was wonderful to be able to spend time with them all, and I was particularly happy that conversation wasn’t all about the past; there was an ideal blend of the past and the present that made for a remarkable visit. Enough had changed (Graham taught in Copenhagen and then Glasgow, and continues to represent the UK – such as it is – on the Council of Europe’s committee on universities and research, and has recently picked up a CBE; Martin has spent his career as a university librarian since completing his PhD, and he and Pam have been travelling widely and remotely) that there was plenty to talk about. And yet it was almost as if the intervening years had simply interrupted the jokes and puns and laughter.

2017 has been a difficult year for Charlotte and her family. Her sister, Janet, died of cancer in the spring. Charlotte was diagnosed with GAPPS, an extremely rare medical condition genetically linked to development of stomach cancer. Although all diagnostic tests showed that she had no signs of having cancer; her doctors recommended that she have a preventive gastrectomy. This happened in late August at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.

After a two-week hospital stay, Charlotte came home to recuperate and to adjust to a new regimen of living without a stomach. In addition to the physical and metabolic difficulties there are conceptual problems, since this means that Charlotte has to “graze” her food, spreading her intake over several small meals each day. It also means that she must ensure that everything she eats has as many calories as possible; her nutritionist enthusiastically approved of her choice of shortbread cookies for a snack (and President’s Choice brand, since it has 10 more calories per cookie than Walker’s). Jim has been shopping for yoghurt with 15% milk fat (no longer available), and he has had to take on a new role as diet coach, making sure that Charlotte’s calorie consumption is as high as possible. Both Jim and Charlotte are chemists by training, however, and they’re tackling the problems and the challenges rigorously. Charlotte’s recovery has been frustratingly slow and uneven. Her surgeon says that full recovery will take up to a year, and was pleased to report that pathology studies showed Charlotte to be cancer-free. But she was able to meet her most important objective: she attended Chris’s wedding at the end of October.

A happy couple.

A happy couple.

The wedding was a happy point in the year. Chris met Kristin when they were both graduate students in History at Concordia, and the relationship started and grew on John’s territory, though he was completely unaware of it. They chose to get married in the village hall near the farm, and the day itself turned out to be another instance of the late-summer weather we enjoyed this year. Kristin warned everybody well in advance that she would wear a red dress, and so nobody was surprised when she did. The wedding was at 11:00 a.m., with the reception as the traditional wedding-breakfast, though in this case it was brunch. The whole event was a happy and distinctive expression of the couple’s personalities and tastes. Chris and Kristin live in Toronto, and so Chris is close enough to be on call when Jim needs him to help with the ongoing work on the house at Thistle Ha’. One of his farm activities is to photograph Charlotte’s two new(ish) cats, Katie and Pippa; he’s set up an Instagram account for the cats, and it’s a source of bemusement to the family that two farm cats can have over 270 followers. (Click to link to Katie and Pippa’s Instagram account).

While the work on repointing the masonry of the house continues, Jim has been working on repairing and re-installing all the windows in the house, many of which needed re-puttying and painting after the fire in 1985. It’s a long and tedious process, but he’s just about finished. He’s ordered new front doors for the house, though they’re waiting to be installed. And Jim and Chris demolished the west verandah and porch so that it could be replaced. Work has just started on that, though it won’t be finished before winter. But the repointing and the dismantling of the verandah has meant that we’ve been able to examine and appreciate the stone work better than anyone in three generations, when that part of the house was first built.

John is returning to the farm for the Christmas holidays. It will be a quiet celebration, though Chris and Kristin seem determined to do a progress through all their relatives in various parts of southern Ontario. Still, there’s a clear sense of happiness in being together after an eventful and anxious year.