Saturday, 27 October 2018

Birthday wishes for Ashley Simpson

In November, my cousin Ashley Simpson would have been 35 years old. If she wasn't working, she likely would have celebrated with her big messy family chowing down on a feast prepared by her pa, John Simpson, who would have thrown everything at the usual gang: a turkey, a roast beef or ribs, pots of potatoes and veggies, and lots of yummy desserts.

Ashley might have tried some of the legal pot here in Ontario, or maybe brought her own, and washed down her meal with her favorite beverage, a fizzy and boozy Palm Bay. Likely she would have made some crack about showing the politicians how to do the whole pot thing. Then she'd giggle, and venture off to play with her gaggle of nieces and nephews, threading marshmallows, painting faces, and singing the kids' songs so many of us forgot so long ago.

Everybody would be there. There's half a town of young people from Thorold and St. Catharines who call her parents mom and dad. Ashley and her sisters adopted a slew of strays along with way, latchkey kids whose parents were always working. They've remained friends since primary school, and shared the joys and grief of life together at Simpson feasts and barbecues.

But this year, once again, Ashley will not have a place around the bonfire. For two and a half years, she's been absent for every festivity, replaced by photos on the wall, and sweatshirts emblazoned with images of her lovely face, taken back in happier times: the selfie queen, the gypsy who long ago mastered the art of the take down on anyone who dared challenge her.

Where are you? her father asks from his lonely perch where he spends hours scheming, ordering t-shirts, and weeping. Where are you? her mother wonders as she boards yet another ship destined for the lakes of Ontario where she feeds armies of sailors from all over the world.

Her mom, Cindy, believes Ashley is still in the Okanagan, where she went missing in April 2016. She speaks to Ashley every night, crazy she says, but Ashley has told her that's where she'll be when she is finally discovered.

Not in Pink Lake, thirteen hours away from Salmon Arm where her Ontario driver's licence was recently found in a sewage truck. 

No, Cindy is convinced, she's a stone's throw away from where she first disappeared in Salmon Arm. Maybe she can see the trailer where she once lived and fought with her boyfriend. 

Hiding in plain sight under branches, and moss.

The driver's licence discovery created quite a stir this week. I received five media calls on Wednesday after the news leaked out. John dutifully took all the calls in between trying to find some work for himself. And Ashley's case was the subject of an APTN documentary which aired last Friday. She's also part of a Toronto Star investigation which you can read here

The swarm comes out, then goes dormant again, sometimes for weeks -- reporters who get the unenviable task of talking to the parents of their beloved child. They are always amazed how eager the Simpsons are to talk -- they can't stop talking about Ashley because if they do, they fear, she will disappear from view, and that is not an option. 

There was also news this week about Curtis Sagmoen who will will be in court again on Wednesday. He's the waste of air who's been terrorizing women for years in Enderby/Salmon Arm, beating them up, leaving them on the side of the ditch like road kill, forcing them to run for their lives. 

The cops say Sagmoen is not a person of interest in Ashley's case.

Well, someone is, right?

In any event, if there is an upside to this piece of shit, it's that his trial reminds people that at least half a dozen women went missing in the last few years from this area, and that B.C. can boast twice the number of missing and murdered women compared to the national average.

Put that in your tourism ads, B.C. 

Gord Downie would have written a song about it. 

When Curtis appears in court next Wednesday, he'll have groupies, but not the kind he likes. There will be men and women picketing, and drumming, and reminding the community about the plight of our Stolen Sisters once again. 

For John's part, all he wants is closure. He dreams of the day when the cops get an anonymous call telling them where to find Ashley. He just wants to bring her home.

He wants to have his daughter near, where he can visit her, talk to her, and keep her safe.

It's what we're all working for, too.

Ashley's Army. Never give up. 

Monday, 24 September 2018

Drones offer help and hope to families of the missing

Embed from Getty Images

John Simpson spent this past weekend playing host to golfers at the 2nd Annual Ashley Simpson Golf Tournament in Niagara. John, his wife Cindy and organizer Amanda Haveman have been working tirelessly on this event for weeks. It's meant to raise money, as well as awareness about the plight of missing women and girls in Canada.

It's the cause of John's lifetime. He's spent his savings trying to find his missing daughter Ashley -- my cousin -- who disappeared without a trace in Salmon Arm, B.C. nearly two and a half years ago. Like all parents of the missing, thoughts of Ashley consume him. The stress has cost him employment, and his health, and yet he continues looking straight ahead, fueled only by his faith that he will some day find Ashley.

Every spring, John goes back to Salmon Arm, and joins Ashley's Army, a group of volunteers who get to work scouring the bush and logging roads, casting their gazes toward running streams and rivers. Cindy returned this year, too, hoping to find any scrap of evidence that could help police discover what could have happened to the girl known as "Gypsy".

Much of the money raised will go towards funding the purchase of drones that can fly over the treacherous terrain, and go where humans fear to travel. The technology is getting better, thanks to the efforts of Shane Michaels, who has developed software that improves the precision and sharpness of the images. The drones, John believes, are the future of search and rescue.  So are their operators who are increasingly becoming the last hope for many families looking for loved ones in rural and remote North America.

The drones are filling a gap. Most communities and police forces have limited search and rescue resources. In the case of Ashley, only one search was conducted soon after her disappearance, and the family was left to fend for themselves and rely on the kindness of strangers.

For that reason, Shane Michaels has founded a Facebook site called Wings of Mercy, and he is enlisting an army of skilled drone pilots to fan out into communities to help with the search and rescue efforts. This is a wholly volunteer operation, with operators often funding their searches out of their own pockets. Drone technology is an expensive enterprise with the hardware costing upward of $5,000, and these costs are borne by the pilots themselves.

What's important, and different, about Wings of Mercy, is that these dedicated individuals will continue to search when everybody else has gone home. They offer hope to families who are stricken with grief, who may never know what's happened to their loved ones.

I am proud to be a member of Wings of Mercy, and I would encourage each and every one of you to think about donating to this worthy cause. Just ask yourself one question: what if it was my child, my spouse or my parent?

Sometimes hope, and help, is all we have.

To learn more about Wings of Mercy, and how you can help, please visit this site

Saturday, 18 August 2018

Sasha Fierce and Mama Rose

Two years ago, her parents entrusted me with her care.
Next week, I will hand her back to them, and she will enter the big, bad world of daycare.
I'm sad. I can't lie.
But it's time.
Alas, she remains untoilet-trained, and continues to speak a combination of Russian and French with a hint of Hindi -- unless she wants peaches or supe.
Then, her English is just fine.
Oh yes, and she drinks more juice than water most days.
I make no apologies. I am her grandmother, not her mother.
And I've never been a particularly focused caregiver.
When I need a nap I take one.
So for a time every day, the iPad has been the nanny.
Which might explain the Russian and the Hindi.
And her fixation on ghosts.

In my own defence, I kept her out of the hospital, though we did have a few close calls.
Like the time she brought the occasional table down on her neck.
Or the other time she tumbled down the stairs because a certain grandpa couldn't remember to close the door.
She's had a few scratches, that's for sure. That's what happens when a kid is raised by wolves.
When the Big Woof was alive, he used to take her down with his tail. Now she has the Puppy Pearl, and all bets are off. For the last few months, she's had to wear rubber boots to keep the puppy from nipping at her ankles.
Now the tables have turned. Pearl is actually afraid of her.
As am I.

Right from the start, Kennedy Rose proved that she was her own woman. She is a force of nature, Sasha Fierce with a mighty 'fro, a girl who sways to her own drum, sleeps when she damned well feels like it, and only knows a world where it is totally acceptable to have a mom who is Snow White and a dad who is the Huntsman.
She's had Donald Trump in her ear most of her life, but she only pays attention to CNN when she sees Barak Obama. She loves the sound of his voice. That would drive Trump crazy.
She may look like love incarnate, with soft eyes that have already melted a lot of hearts.
But she's a tough cookie.
Over the past few weeks, she's been benching her own weight between two arm chairs and I've noticed little muscles where the soft baby fat used to be.
I can't wait to see what she does next.
All I can say is be very, very afraid.
This girl is going places.
Watch out world.
Here she comes.

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Ashley's Ghost

Like most women of a certain age, I live with ghosts.
Ghosts of dear friends, ghosts of favorite pets, ghosts of dear departed family members.
When I'm at the lake, I visit with them often. I see Finnigan catching a Kong in the lake, and Gordie taking his last swim. I see Jennette, too, in the chair next to me having a cocktail or a morning smoothie.
It's here where I am most at peace, with the waves lapping or the thunder clapping. It's a place to think, to ruminate, to wonder what could have been. For the most part, the endings were sad but expected; there's no need or want to be angry. We each have so many heartbeats, so many tears in us.
As humans, the only thing that keeps us sane is our ability to move on.
But there is one ghost who lives with me who won't be put in the nice memory box, and that is the ghost of my cousin Ashley Simpson who disappeared in April two years ago in the wilds of Salmon Arm, British Columbia.

Ashley left with barely a trace after a fight with a boyfriend. She is one of the four missing or murdered women of the Salmon Arm/Enderby area who disappeared in short order, all without a trace, all without an explanation.
There have been a few suspects in these cases but only one has been charged by the police, though he has never been charged in the case of these women.
And so the ghosts of Ashley and the other women continue to haunt the woods and streams of that devastated community.
My cousin John and his wife Cindy, along with their entire family, live with Ashley's ghost. She permeates their thoughts as they go about their work each day. She is absent from the barbeques and bonfires she once loved, and John is without her helping hands as he cooks meals for legions.
Each year now, John and family make the journey out to Salmon Arm and join the locals for a hard search of the area. Thanks to the efforts of John and some dedicated volunteers, they are now able to utilize drone technology to get into the areas where humans fear to tread.
Alas, there was no closure again this year for these heartbroken families.
Ever the kind soul, John is tireless in his efforts to raise awareness about the missing and murdered women, and he spends his off hours raising money to buy more drones.
To his thinking, they may not find Ashley, but if they can locate one other girl or woman before the dust settles, it will be worth the efforts.
To learn about how drones are now being used for search and rescue, to get involved, or to donate, please visit this site.
Never forget. Never give up.
Ashley's Army continues to work in her memory.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

A Viking Send Off

Embed from Getty Images

Scott and I were sitting around a couple of nights ago planning our funerals -- as one does on a beautiful summer night.
Actually, we were in a money management meeting in the backyard, eating tapas and drinking.
We have those now and again to make sure that we have enough money to live out the rest of our days, and leave enough to dispatch our asses so the kids don't have to pass the hat. Me, I could care less. Might as well sweep me to the curb but not everybody thinks that way.
We don't have a lot of expenses but we do have to budget for home and car repairs, vet bills, and so on. I'm hoping to have a little dental work done, and maybe replace the carpets after the unfortunate pet incidents involving seizures, mouth foam, urine and feces.
But I also want to make sure that death is covered. I don't worry about taxes because, in the last few years, I haven't made enough money to pay taxes.
I applied for the Canada Pension Plan when I turned 60, and they just laughed at me.
Great career planning on my part!
Fortunately, Scott has retirement income but we have that only until he dies because I wasn't his wife when he took his pension, so I'm basically screwed even though we've enjoyed 15 years of marital bliss. The money will go to his ex-wife who hasn't sent a card or a letter in 20 years.
Oh well.
That's what life insurance is for.

Jennette got me into this whole funeral thing.
She and I spent hours with funeral directors over the past few years, first after Roger died, then after her Dad died. Then Jennette decided to pre-plan, or should I say, over-plan arrangements for her own demise. And she wasn't even sick!
Then she did get sick and decided to do her arrangements all over again, but we still got stuck with a bill of over $2,000 even after she diligently made monthly payments. The funeral folks were still taking money out of her account after she died, even though we'd paid the damned bill.
A curse on their house of death! Send in the locusts.

Scott and I have made a pact that we will not pay a single penny more than necessary on final arrangements. We're going with a basic funeral, no frills, and a party which will be held in our honour someplace, BYOB. Or not. Who cares?
I'm not putting a notice in the paper. As my friend Shirley Van Dusen once said about her husband Tom, "somebody will find him eventually". I'm on Facebook, so I'm assuming that after I haven't commented on Trump's virility or shared some puppy pics, people will figure out that I'm gone.
After a couple of cocktails, I suggested that we give our bodies to medicine. That would be a cheap way to go, right? I am felled by a bus or some horrible disease, and the mortuary attendant in the hospital simply moves me into the cadaver room.
So I messaged the Ottawa Hospital, and they sent me the handy guide on how to make a full frontal body donation.
The kit came with a few warnings.
First, you have to pay your own transportation. Bus, van, Uber, or stretch limo -- we don't care -- you have to make your own way her.
And don't assume, dead one, that we will actually want you. 
There are lots of people who have this idea that it's a cheap way to go, so don't get any big ideas.
Make other plans, the guide suggested.
I was hurt.
And horrified.
Wasn't I agreeing to give the hospital my most valuable asset in the end, only to be told, "Meh, George over here on the gurney, he came in first."

Sorry Simpson family, your mom just isn't that special!

And no autopsy or organ donation for you, missy.
No sir, what would we want with your nasty smelly un-embalmed leavings if somebody else took the best parts!
I've signed my donor card, so that ends the discussion.
I mean, I'd much rather donate whatever gently used organs I have left to give somebody a second chance than to risk having medical students laugh at my boobs.
So I'm back to square.

Still, funeral homes are an absolutely rip off.
Jennette actually agreed to pay for a rental casket so I could identify her. It cost her $1,200 for me to come see her all made up. Though she did look much better than the last time I saw her.
I want to Viking funeral. Pile me in the car and head for the lake. Put me on a raft soaked in gasoline. It will be better than the Canada Day fireworks.
And I'll go out with a big bang heard across the lake.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Fear of Flying

Renee (second row, third from left), Rose (front second from left). 

When you meet someone from your past, a curious thing happens --they set "fresh eyes" on you.

My friend Renee hadn't seen me in nearly 45 years when I took her to the lake.

In high school, I was five foot six and weighed 130 pounds. Today, I weigh as much as my older brother who is six foot two. He likes to remind me of this fact on his regular phone call every ten years or so.

Renee hasn't changed much at all. She's tiny with a big wallop of wavy hair. Because she strictly attends to her diet, and an exercise regime, she still reminds me of the girl who took the bus with me everyday so many years ago. The only wink to old age is her decision to let her hair go grey. She likes to sweep it back into a messy bun that gives her a slight bohemian vibe.

In high school, I would rather go pantless than be caught without my lipstick and full make up which included an unfortunate foray into blue eyeliner. Today, I rarely wear any makeup at all. It isn't that I'm against makeup, it's that I live in constant Rocky Balboa mode -- like I have a chronic case of the meat sweats. The makeup literally slides off.

My hair is a complete write-off -- though I still dye it, like who am I kidding? It's in a ponytail. Who cares? I'm rarely seen in public anyway unless I have a doctor's appointment or have to take Pearl to the vet.

For a decade now, I've bought my clothes to hide the fat -- t shirts mostly -- at Value Village while Renee shops the vintage stores and favours bright floral dresses that flatter her curves. And unlike me, she's totally committed to eyeliner and lipstick, even if she's going to the village for supplies.

We are so different in many ways. She has had a successful broadcasting career while I've had a spotty freelance career. I have dogs, she favours pets of the feline variety.

Perhaps the only thing that is the same between us is our choice of husbands. Her husband works in construction and renovation while mine was a cameraman now toiling in the security industry. Both guys are good guys, who are just as capable of whipping up a salmon meuniere as they are cutting the grass. They're men's men with hearts of gold. When Renee admitted to not feeling well, and dreaded the drive back to Toronto, her husband dropped everything and hopped a train to meet her in Ottawa. That is stellar male performance in my book. Similarly, Scott would do anything for me and my kids -- and has -- and I owe him a debt of gratitude and the occasional bottle of Single Malt.

That's about all that we have in common.

Back to fresh eyes.

Over the course of three days, we shared our hopes and dreams, and our fears. I have a terrible habit of over-sharing, which gives other people the idea that I need to be rescued, like a kitten found in a bag in a dumpster.

Truth is, I just like to complain.

And that's where I get into trouble especially when it means spending three days with a person you knew in high school.

"You should write a book," she said.

I looked at her.

"But I don't want to write a book."

"But you should write a book," she said. "You could make a lot of money."

I explained to her that writing a book in Canada, even a best seller, usually paid enough to get the repairs done on a used car. I went on to describe the bookshelf I have at home that is filled with well-intentioned memoirs, poetry, cookbooks, great tomes of fiction and picture books all written by my good friends. I buy them to support their writerly aspirations, but I've hardly cracked the spine of any of them.

I haven't even read my own son's books cover to cover.

"I'm a blogger," I told her. "I don't write books. I don't have the attention span or interest to write a book."

"Maybe you could put the blogs together into a book."

"Maybe, but I don't want to."

I felt like the kid I was in high school, faced with a French exam, knowing that I was going to fail it. Did I tell you Renee is fluently bilingual?

I felt my skin flush, hot with anger and embarrassment. It wasn't Renee's fault. I get this advice from nearly everybody. Most folks just give up on me after a while but Renee wouldn't let it go.

Truth is, I am afraid to write a book. Afraid it won't sell. Afraid it will be panned. Afraid that it will become a rock bottom remainder if it even gets into a book store.

I tried to change the subject but every time I did, we would veer into another uncomfortable area like weight loss. Renee admitted that she had been overweight and had joined Weight Watchers, and learned to swim, and that she walked home from her job nearly every day, and ate mostly whole foods and jarred her own ingredients.

How, I thought was that possible?

I look after a toddler, and I can't even get the dishes done til the weekend -- unless Scott does them.

Exercise? I threw my iWatch into a drawer because at the end of the day it reads "two hundred steps".

"Don't worry," I told her reaching for the Jose Cuervo for nerve. " I have a plan."

I do have a plan, you know. It's sitting on this very computer with unchecked boxes. I have a gym that's half assembled in the basement. I have kale.

And then talk turned to self-care and Renee's beautiful skin.

Fortunately for me, my dead friend Jennette left me two hundred tubs of expensive skin cream that she had bought from some Internet company that billed her credit card every month.

Of course, you have to use the cream for it to make a difference.

Renee has a strict regime, and she makes her own skin cream.

Of course she does.

She handed me a lovely bag filled with body and face cream, as well as a fragrance she made herself.
It didn't smell like my cream, that apparently is made of lilacs ripped from their branches at first bud. It seemed rather greasy compared to the Internet stuff Jennette left me, the $200 a bottle stuff that resembles the top of a lemon meringue pie.

Look, I'm not stupid, okay? I know the store bought stuff is full of preservatives and additives, and possibly essence of squirrel.

Renee's is made of natural ingredients, and it obviously works so how could I not use it?

Maybe she did have some good ideas after all.

Certainly, I reasoned, it couldn't hurt to take some of her advice. Nothing I'd done so far had worked.

At the end of the night, I was exhausted, as if I'd binge-watched Oprah Winfrey's entire career and was headed into Deepak Chopra territory, with a side of Dr. Oz.

But then something happened.

The conversation turned to Renee and her hopes and dreams. Renee confided in me that her greatest wish was to sing opera on the big stage with a big opera company, She's taken all the training, and she's great at it. She even gave me an impromptu performance while we were sitting at the bonfire we'd built during the black out.

It was nice to hear her lovely voice echoing through the Gatineau hills like some kind of half time show for the fire works.

She told me she worried that she was so preoccupied with work and food and kids and keeping the home fires burning that she might have missed the opportunity to realize her dream.

"Ah ha!" I said. "I might be able to make that happen for you."

I told her about a show called Now or Never! on CBC Radio. It's the same show on which I confessed that I wanted a boob job. That never happened, of course because, well, the weight thing. And my fear of flying without a 42H underwire.

Anyway, I was pretty confident that I could get her on that show. And I'm going to try, once they've come off hiatus.

Suddenly, I felt better. I'd found something I could do to help her.

I felt empowered.

I put down the Jose Cuervo.

That's when I made a decision. I was going to get off my ass and join Weight Watchers.

And I'm even contemplating, you know, the book thing.

I just need a boost that didn't involve Tostidos and video games.

Sometimes it take fresh eyes to realize it's time to stop complaining and do something.

I feel like Dorothy perpetually stuck in Oz getting unfortunate make overs and smelling lion farts. I've spent the last few years, yearning, hoping, pining for a different life, for something big to happen.

Maybe if I click my Sketchers together three times, I can make something happen.

Something small.

I've already started. When I got back from the cottage, I tried the skin cream.

It works beautifully.

Sometimes it take a small person who used to ride public transit with you to tell you it's time to get off the bus.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Farm girl meets cottage

I was raised on a farm, so you might expect that I was a rumbly tumbly little girl who spent her summer holidays working for my Grandpa Loyal and helping with the chores.

Indeed, most of my classmates at Woodland Public School spent their summers picking fuzzy peaches, all Vaselined-up in their long sleeves, or planting rows of tomatoes and melons. 

Even my brothers made their summer income working for Neighbour Art who ran a vast Gladiola farm next door.

I was more of an indoor girl. 

I preferred to sit inside on the couch playing board games with Art's son Squeaky or watching Monty Hall and Bob Barker titillate housewives with the dream of new appliances. My favorite shows were talk shows, and they were on for hours, so I watched them for hours.

Then I went out and walk around, smelled the Glads and picked some fruit off the tree for a snack. Occasionally, I would help my Grandma Ina juice tomatoes or squish that orange stuff into the margarine. That's about it.

Nobody really cared what I did as long as I came home for supper. You might say, I was raised free-range.

So cottage life had little appeal for me. We already had an outhouse stocked with steady supplies of phone books that we used for toilet paper. We had bugs, too, lots of bugs -- in fact, my Grandpa Loyal was a beekeeper so getting stung was kind of a rite of passage for me each spring.

We didn't have a lake on the farm. But we did have a pond where Squeaky and I would go to collect tadpoles and watch them eventually meld together in a gross kind of frog soup.

If we were really jonesing for the lake, we would cross the highway and go to Lake Ontario which, even back then, was a cold stinky mess with dead fish floating along the shore. It was the most disgusting idea of a lake I could ever imagine, so the thought of going to the lake, frankly, made me want to hurl.

I eventually had an encounter with a lake, upon moving to Ottawa. It was full of drunk people driving around in motorboats leaving trails of gasoline which I expected was a food group for the fish. I always liked the drinking part, but I could do that in a bar in Ottawa and get served snacks.

Geri's place is different. It is a clean lake with no Zebra mussels or big motorboats. You couldn't put a testosterone-propelled lake vehicle on Lac O'Neill if you wanted to because our lake is too shallow. I like shallow.

Did I tell you I don't swim?

There are only a few cottages and homes on our part of the lake, and many of them are owned by Geri or her kin. There is only one exception: Peter next door sweet talked Geri's mom into selling him a small lot, and so he's our constant neighbour. We don't see him much because he's allergic to bugs.

Our cottage isn't really a cottage, it's a nice condo with a dishwasher and satellite. We have a porch so we don't have to put our feet into the sand and get eaten by flies. 

The worst thing that happens is we get an occasional blackout which means we have to wash our dishes by hand or read a book. There's no air conditioning, anyway, so what do I care about a black out? Just wait. The juice will come back soon enough. 

The best thing about Geri's is that she likes dogs. A lot of people who rent cottages don't like dogs because they shit everywhere and wreck the furniture. Geri loves dogs but she's also very strict. Stoop and scoop or don't come back next year. 

Even people who don't like rules can get behind that one. 

When we had Finnigan, the pooping was our biggest concern because his stools were the size of small babies. But now we have two foo-foo dogs and we can barely find their poop even when we're standing right over them. Very convenient!

Anyway, we had two black outs this time and I just waited to do the dishes until the lights came back on. 

No sense getting my hands all wrinkly. Just eat sandwiches, take a nap and wait.

I love cottage living. A guy brings the wood. There's no vacuuming and I can get pizza delivery!

None of that happened on the farm.