This story has legs

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Small wooden box with three legs.Who doesn’t like a mystery? Today, I have two to solve. One is modern while the other is more than one hundred years old. Both come with people to seek and stories to unravel. They also both come in boxes.

The first mystery is in a metre-long heavy cardboard box. When my husband and I moved to Edmonton in September, the movers lost some of our items. (Please e-mail me to get the name of the company so you don’t EVER use them.) In October, the company told us they had found our stuff and were dropping off our boxes at 6 a.m. one weekday morning. Great.

Ten boxes were offloaded into our lobby and the mover started piling them onto a dolly to bring them into the condo. Hmmm. Something seems off. Oh, they weren’t the right boxes. Nope. None of them were ours. Back they went, into the truck. Except for one – the long and cumbersome box. The mover knew he had left it because he called me while he was driving away and said he would return at a later date.

We’re still waiting.

We’ve had this box in the closet for almost six months. While I was switching winter clothing Cardboard box.for spring today, I thought I’d might as well open the box in case there’s an address inside. There’s not. Just four heavy wooden shelves that aren’t good for anything other than being shelves. So, if you’ve lost a box of shelves, get in touch. We might have your stuff. As for ours, no one knows.

The next enigma has legs. It’s a small wooden box that my husband and I bought at an estate sale yesterday. The sale was held at a 5,500 square-foot home in Edmonton that was full of amazing antiques – everything from porcelain figures, to vintage clothing, to beautiful and grand furniture. One item that caught my husband’s eye was a squat butterscotch-coloured cube with three legs inlaid on the top. He looked closer and saw a sign that described the box as “Prisoner of War art.”

We bought it.

At home, we cleaned the item with a damp cloth and took a closer look at a small inscription on the bottom: POW 6011 Knockaloe I.O.M. We googled it and found that Knockaloe was a First World War internment camp in Patrick on the Isle of Man, U.K. (The three legs on the box is a triskeles and is part of the island’s coat of arms.)

I had seen some Prisoner of War art done by Allied soldiers at the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence when I was there last year. It was fascinating and I was struck by the detail and intricacy in the drawings — and in some, a humour that was most likely non-existent in reality. To me, PoW art is part of a historical and human story. It’s a personal record from a time when prisoners couldn’t exactly take snapshots.

POW 6011 Knockaloe I.O.M.

POW 6011 Knockaloe I.O.M.

The PoWs at Knockaloe were almost all civilians with German, Austrian and Turkish backgrounds. Some of these “enemy aliens” had lived in the U.K. since childhood and couldn’t speak a word of their language. (Of course, Canada had its own internment camps in both WWI and Second World War.) The Knockaloe prisoners were regular folk who got caught up in the war in 1914 and held until 1919, some months after the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918. After it was all over, few records of the prisoners survived. Britain just wanted to move on, but now families who have connections with the camp want information. That’s why the community charity,, is asking for stories before they become lost forever. The endeavour is huge as 23,000 PoWs and 3,000 guards were on the island. I’m going to contact the Knockaloe foundation and tell them about my husband’s find. Perhaps the little box found in Edmonton can add a piece to the legacy of the camp.

Update: Today, on International Museum Day, I have news to share about the decorative POW box. In less than a week of discovering the artwork made in the Knockaloe Internment Camp and reaching out to the community charity,, I’ve received a response. Vicky Crellin, Events and Communications Coordinator, wrote that a trustee also has a similar box with the same POW number.

It is interesting to find two items the same because this means that the internee would have made them for commercial purposes rather than as a gift for a loved one or friend. Artifacts with names or inscriptions on them were generally made for family members and had a more personal touch. Items such as yours were more for commercial purposes, the internee would have made such items to sell to raise money to spend within the camp or more likely to send home to their family.  ~Vicky Crellin, Events and Communications Coordinator

Vicky added that the group is working on collecting Knockaloe internees’ information for the Knockaloe and Patrick Visitors Centre that’s opening next spring. In the meantime, she asked if my husband and I would consider loaning the box so it could sit beside it’s twin. I think that’s a great idea.

May 18 is known as International Museum Day.  It’s day to mark how museums are an important means of cultural exchange.

Her story – anonymous, until a few days ago

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The chromolithograph with the old boards.

The chromolithograph with the old boards.

I didn’t want to buy any furniture when I moved to Vernon B.C. because I knew I wasn’t going to stay there long. I didn’t like it. However, my parents said they were going to visit me, so I had to get a table and chairs. I also bought an interesting piece of artwork, which remained pretty, but anonymous, until a few days ago. Along with it, there’s a history and a story stretching almost a hundred and thirty years that could have been forgotten.

Let’s start about ten years ago in the Okanagan. I had just become the managing editor (as well as reporter, photographer, receptionist,) of the Vernon Daily Courier. I had left Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories with my cat, luggage and not much else. It was too expensive to bring furniture down from the north but I had put my dishes and pots and pans on the Greyhound. I was good. However, Vernon was not.

The warm valley weather didn’t extend to some of its residents. I found Vernon cliquish and some of the senior population was aggressive. They had no qualms about pushing you off the sidewalk with their elbows or out of their way in the grocery aisle with a shopping cart. I decided as soon as I got another job somewhere else, I was out of there. Nevertheless, when my parents said they might visit me, I thought I’d better find some cheap chairs in case.

Each spring, the Allan Brooks Nature Centre high atop a hill on the outskirts of Vernon holds its Mega Garage and Plant Sale. (Money goes towards educational and nature programs.) Perfect! I drove up and found so many beautiful things. I bought three chairs, a coffee table, a pretty porcelain platter with cherry blossoms etched on it as well as several pieces of art. (Including this velvet oeuvre.)

When paying for all my fabulous items, someone told me that the rose picture was a work of watercolours on silk. He said it was an old piece probably from the mid-1900s. I said thanks for the details and took my stuff “home.” I hung the pictures and set up the furniture and I was done. A couple of months later, I was also done with my job. I was out of work, thanks to the recession.

I moved to Revelstoke and ended up giving away my chairs and tables. I kept the art. I moved a few more times and ended up in Edmonton this last September. The last move broke the glass on the rose picture.

While removing the shards from the frame, I was careful not to cut the picture. One piece of glass was not budging and I either had to slice my hand to get it or take the back off the picture. I didn’t want to do either. I didn’t want to get blood all over everything and I had heard that removing the backing from the picture could damage the artwork. Alas, there was no way around it and bits of the time-stained brown paper were flaking off the frame anyway. It was time.

I took off all the paper and found two thin pieces of rough wood held in place by thin nails. As I bent the ancient tacks away from the frame, I saw the white paper of the artwork emerge with some writing. On the lower right hand corner, it said $2.50 each. There was also a label: Prang’s Satin Art Prints. The date said 1891.

The roses are 127 years old.

This was incredible. I went to my computer and looked up the company. Turns out, the roses aren’t watercolour on silk; they are a chromolithograph, a type of coloured print. These types of artwork became popular in the late 1800s because they were cheap and it meant anyone could have a nice piece of art hanging in their living rooms – not just rich people.

Prang was the surname of Louis Prang, an American, who is known as the “Father of the American Christmas Card” as he made cards affordable for all. Prang is remarkable too because he hired women artists, not a common practice in his time. Despite googling Mrs. Virginia Janus, the creator of the rose piece, I can’t find any information about her. During my research, I read women in the graphic arts in the late 1800s were mostly ignored by historians. However, it’s now 2018 and I’m fortunate to have uncovered her talents, if not her story.

Entrepreneurial spirit – with beer

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At the bottle depot.

At the bottle depot.

Cling, clank, smash – the noise at Edmonton’s Strathcona bottle depot is deafening. The small building is stuffed with noise, bottles and people. My husband and I have picked the worst time to bring back our recyclables: right when students are cleaning out their homes. Twenty-five years ago, I was doing the same thing.

The line-up today, a rainy Saturday, is three people deep. In front of us are 20-year-olds with sweatshirts that say MacEwan (a university in Edmonton) and UofA (University of Alberta). In front of them, are layers of cans and bottles and a few (very few) milk cartons. One guy cashes in over 100 bucks of bottles. He didn’t make as much as my roommate and I did with our bottles in 1992.

When I went to university at Acadia in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, I stayed in residence. Seminary (Sem) House has high ceilings, beautiful hardwood floors and huge house parties once a month. The beer bottles from the bashes were piled into a closet and over the year, added up and up and up. Something else that added up and up and up was the phone bill. My roommate and I had our own phone in our room, otherwise you had to use the payphone in the hall.

At the end of exams and April my first year, it was time to pack up and head home. That’s when my roommate and I came up with an incredible business idea. Why don’t we take the bottles back for a refund? That way we could pay that #$@ phone bill.

Seminary House, Acadia University.

Seminary House, Acadia University.

We asked Sem’s live-in don, Carol, if we could take the bottles. She said yes. Then my roommate and I got a vehicle (maybe my parents, maybe her parents, I can’t remember) and loaded up the bottles. It wasn’t backbreaking work but the bottles were stinky and some were leaky and we got very sticky. It took several trips to drive the five minutes from Sem to the liquor store in downtown Wolfville but it was worth it.

We had struck gold with the amber bottles. Not only did we cover our phone bill but we had money left over. There had been over $200 in the closet. We told everybody about our haul and some weren’t so impressed with our entrepreneurial spirit. The next year in Sem, the bottles weren’t up for grabs anymore. I don’t recall what happened but I do know the bottle count was never the same after my first year. My roommate and I had had the last of the motherlode That next year we found out Sem wasn’t supposed to be having house parties once a month – it was against school policy.


Road maps for your memoirs

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Woman writing.

I forgot to take a photo of the participants at the Wetaskiwin Word Weavers memoir writing workshop.

It doesn’t matter what kind of writer you are: science fiction, romance or memoir, when you get an idea in your head, it sticks around. That little kernel of a thought will pop into a full-blown story that bounces around in your brain – until you get the words out. Sometimes though, there are too many ideas and it’s hard to pick which one to write first. My advice? Use an outline.

One Saturday, I gave a six-hour memoir writing workshop in Wetaskiwin, Alberta. The event was organized by the Wetaskiwin Word Weavers and I spoke to 12 authors whose creativity filled the room with wonderful stories and thought-provoking questions. One thing holding some of the writers back from telling their memoirs, was they didn’t know how to start.

Writing a collection of memoirs is almost no different than writing fiction. You still need description, a dramatic arc and a great idea at the core. However, we have so much more to draw on when writing life stories. We’ve lived through many different experiences, lessons, exciting events and quiet moments that it can be overwhelming if you’re looking at the big picture. Stop doing that. Start making an outline.

I call outlines “writing road maps.” The road map can guide you to ideas, structure and detour you around writer’s block. There are various ways to do outlines such as timelines. Listing your life chronologically is a linear tool that some prefer. Another way to outline your memoirs is by storyboarding. Storyboarding is often used in films and television shows where a director or animator draws a picture of each scene before a shoot. If you’re a visual person, you can do this too.

My preferred method of outlining is brainstorming. There are tons of examples of how to brainstorm but I think the following method works best for memoirs:

Pick five categories from your life and write each down on separate pieces of paper. I suggest:

  • family
  • friends
  • work
  • pets
  • travel

Pour out your ideas, thoughts, stories and reflections under each of these categories. You can use bullet points or full sentences – it doesn’t matter. All you need to do is get the words out of your brain and into the outline.

Next, circle five in each category that are the most important to you. These will be the stories you’ll start writing.

Outlines are working documents. You can add to them when you think of other things. Have too many ideas in your outline? Think about a second collection of memoirs!

Everyone needs memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.  ~Saul Bellow

Soapy memoirs

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Smart phone and senior woman.Go online or visit your local bookstore and you’ll find a variety of memoirs. The genre is on the rise and we’ve seen many stories, such as Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, hit the big screen. Memoirs are also hitting the small screen and ending up as plot lines, too. The Young and the Restless (YnR), for instance, has weaved life stories into its sensational mix.

Last year on the show, Victor Newman, a much-maligned but rich and successful antagonist, contacted a writer to craft his biography. Of course, true to dramatic form, the writer has an interesting backstory of his own. Scott, a famed journalist, escaped captivity and death in a war zone thanks to Victor’s connections and money. Now Scott has the chance to repay his debt by penning Victor’s story.

Dun-dun-dun… Victor’s wife (or ex-ex-ex-ex-wife then?) doesn’t want him to spill his guts on the page. Many more juicy plotlines follow and I’m not sure if the book ever was written. (I just googled it and Victor decided to let the project go.)

The man who plays Victor Newman, Eric Braeden, has written his own memoir, I’ll Be Damned. The book follows him as boy in Germany during the Second World War, through to his life on a television soap opera. Readers on Goodreads either loved the memoir or hated it. Just like Victor.

Now on YnR, another character is interviewing her grandmother, Dina, and collecting her story. Dina is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and her granddaughter, Abby, is videotaping their conversations. Abby is hearing the stories of her grandmother and learning about Dina’s life. Per soap opera style, Abby is learning a little bit more than she bargained for: her uncle might not be biologically related to her.

Truth is stranger than fiction. But hopefully not as convoluted as YnR.

Apple of my eye

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Child writing with a pencil and paper.For the past several months, I’ve been giving writing workshops to children. Every Sunday afternoon, students in Grades 4, 5 and 6 learn about formatting essays, figurative language and other aspects of writing. Last week, I taught them about clichés. However, some of the sayings I thought were commonplace, aren’t so much anymore.

Clichés are those sayings that are repeated so often that they’re meaningless. We’ve heard expressions like abandon ship, fit as a fiddle, walk a mile in another’s shoes, etc. a lot and the words don’t affect us anymore. I tell my students that their favourite authors don’t use clichés, they think of new ways to describe things.

In Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, J. K. Rowling paints a picture with words without using clichés. Here is an example:

Nearly Headless Nick (a ghost), Harry noticed, was still holding Sir Patrick’s rejection letter.

“I wish there was something I could do for you about the Headless Hunt,” Harry said.

Nearly Headless Nick stopped in his tracks and Harry walked right through him. He wished he hadn’t; it was like stepping through an icy shower.

The obvious cliché would be to write that Harry felt like “a ghost passed through him.” Clichés distance readers from the story – writers need to connect readers with actions and events that they can imagine too. Rowling knew most readers wouldn’t have had experiences with ghosts passing through them. However, we all know what an icy shower feels like.

I asked my students what Apple of my eye meant. They shouted Apple sitting on books.out that it was about owning iGlasses / smart glasses. I said no, that wasn’t it and waited for the correct response. Other comments ranged from liking Mac computers over PCs as well as iPads. No, that’s not it either.

When I was young (30 years ago), no one called anyone the apple of their eye. Nevertheless, I still knew what it meant – being someone’s darling. I was surprised that the expression is disappearing from our vernacular. I didn’t think I was old as the hills yet but I guess only time will tell what other clichés go the way of the dodo bird.

Blast from the Past

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Me presenting at Blast from the Past. Some of my early writing, I’m talking childhood, is embarrassing and not at all noteworthy. I don’t know why I’ve been holding on to it but last week, I got the chance to share my Grade 3 prose. The Writers’ Guild of Alberta put on Blast from the Past and I was one of nine readers chosen to read our early scrawling’s.

 In my Grade 3 diary, my first entry is: I like hotdogs. And…that’s all she wrote.

I wrote that with a pen in the shape of a tube of lipstick. It was the start of keeping a journal, which I still do today. I also thought it was the start of a prolific writing career because after those three words, or four if you count hot dogs as two words, I started to record a novel. Yes, record. Writing about hotdogs took way too much effort so I decided the path to becoming a bestselling author was to speak into a tape recorder (it was the 80s).

I called my novel The Vampire Tree. I don’t remember the plot or even what a Vampire Tree is but I was ahead of my time. The Vampire Tree was twenty years before Twilight and The Vampire Diaries. My book had a character named Bunny and because it was fiction, she hated hotdogs. Why I remember this part so well is that my two younger sisters discovered chapter one on tape and laughed at Bunny and me. That was enough to kill The Vampire Tree and it remains buried, never to rise again.

After abandoning prose, I decided to take a stab, literally and figuratively, at poetry. Here is another Grade 3 masterpiece, complete with misspelled words.

A piece of paper with a poem about brushing your teeth that I wrote in Grade 3.

A Grade 3 poem, complete with misspelled words.

Hi, my name’s Kieth.
I live inside of teeth.
I like to eat
Lots of sickly sweets
I like to hear
That groning spear
That rushes by the throat
By the owner Miss Toat
When that thoothbrush comes
I am a dead Jones
That does not make me happy
No no no!

I have many more poems and stories from my earlier years but I’ll keep them for my own entertainment. What kind of childhood memories make you laugh?

Planting the seed: making the change to a whole food plant-based diet

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Plant-Based Made Easy book.What is a whole food plant-based diet? Until I edited Nele Liivlaid’s Plant-Based Made Easy book, I thought it was an expensive and time-consuming way of eating. Now I know that’s not true.

A whole food plant-based diet means eating plant-based food in its natural form. You eat fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains and legumes and exclude animal products (meat, eggs, etc.) and processed foods. Plant-Based Made Easy: The Complete Practical Guide To Transitioning To Healthy Whole Food Diet taught me that you don’t need to spend a lot of money and it doesn’t take a lot of time to start eating plant-based meals. Nele is the founder of Nutriplanet Health Hub, a business that believes in sharing information about healthy lifestyles. Her book breaks down the steps and gives you tips on how to start moving to a whole food plant-based diet. She even planned two weeks of meals so you don’t have to do all the thinking – just the cooking.

Nele Liivlaid: founder of and

Nele Liivlaid: founder of and

There are tons of tasty recipes and the photos look good enough to eat, too. Try Oven Waffles for breakfast, Quinoa-Spinach-Lentil-Soup for lunch with Chia-Fig Pudding for dessert. For supper, you can have Pizza and as a treat, a Bean-Sweet Potato Brownie. Sounds yummy to me.

Plant-Based Made Easy Oven Waffles.

Plant-Based Made Easy Oven Waffles.

If you’ve been thinking about moving to a whole food plant-based diet, consider Plant-Based Made Easy: The Complete Practical Guide To Transitioning To Healthy Whole Food Diet.  Besides satisfying meals, there’s also nutritional advice, how to get the kids eating plant-based as well as stories from others who have made the change. Plant-Based Made Easy could be your recipe for success.