Women — time to speak up!

By Caitlin Kelly

The editor in chief of the Financial Times, Rouala Khalaf, (probably the most male of the big newspapers — and boy are they male, especially at the very top) — recently implored more women to write to their letters page.

I was thrilled to have my letter published there, verbatim, a few months ago.

I can see why so few women do:

— It’s intimidating! Letters to the FT routinely arrive from Lords and CEOs and deans of elite universities. How dare we add our voices?!

— Fear of looking stupid or uninformed.

— Fear of professional reputational loss (see above!)

— Too busy working/parenting/caregiving

— Modesty…why listen to us?

As you know (cough!) I’m fine expressing my opinions publicly, here and on social media and in classrooms and at conferences and in letters pages, including those of The New York Times and Newsweek.

I was basically raised as a boy, to be smart and competitive, not sweet and submissive as so many girls and women still are, so this never scared me, even if maybe it should.

I am very careful on Twitter not to discuss the most divisive topics — abortion, guns, politics — in any detail. Women are trolled and harassed and get death and rape threats when they do. No thanks!

So, when and where should we speak up?

— Protest marches

— School board meetings

— City council/town hall meetings

— at industry conferences, either as a speaker, moderator or audience member

— your blog, and others’

— social media

— writing and publishing essays and op-eds

— voting

— call-in radio shows

— as a member of an organization or group or community

I know, it can feel scary to invite argument or ridicule or dismissal!

But the more we stay invisible and inaudible, the more we allow this behavior to dominate and silence us.

Now that the landmark abortion law Roe v. Wade is in danger, and so many U.S. states ready to ban abortion, it’s no time to sit back and shrug. Our many bodily rights to autonomy are being erased daily.

Our voices matter.

The challenge of making adult friends

By Caitlin Kelly

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua
On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid — Jen in the bow of a dugout canoe. Probably the most unusual shared experience!

I recently came across this fascinating series of interviews on the website of The Atlantic, The Friendship Files.

Each is a meditation on an aspect of friendship, a subject often overlooked for focus on family, marriage, dating and children.

This one, on the tight bonds between expats, struck me, as some of my closest friends have been expats or have moved to a country (or several) far from their country of origin. I was born in Canada, but have lived in England (ages 2-5), Mexico (14), France (25) and the U.S. (30 to the present), which really makes me an immigrant to the U.S., not an expat (short for ex-patriate, not patriot!)

So while I have met a few fellow Canadians over the years, and am soon having coffee with a film-maker from Calgary, and presenting May 1 at a journalism conference with another ex-Calgary resident who lives here, I don’t have a lot of Canadian friends here. Many of the Canadians in or near NY are wealthy bankers or lawyers or corporate types, so our paths just wouldn’t cross socially or professionally. I’ve attended a few alumni events (very rare for my alma mater, University of Toronto, sorry to say) but have never met anyone I wanted to follow up with.

But some of my friends are people who do live far away from their homelands, like the author of the blog Small Dog Syndrome, an American long happiest in London, my neighbor across the street who spent a year in high schol in New Zealand, my Canadian best friend from university who went to British boarding school and lived for a while in Tanzania and our neighbor across the hall here in New York who has moved permanently to Holland, to marry her British partner. My sister-in-law and her husband, now back in the U.S., lived for many years working in international schools in China, Malaysia, the Netherlands.

So there’s a lot we don’t have to explain to one another, even from the start. That helps a friendship.

For me friendship is a delicate stew of shared interests and experiences, and being an expat or immigrant living far from your home country, culture and language (no matter where) — tends to create very relatable moments, whether a nervous visit to the doctor (fumbling for medical terms) or post office or choosing a word with a dirty meaning by mistake — damn you, baiser!

The French have a great phrase, “coup de foudre“, basically love at first sight, and I tend to be like this with a potential new friend. I tend to feel an attraction — style, intellect, history, cultural interests, sense of humor, the sort of work they do and value — right away.

But there are so many tricky elements to finding and nurturing a new adult friend, and year after year of COVID fear and social avoidance have made this more difficult. You can’t hug someone on Zoom!

I’m happiest with someone who has also traveled widely — and even many of the richest Americans don’t. They work all the time or choose luxury spots not my style or budget. Nor do I have children, a typical glue for many adult friendships. So this is difficult in a country and culture where even taking two weeks off in a row is seen as lazy and weird — I prefer three to six weeks when possible, more European than workaholic American.

But finding a new friend — and continuing and deepening the relationship — takes more than shared interests. It takes time, energy, honesty and vulnerability.

It also means having the strength to work through conflict because it can happen; I lost three women friends who had been very close when I dared to ask them to look at a behavior that was hurting me. They refused and ended the friendship; I mourned one of them for many years. But I don’t regret it, either.

I’ve started to get to know two or three people from my spin class…because I go two or three times a week and show up consistently. It takes time! One was a speechwriter for a former NY governor and journalist, and one is a lawyer with a major local firm who does a lot of coaching and mentoring. Both are super-smart but also friendly.

My two closest friends in New York came through journalism and a church we attended for a long time. I’ve recently seen two women at the gym who seem cool, so I may ask them for coffee.

The pandemic has really changed — and ended — many friendships, as we’ve faced different challenges (we have been very very lucky to not have COVID or lose a loved one to it, for example) and the basic proximity of meeting for a coffee has become a risk for so many.

We’re super excited to welcome a younger pal visiting next week from Oregon and, the following week, a friend I knew at boarding school when I was 12…and haven’t seen since!

How are your friendships these days?

Have you been able to find and make new friends as an adult — how?

Life, mid-pandemic

By Caitlin Kelly

Nope, we are not “post” pandemic!

I now keep masks in my purses and the car and almost every pocket. I do not like wearing a mask, especially going 100 rpm in spin class, where it’s mandatory.

I wonder when (if!) we will ever be free of them.

But I also think we’re going to keep getting hit with variants for years and we will need to keep getting vaccinated and paying attention.

We are lucky and grateful to not have gotten this disease.

So, here’s how life is for me and Jose these days:

— I’ve booked flights and hotels for a month’s stay in California in June. I cannot sit here one more minute dreaming of all the travel I’ve missed for the past two years! I’ll be celebrating my birthday with friends, then doing a solo driving trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles, meeting up in each place with friends who live there.

Work has been a variety of things: coaching other writers, doing three Zoom webinars with a younger friend in Tennessee (we each made decent money when 35-47 people showed up at $25/head), sold my first story to the Financial Times, and blogging for two design websites.

Entertaining! I have so so so missed having people over, so I had two colleagues up from New York for tea. It was a perfect afternoon, with little sandwiches and treats and two kinds of tea all served from my 19th c tea set. We’re seeing friends in the city next week at their new apartment as well.

Culture! I’ve seen two plays recently and two concerts. The weather is less punishing and, as mandates ease up, it just feels safer.

Inflation. So fun. This week’s groceries (including non- food items like cleaning products, paper products and a bunch of roses) $290. For two people. Gas has jumped to $4.49 gallon where we live, up to $6 a gallon elsewhere. Nothing to be done but deal with it.

Fear. Fear of, oh you know, nuclear annihilation. Where are our passports? Is there anywhere safe while Putin remains in power?

Grief. Ukraine.

Social life starts again. Sort of.

Professional events. We’re attending an industry dinner soon (dressing up!) and I’m speaking May 1 at an annual journalism conference.

Of course, we know dozens of people who have gotten COVID, thankfully none who died.

I lost my beloved breast surgeon to long COVID as she got it before the vaccines were even available.

I fear, seriously, for the millions who are now suffering from long COVID and whose lives are radically changed and worsened, from brain fog and crippling fatigue to heart issues and more. No government seems to have realized its impact, and I see people being denied disability benefits they need to survive when they can’t prove the problem.

Between war and climate change and inflation and COVID — how are you doing?

And what do we really know about one another?

By Caitlin Kelly

I found this recent piece by New York Times writer Frank Bruni, about losing some of his sight, moving:

And that truth helped me reframe the silly question “Why me?” into the smarter “Why not me?” It was a guard against anger, an antidote to self-pity, so much of which hinges on the conviction, usually a delusion, that you’re grinding out your days while the people around you glide through theirs, that you’ve landed in the bramble to their clover. To feel sorry for yourself is to ignore that everyone is vulnerable to intense pain and that almost everyone has worked or is working through some version of it.

Imagine that our hardships, our hurdles, our demons were spelled out for everyone around us to see. Imagine that each of us donned a sandwich board that itemized them.

“Single parent, child with special needs, nowhere near enough help.” A woman I know would be wearing that, and her acquaintances would rightly find her ability to hold down a full-time job and her unflagging professionalism in it not just admirable but heroic. They’d instantly forgive her any tiny lapses of memory, any fleeting impatience, because they’d understand what a miracle it was that the lapses were only tiny and the impatience merely fleeting.

In a world that glamorizes money and power and objects, it’s easy to assume someone with more of these than you is gliding through life. Not true, not true at all.

One of the wealthiest people I know manages multiple chronic illnesses, runs her own business, raises two teenagers and faced cancer when I did, which is how we met. (We’re both fine!)

Only through true intimacy can we finally find out what others are facing, or have survived and somehow kept on going — terrible accidents, unemployment, being a refugee (even surviving torture and imprisonment), losing a child, or several.

While Americans often tell total strangers a lot about themselves — which more reticent cultures find weird and uncomfortable — it can take years for some people to share their darkest moments with us. Maybe it’s shame. Maybe it’s fear we’ll reject them or dismiss their trauma. Or, worst of all, try to best it.

One of my closest friends, after a truly terrible multi-year wait of endless surgeries and medical and legal appointments, finally won a major lawsuit against the company whose negligence damaged her body and altered her life for good.

I despaired of her getting what she so badly deserved, but she did. No one would know this to see her, smiling and well-groomed and well-dressed and calm.

But she somehow soldiered on.

Many of us do.

What friendship really looks like

Friends show up at their friends’ funerals — and to support their family

By Caitlin Kelly

The spread of social media — “friends” on Facebook you’ve never met, “likes” that mean nothing when the chips are really down — has done little to define true friendship.

Like this horrifying story from The New York Times:

In early 2020, after Ava noticed Mr. Justin angling for her attention on TikTok, she learned that friends in New Jersey and Florida were selling him photos of her as well as her personal information, including her cellphone number, which Mr. Justin used to call and text her. In another instance, Mr. Justin logged onto a classmate’s school account and did math homework in exchange for information about Ava, her family said.

In what world do your friends sell your image and personal information to a stranger?

The 15-year-old girl ended up with a dead teenager on her lawn after he fired a shotgun through her front door. Awesome.

This recently hit home for me, in a less physically violent way, after — one more time! — a bitter envious stranger decided to badmouth me and try to hurt me professionally.

Using social media, of course.

Last year a “friend” on Facebook took a screenshot of something I said on my private page in real anger about an editor — and sent it to the editor, costing me a professional relationship.

I cut 200 “friends” and won’t accept any more.

There are too many days now it’s really toxic media, destructive media and why-do-we-even-bother media.

It’s sort of funny, sort of disgusting.

Only those whose own lives are small and shitty and disappointing feel the need to take down people who are visibly happy and successful, as I am.

So this latest attack, a fellow writer I even worked with years ago on a story, came after a friend of mine to discredit me by making false accusations, which I won’t detail or dignify here.

Nice try.

A true friend defends us, and they did.

What a coward this attacker is…and so charming to assume I couldn’t possibly have a good friend ready to stand their ground.

As I’ve said here before, I come from a family typically unable to express love, affection, support and belief in my value — as a daughter, cousin, professional. There’s been a lot of anger and name-calling and bitterness, ironic from people with a lot of their own success and a lot of money.

But the blessing it gave me?

One — self-respect!

I don’t give a shit what they think of me because they’re a dry well.

And I have tremendously loving and loyal friends, in Canada, in Europe, in Australia and New Zealand.

They have my back, if not literally, emotionally.

Because, being an ambitious and successful woman of strong opinions (OH NO!), I’ve been pissing people off since my teens.

Not with the explicit goal to piss them off, but not kowtowing to their disapproval or envy or attacks.

Women are trained from earliest childhood to smile, be nice, don’t argue, don’t bite back, suck it up, it’s “just a joke.”

So those of us who shrug and laugh at this bullshit are even more scary.

Why aren’t we scared?????

Because we have pals, and allies, who know us and love us.

I try hard to be a loyal, loving friend — sending cards and flowers and gifts, making regular phone calls, showing up when times are shitty, not just celebrating a win.

I admit, I am shaken when someone tries to take me down. Who wouldn’t be?

But, really, the best revenge is to laugh, call a true friend, and enjoy a good old chinwag.

Aaaah, far niente! The joy of being lazy

My favorite clock — in a Zagreb cafe

By Caitlin Kelly

I always thought I was ambitious and driven — and I am! — but hoo, boy, living in the United States, and especially in New York, can make people working 24/7 feel lazy, slow and — the worst insult here — “unproductive.”

If there is a word I loathe, it’s “productive”, and wrote one of my most popular and controversial early blog posts about it.

It assumes our only value in the world is financial — making lots and lots of money and proving to everyone how hard-working you are, when many of us, so many, would have preferred more available parents or friends or relatives to just hang out with for a while. I mean, working way beyond financial need or your work’s requirements to keep proving to someone (who?) you are a valuable person.

We are.

No one, I assure you, no one, dies whispering regretfully they wish they’d been more productive.

They mourn lost or broken relationships, the travel they never enjoyed, the loss of health and strength.

I love to look at beauty

I was too driven for my native Canada but am far too European for the U.S. — because I nap almost every day, vacation as often and for as long (pre-COVID) as affordable, and keep urging others to lay down tools and rest.

So I loved this piece in The New York Times on the unfashionable joys of being lazy:

America in 2022 is an exhausting place to live. Pretty much everyone I know is tired. We’re tired of answering work emails after dinner. We’re tired of caring for senior family members in a crumbling elder care system, of worrying about a mass shooting at our children’s schools. We’re tired by unprocessed grief and untended-to illness and depression. We’re tired of wildfires becoming a fact of life in the West, of floods and hurricanes hitting the South and East. We’re really tired of this unending pandemic. Most of all, we are exhausted by trying to keep going as if everything is fine.

Increasing numbers of people are refusing to push through this mounting weariness: There are currently 10 million job openings in the United States, up from 6.4 million before the pandemic.

This trend is being led by young people; millions are planning to leave their jobs in the coming year. Some middle-aged people decry the laziness of today’s youth, but as a chronically sick Gen X parent, and as a rabbi who has spent much of my career tending to dying people as their lives naturally slow, I am cheering young people on in this Great Resignation.

I have seen the limits of the grind. I want my child to learn how to be lazy.

I also like this, from Seth Godin’s blog:

In our fast-moving world, it’s easy to get hooked on personal velocity. What’s in your inbox? Did someone follow you in the last ten seconds? Where’s the beep and the beep and the beep from your last post?

Perhaps we talk faster, interrupt, talk over, invent, dissect, criticize and then move on to the next thing. Boom, boom, boom.

Don’t want to fall off the bike.

But life isn’t a bike. It works fine if we take a moment and leave space for the person next to us to speak.

Are you going fast without getting anywhere?

Living with pain

By Caitlin Kelly

Some of you, I know, live with/in chronic pain. It’s exhausting and demoralizing and you measure your available energy in “spoons”, a word I learned from Twitter.

I have a severely arthritic right hip now, and it hurts whenever I do basically anything — get into the shower, roll over in bed, stand up. Like many people with arthritis it diminishes my appetite for exercise, which makes it worse. I just suck it up and rarely take painkillers. It is what it is. I have to bear the pain until I get the damn thing replaced.

I’m used to living in pain.

My husband has recently suffered a kidney stone whose 24/7 pain has been driving him mad.

But it’s been a real education for a man who has enjoyed superb health his entire life since childhood: no surgeries, broken bones or hospitalizations.

I’ve spent a lot of time inside the hammering sounds of an MRI machine and when my left hip was destroyed by a course of steroids meant to help me (!) the pain became so relentless I went on crutches for a while; it was replaced in February 2012.

Living with any sort of pain — mental, physical, emotional — is a challenge for everyone, but especially for those whose lives have, so far, been pretty pleasant and unscathed.

It can seem like a personal affront: how dare you inconvenience me!?

But, as the cliche says, you only develop resilience by going through some serious shit, and usually coming out of it aware that millions of us are also carrying some burden of pain, but often quietly and invisibly.

Witness the national meltdown chronicled in The New York Times:

In Chicago, a customer service agent for Patagonia described how a young woman became inconsolable when told that her package would be late. Another customer accused him of lying and participating in a scam to defraud customers upon learning that the out-of-stock fleece vest he had back-ordered would be further delayed by supply-chain issues.

In Colorado, Maribeth Ashburn, who works for a jewelry store, said that she was weary of being “the mask police.”

“Customers will scream at you, throw things and walk out of the store,” she said.

I flew only once in 2021, in late November, on a flight on Air Canada to Toronto from New York, then to Halifax, and back. Thank God, everyone wore their masks and were polite and calm — since more than 5,779 incidents of rage erupted on American domestic flights, 4,000 of them related to wearing a mask.

I have zero patience with this!

Every flight, I guarantee you, also contains people who are weary, grieving, scared to fly — and the last thing they need is the terror and anxiety (and delays) created by selfish aggressive babies, aka fellow adult passengers with no self-control.

I recently witnessed, at the local pharmacy in our suburban New York town, a similar adult tantrum — by a grown man raging at the clerk for limiting his purchase of at-home COVID tests to only four. Hah! Good luck finding any anywhere now.

As some of you know, I worked retail at $11/hour for 2.5 years at a suburban upscale mall, for The North Face, and, yes, I saw and felt some of this behavior there as well; I wrote about it in my book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”

Americans cherish the weird fantasy that anyone can become President or a billionaire, maybe both! But their consistent contempt for low-wage, customer-facing work — retail, hospitality, etc. — is really ugly, as if lower-paid workers deserve to be treated like shit because…they don’t (yet) have a better-paying and more prestigious job.

If we can’t get our collective act together — and behave like the adults we are — 2022 is going to be even more of a shitshow; we’re already losing so many burned-out, talented healthcare workers, sick of being yelled at, spat on, now even scared to leave the hospital in their scrubs.

When things get rough — or, as the British would say, go pear-shaped — it’s an adult choice to use your strength and maturity to not whip others with your misery.

I found this, from former Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman’s final column, really smart:

The capacity to tolerate minor discomfort is a superpower. It’s shocking to realise how readily we set aside even our greatest ambitions in life, merely to avoid easily tolerable levels of unpleasantness. You already know it won’t kill you to endure the mild agitation of getting back to work on an important creative project; initiating a difficult conversation with a colleague; asking someone out; or checking your bank balance – but you can waste years in avoidance nonetheless. (This is how social media platforms flourish: by providing an instantly available, compelling place to go at the first hint of unease.)

It’s possible, instead, to make a game of gradually increasing your capacity for discomfort, like weight training at the gym. When you expect that an action will be accompanied by feelings of irritability, anxiety or boredom, it’s usually possible to let that feeling arise and fade, while doing the action anyway. The rewards come so quickly, in terms of what you’ll accomplish, that it soon becomes the more appealing way to live.

Pain is an inevitable part of life.

A family reunion, of sorts

My maternal great grandmother, Blanche Gresham, 1924

By Caitlin Kelly

For years, my late mother and I were estranged. When we were in touch, even as her only child, she almost never discussed her childhood or adolescence before, at 17, she met my Canadian father in the south of France, then left her native New York City to move to his hometown, Vancouver, where I was born six years later.

Both parents grew up wealthy — in large houses with servants, attending prep school (my mother), owning a horse and a sailboat (father). But neither childhood was necessarily calm and happy.

So their histories have remained mostly a mystery to me.

My mother died April 15, 2020 and a very large, heavy packing crate arrived a year later from her final home, a nursing home in Victoria, B.C.

For a variety of reasons — partly fear the works inside would be very damaged (they weren’t), ambivalence about owning the final items of hers and knowing we have no one in our family to leave these things to — I didn’t open it for nine months.

It took a lot of hard work to get it open — thank you Jose!!

This week, finally, we did, and my husband Jose attacked it with a hammer and crowbar and a lot of determination!

Amazingly, the four things inside were in excellent shape; only a few bits of one frame had chipped off and the glass was wholly intact on everything (having been taped.)

There were two family portraits and a gorgeous Inuit print of a polar bear from 1961 I had long admired. And a sampler, from 1845.

This is one of the earliest Inuit prints, by Lucy, 1961; ignore my unbrushed hair!

So now my maternal great-grandmother — Blanche Gresham — later the Countess Casagrande of Park Avenue — has come almost full circle, some 3,011 miles.

I only met her once, as a very old, very infirm lady in that apartment. My mother adored her. I adored my grandmother — while we both had very difficult times with our own mothers. Go figure!

These women led quite extraordinary lives, cocooned by enormous wealth, but with marital mayhem — my grandmother married six times, four in a decade. I never met any of them, long gone by the time I met her.

I think (?) the smaller image is her with my grandmother Aline, and her sister Lois

I am very curious about these women and their lives; the money came from my great grandfather, Louis Stumer, a Chicago stockbroker and developer of a gorgeous skyscraper in 1912, The North American Building, on State Street in Chicago, (since torn down):

Developers Stumer, Rosenthal and Eckstein hired one of Chicago’s busiest, and best, tall building architectural firms Holabird & Roche for the project. William Holabird and Martin Roche, along with a team of talented designers and engineers, had developed a commercial building system that was not only pleasing to the eye, but more importantly for an investor could be built quickly, efficiently, and ready for rent-paying tenants on schedule. They were instrumental in helping make what came to be known as the Chicago School world famous.

One reason I chose to move to the U.S. was my fascination with this family and their lives. One relative became an ambassador, one an archeologist, one (!) a bullfighter. My cousins had lives that included piloting their own Cessna and running a rug business from Morocco. They were all intimidatingly confident — and so much larger than life than most of the quiet, polite Canadians I grew up around.

It’s quite comforting to finally have these women in our home now.

Some Christmas memories

1995…Jose (later my husband) working for a month in Bosnia as a New York Times

photographer. It was a cold, lonely, hungry month. Unforgettable.

By Caitlin Kelly

The holidays are a time of a lot of emotion. This year, like last, will be one with far too many empty beds and places at the dinner table — with an unfathomable 800,000 Americans now dead of Covid.

If you are one bereaved, I hope you can find some joy this season.

I thought I’d share some holiday memories, most happy. When I was single, I would spend it with my mother or my father and his second wife and son. I have to admit it wasn’t always enjoyable; my mother drank and my stepmother, although an amazing cook, rarely made me feel welcome in their home.

Since my father has four adult children by four women, one of whom I’ve never met and don’t want to, and one of whom refuses to reconcile with me after more than 15 years…we don’t even try for a “family” Christmas. It’s too messy and impossible. The closest we came was 2017, when Jose and I drove up to Ontario and my half-brother and his girlfriend joined us.

While my maternal grandmother was alive, her presents were always wrapped in silver paper with blue ribbon, from Holt Renfrew, Canada’s nicest department store. She was a lavish gift-giver…gone since 1975.

We had been looking forward for six months to spending four days over Christmas at a resort in Quebec. Of course, we cancelled, thanks to COVID.

Instead, we’ll have a tree and a lovely meal at home and just enjoy each other’s company.

A happier one!

Montreal/London, age 11

We lived — my mother and I — in a brownstone at 3432 Peel Street, midtown. That year she was the host of a TV talk show, and that Christmas we flew to London to stay with my aunt and uncle, both Canadians, but very well-known figures in British TV and radio. We had Christmas dinner with Montreal friends, then a trans-atlantic flight with wreaths somehow suspended across the aisle, then another holiday meal. I remember most fondly discovering clotted cream…swoon! And Hamley’s, for years one of the world’s best toy stores.

Cartagena, Colombia, age 23

My mother was traveling throughout Latin America, alone, for years, starting in this coastal city, then barely opened to tourism. We went the cathedral for Midnight Mass — and were pulled over and frisked by police in case we were going to do harm to the tourists, aka us.

We spent the day on the beach, unaware of possible heat stroke thanks to a steady breeze. We had pizza for dinner — then took turns in the bathroom, quite ill.

My favorite Christmas cookies!

Paris, 2015

Friends loaned us their apartment, in the most perfect location — a block from Rue Cler, one of the city’s best for markets and restaurants. Daunted by the high prices of restaurant meals, our Christmas dinner, eaten in their small kitchen, was a roast chicken. It was unseasonably warm and I walked over to the Ferris Wheel near the Tuileries and rode high above the city, sweaty even wearing only a sweatshirt.

Cuernavaca, Mexico, age 14

This was the worst of all, the night my mother had a full-blown manic episode and drove down the highway with her car lights off. I’ll spare the details, but it ended in a city where we did not live, at midnight, after she drove into a ditch. I left her there, leaving with two friends, and never lived with her again. I moved back to Toronto soon after and moved in with my father.

Toronto, age 15

My first Christmas living with my father and his girlfriend. I hadn’t lived with him since I was seven. I still remember the lavish gifts he offered — skis and a brightly colored patchwork quilt I used for many years. It felt good to be so welcomed.

Irvington, NY, can’t remember the year!

We attended midnight service at our church and it was just starting to snow as we left. “Let’s go to the lych gate”, said Jose. It was cold! He insisted and, under that small canopy, proposed to me there. He knew that Christmas Eve was a night of very bad memories with my mother, and wanted to re-brand it with a much sweeter memory. It worked!

Do you have a special holiday memory?

The Nova Scotia debacle…

By Caitlin Kelly

Note the small lot….a problem for adding a septic in a town of dug wells and septic systems…

Well, kids, it sure wasn’t dull.

The house dream blew up in fairly spectacular fashion Monday morning the 15th.

That was the day we were to commit to purchasing the house or losing our $3,000 deposit if we missed that deadline.

Friday morning — i.e. with two days to spare — I discovered the house is actually illegal, thanks to its antiquated septic system that, like many in that village, empties into the ocean.

Gross!

Also, against Nova Scotia environmental laws.

We needed probably three weeks to seek and win necessary government approval to install a wholly new system ($12,000) but the seller — a wealthy and powerful local businessman — refused us even an extra day.

Busted!

That was that. We bailed.

Then — do not ever mess with a skilled reporter! — I placed three calls that day to the local office of the environment and an official called me right back and is launching an investigation.

Also writing a letter to the top three people of the seller’s realtor to point out how crappy this is: either she lied or the seller lied and this put us in tremendous financial jeopardy if we’d been forced to buy an uninhabitable house.

Lessons learned:

1. The house’s owner, a local grandee accustomed to deference from the little people, isn’t going to suddenly get all ethical and nice for an outsider. Probably the opposite. Our realtor made clear he was furious to have dropped his price and then we dared ask for more time.

2. Never assume that a small town in a largely rural province is de facto any nicer or gentler than the iron-fisted ways of New York City! It’s very clear that panic pandemic buying has massively inflated prices and created a feeding frenzy for realtors and sellers that only leaves any buyer vulnerable.

3. Never stop asking questions!!

4. Take lots and lots and lots of notes; an email paper trail is also useful for reference. Also photos and videos.

5. If something feels off, it is!

6. My love for the physical structure of a charming house was blinding me to local conditions that would have made life there unpleasant and expensive — to reach the town means taking a car ferry and missing it (as I did one day) means losing valuable work time. I was warned that no one would even deliver a sofa that far because of lost waiting time; same for other services like pumping out the septic.

7. Take time to do every possible inspection and made each one a condition of purchase.

8. Getting a larger sense of the community and its culture quickly reduced my enthusiasm — after people lied to me, I had no wish to live there, even part-time.

Waiting for the car ferry; it carries 17 vehicles, and takes about 10 minutes

This was also just emotionally painful for me to let go of all the attendant hopes I had:

— welcoming friends

— getting to know a new community and province

— coming back to Canada

— a chance to use my decorating and design training to make the house lovely

— maybe getting summer rental income from it

— owning a place with no rules (like our co-op apartment)

— finding a property within our budget. Impossible now, really.