a peek inside the fishbowl

30 Aug, 2019

Weekend reading: August 31 edition

By andrea tomkins in Weekend reading

24 Aug, 2019

In loving memory

By andrea tomkins in Misc. life

Mary Tomkins

(September 18, 1938 – August 19, 2019)

[For context, this is the eulogy I gave at Mary’s funeral on August 24]

Gary, Mark and I were here a few days ago, making arrangements. One of the items we looked at were thank you cards. Those are likely to come your way by sometime next year. We were deciding whether or not to have some text preprinted inside: “Thank you for your kindness in these difficult times” or “We are grateful for your friendship in this time of sorrow.”

I voted for leaving them blank inside.

That’s when Gary chimed in: “She is the writer in the family,” he said. I guess I am, I mean that’s what it says on my resume, but I never pictured myself writing thank you cards to send to family and friends after my mother-in-law’s funeral.

We know that death eventually comes for everyone, yet no one expects the day to actually arrive. It’s horrible and devastating, yet at the same time, I try to remember that it is grief, sadness, and darkness that helps us truly appreciate joy, happiness, and light.

One of the things I always think about when someone dies is the fact that they didn’t know that last Christmas was their last. If you knew that next Christmas was going to be your last, would you do anything differently? What would you spend more time doing? What would you spend less time doing? I know this is something I will be thinking a lot about in the weeks and months to come.

I want to share a few things that I know to be true about Mary.

She was very fun to prank.

When I was pregnant with Emma – over 20 years ago now – we decided to spring our pregnancy reveal on Mary and Gary during a visit to Orillia, where they were living at the time. It was Mary’s birthday, and so we chose to use this as our vehicle to let them know I was pregnant. We went to a craft store and purchased some light purple yarn and put it in a gift bag along with a pattern for a baby sweater. Of course, we found it very hard to keep a straight face as we give her the gift. She pulled out the yarn, totally puzzled. She looked at it. “You want me to knit you a sweater or something?” she asked incredulously. That’s when she looked at the pattern. I watched her face as she suddenly made the connection. She jumped up and hugged us both. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so happy.

Since we have two daughters I should also tell you the story of how we told Mary and Gary that we were pregnant with Sarah. Once again we were back in Orillia. It was morning. The coffee was brewing and we were all milling around the kitchen. Mark and I snuck downstairs to the giant chest freezer in the basement, took out a hamburger bun, turned on the oven, and placed it on the rack. Pretty soon the kitchen filled up with the scent of fresh bread.

“Did you put something in the oven?” asked Gary.
“No,” said Mary.
“Well there is something in the oven,” said Gary.
At this point Mary started to panic a little. What’s all this about the oven? Who’s using the oven? Why would someone be using the oven?
Mary said, “I am using the toaster oven to reheat a bran muffin and I don’t know what you’re talking about. WHAT DO YOU MEAN THERE’S A BUN IN THE OVEN?”
Mark and I were trying our best not to laugh. By this time Gary had clued in and had started to chuckle. Mary was left still wondering why the oven was on, but within a few additional seconds she finally got the joke. There was a bun in the oven. My oven. I was pregnant! Hugs all around.

Mary really wanted daughters but all she got was a couple of stinky boys who roughhoused, didn’t like to go shopping and had no interest in baking or any of the other domestic arts she excelled at. She didn’t have any young women to spoil until her granddaughters came into her life. Did I mention she REALLY wanted daughters?

I have a memory of a baby shower gift she gave to us before we knew the gender of our baby. The gift wrap had a pattern on it, it was text, actually: IT’S A GIRL. She insists that she didn’t notice this when she was buying it but I think it clearly revealed her innermost desires.

Mary was one of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever known, and I’m not just talking about birthday money and Christmas gifts. Sometimes it wasn’t immediately obvious. Emma reminded me of something Mary told the girls over a special lunch earlier this summer. You know how when you pay for your groceries at the store, sometimes they ask if you want to donate money to charity? And if you do, they write your name on a colourful piece of paper to stick up on a wall? When Mary gave at the cash register, when she was shopping alone, she never signed her own name on that paper, she wrote the names of her granddaughters – Emma and Sarah.

Not that long ago she picked up a glasses cleaning cloth at Home Hardware for me that has a photo of dogs printed on it. She bought it because she was thinking of me and she knew I liked dogs too.

I have a mother, but Mary, she was my mom. She patiently showed me how to crochet and knit but never bugged me about it or harboured great expectations. She loved a good book, and we often swapped recommendations. She loved a good deal! We teased her about the boxes from Amazon that piled up in the garage. She loved to laugh and she always had a big smile for us.

“Where’s my hug?” she’d say; arms open wide. You couldn’t come or go without one.

Another story: A few Christmases ago we exchanged names and Mary was my assigned recipient. Mary had a lot of interests, she loved to bake, and do puzzles. As I mentioned, she loved to read. She was crafty too – very creative – great at knitting, crochet, sewing, painting. You name it. She awhile she even did rug hooking. She called herself the happy hooker. For many years she was into ceramics and had her own kiln at home. In fact, she had two. There was no end of gifts I could buy her but that year, we decided to create wishlists on the Chapters website to make gift-giving a little easier.

She emailed me a link to her list. It had two items on it, one was a small coin purse and the other was an apron with “never trust a skinny cook” written on it. I was a little surprised by this choice, but I figured since she had put it on her list it was something she really wanted. And wish lists don’t lie, right?

So picture the scene. She’s unwrapping my gift with the kind of anticipation that is reserved exclusively for Christmas and birthdays. She tears off the paper, opens the box, pulls out the apron, and reads the inscription: Never trust a skinny cook. I saw the expression on her face. It was painfully obvious that she’d never laid eyes on this apron before and I had just insulted my mother-in-law in the most egregious way.

I tried explaining, but I think her shock prevented her from truly hearing me out. I never did figure out how that apron got on her wish list and I never saw it after that Christmas!

What else do I know about Mary? I know that she was very proud of her son, Mark, and she deeply appreciated his help, especially in recent times. She loved her granddaughters fiercely but her son meant the world to her for many reasons.

I loved Mary as family, and as a friend, if that makes any sense.

What else do I know about Mary? I know the best thing about her eventually brought about the end of her story. She died from a massive cardiac event, which can only mean one thing. Her heart was too big.

If you’re looking for a way to remember Mary, may I suggest sitting down and assembling a puzzle with your family, baking up a batch of her famous butter tarts (I’m sure her sister Marina will share the recipe with me), or giving someone you love a big hug… just make sure you give it all you got and let that hug really sink in. Because that’s the way Mary would do it.

18 Aug, 2019

First days in Phuket

By andrea tomkins in travel talk

I don’t like admitting this, but I was afraid. Did we make a mistake coming here? Was I cut out for this? The trip was hard on me. Simply getting here was an enormous undertaking and I found myself constantly questioning whether or not I was cut out for this kind of travel. In fact, it seriously eroded my beliefs about myself and who I am.

I’ve always said I wanted to travel. Mark and I often talk about future vacations and retirement plans. So what does it say about me that I am such an anxious traveller? And that I was finding it so hard to Just Do It? Is it because I’m old or is it something else within me that’s changed? Either way, I  was disappointed in myself. OR, was it the exhaustion and jet lag talking? I didn’t know.

We spent the morning swimming and lounging by the pool. There were butterflies everywhere, probably because this place backed on to a jungle. They were pretty to watch. Each one looked like a child’s drawing of a butterfly. Every once in awhile they dropped into the pool water – just for a split second – to catch a sip of water.

By the early afternoon, all we had managed was (another) trip to the 7-11. One of the clerks made me the best iced coffee I’d had in forever. It was so good it was life-altering. I asked my daughter to hold it for me while I paid. As I was digging around in my wallet and trying to decipher one bill from another, the clerk motioned to my daughter. She wanted to take her photo with my coffee. Daughter agreed but then felt weird about it afterward.

We talked about why the clerk asked to take a photo. I thought it was funny and interesting. You see, I had considered asking a fellow at a nearby durian stand to pose for a photo as well. Why do we want to take photos of foreign people doing foreign things? Clearly the desire to do so goes both ways.

Later that afternoon we decided to take a stab at walking to Patong Beach. Here’s where I should mention the godsend that is Google Maps. Until now, I had no idea you could offload a map segment and use it offline. It was so helpful! We always knew where we were going without needing to tap into our roaming package (which was a daily rate but only if we turned it on). This eliminated a heap of anxiety for me.

It was still very hot but the worst of it was finally waning and the youngest seemed well enough to venture forth. We promised ourselves we wouldn’t overdo it, so we set out.

The beach was a 25-minute walk from our AirBnb but we spent at least 10 minutes of that trying to cross busy intersections between streams of traffic. There were no walk signals or no crosswalks. It was a hot walk, and er, quite pungent in parts. It was easy to lose focus on the path ahead – literally, a path, as there were no sidewalks for at least half of the walk to Patong Beach. There were distractions everywhere. If it wasn’t a pot hole, cracks and crumbling curbs, cars, motorbikes, it was the food vendors and shop keepers trying to get our attention (“Thai massage?” “Come and look at our menu!”). I saw a guy on a motorbike carrying a 40″ TV. I saw grandmothers pulling carts of fruit. I saw laughing school children in smart matching uniforms. I saw birds in cages. I saw glass bottles of gasoline lined up on thin wooden shelves. I saw stray cats and dogs, shrines with offerings of soda pop, children playing on hoverboards. I looked up and saw tangled spools of phone/cable/? wire on every pole.

Road to Patong Beach (look at those wires!)

Motorbikes along the road to Patong Beach

Finally! A sidewalk! (Patong Beach district)

Road to Patong Beach

The simple act of walking down the street was a multisensory assault. The cacophony of life blared at us from all sides, at a volume that was very hard to get used to. Add to that, of course, the discomforting feeling of the river of sweat pouring down my back.

Of course, that all didn’t matter very much when we finally saw the beach.

(Want to read the previous posts in the Thailand series? Click here.)


17 Aug, 2019

Weekend reading: August 17 edition

By andrea tomkins in Weekend reading

On the nightstand: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night: A Novel

I’m posting this today in case you are looking for something to do that includes a good drive, good food, good views, and a good hike. Spoiler alert: This outing covers all of those things!

Last weekend Mark and I drove to the Calabogie area to check out the trail to Eagle’s Nest Lookout. It’s been on my Ottawa bucket list forever and I’m happy to say we did it.

It takes about an hour to get there and it’s a pretty drive through the Ottawa Valley (anyone who ever went for Sunday drives as a kid will appreciate where I’m coming from.) There are a few restaurants in Calabogie and since we were arriving around lunch we opted for the Redneck Bistro. I knew we’d find something good on the menu – honestly, there is something for everyone here – and it had a ton of great reviews on Trip Advisor, so it was a pretty much a done deal.

There is an outdoor patio but we opted for indoor AC as it was a hot day.

Mark ordered a burger and fries (SO.MANY.FRIES.) and I chose the crispy spicy chicken sandwich in wrap format with a side salad. The sandwich was very good and the salad was surprisingly sophisticated for a place called the Redneck Bistro.

Lunch at the Redneck Bistro, Calabogie

It was exactly what I needed. It’s worth noting that there is a good beer menu here as well, but since we were heading out for a hike I didn’t think that a lunchtime pint was a very good idea.

I repointed our GPS to Eagle’s Nest lookout trail but we saw signs for it along the road before we got to our final destination point. There were other cars parked along the road so pulled over and took this route too. (I’m assuming there are multiple places to park and reach the lookout.)

There’s a large sign at the beginning of the trail. Eagle’s Nest Lookout is part of the Manitou Mountain Trail Network, which is 9 km long. Eagle’s Nest is a 1.5 km segment of the larger trail network and, according to the sign, takes 25 minutes to hike in one direction. (This estimate was fairly accurate.)

I would also like to mention the Eagle’s Nest trail is dog-friendly! Dogs are allowed here, and we saw quite a few. We also spotted some other creatures, including this guy, who was imitating a cobra, but not nearly so dangerous:

Garter snake!

Happily, the trail wasn’t as steep as I expected, which is great considering there was a massive plate of food in my belly. In fact, I thought we made a wrong turn because we were actually going downhill at one point. Overall, I’d say it’s a relatively easy hike although proper footwear is key since the path is rocky in parts. Bring water too!

The trail is clearly marked and if you stick to the main path, which is very obvious, you won’t get lost (this is always a fear of mine).

Eagle's Nest trail terrain

Hike to Eagle's Nest Lookout

You will be at the lookout before you know it!

It’s important to note that this is a sacred site, so please be respectful. When you reach the top, take a moment to take a few deep breaths and express your gratitude to the god of your choosing.

You made it. Isn’t it great to be alive?

Hike to Eagle's Nest Lookout


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The Obligatory Blurb

My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human daughters: Emma (20) and Sarah (18). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

If you'd like to contact me, please use this form. If you're so inclined, you can read more about me here. Thank you for visiting!


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