Birthday Present

Shelley 4 yrs old

Shelley’s 4th Birthday

Throughout my life I have confided that I never had a traditional kid-centered birthday party when I was a child. My birthday was always acknowledged, usually with a dinner and cake at Grandma’s but it was always just family.

Now that I’m at the stage of life where most women are happy to forget about birthdays altogether, my birthday activities have mushroomed. This year, I’ve been celebrating for nearly two weeks and I’m still not done!

The celebrations actually began a few days before my birthday. Over the years, I seem to have collected many friends whose birthdays are near mine. May 13 is the date for four of my friends. One is in Italy, one was too busy that week, one is out of touch, but the fourth and I had a lovely lunch that day.

A new friend treated me to lunch the day before my birthday. She blew me away with her thoughtful gifts and the efforts she took to present them perfectly.

With my big day falling on a long weekend, the May 17 Club decided to celebrate after the weekend. (Yes, there is a club, a group of people I’ve met over the years who share my birthday. See below.) As we all have busy lives, we’re not meeting until Tuesday, a full ten days past our day. But we don’t care. We are happy to catch up with each other once a year.

My birthday began with piles of Facebook and email wishes. Say what you will about the intrusion of internet in our lives but when it’s my birthday and 50 people take the time to send a greeting, it makes me feel pretty special! Those greetings poured in all day and spilled over into the rest of the weekend!

A friend sang “Happy Birthday” on my voicemail and she tracked me down and wished me a happy day. Very good effort!

For the first time in probably 20 years, I celebrated my birthday with my parents, the people responsible for my existence on this planet. My mom cooked a turkey dinner, one of my favourite meals. My sister joined us and brought me a bouquet of flowers. I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten flowers from her.

My daughters and granddaughters took me out for sushi in the evening. One of my favourite activities is to watch my grandtoys eat sushi. Most kids won’t go near it. With my little ones, you have to be rather aggressive with your chopsticks or you might not get any sushi for yourself!

Lunches continued to be lavished upon me all week. I even bought a couple as I celebrated with friends with birthdays after mine. I discovered that another friend’s birthday is the day before mine: we resolved to celebrate together next year.

A close friend surprised me with a handmade, heartfelt gift recognizing my recent accomplishments. I even received a number of old-fashioned, mailed cards, most of which made me laugh. (I’m glad people think of funny when they buy me a card!)

Ideally, I would simply take off two weeks to fit in all the celebrations. But the real world requires that I accomplish tasks despite the parties. Alas! I have neglected thanking everyone for their greetings. Until now, it has seemed premature.

So today, I reflect on the many blessings I have received these past two weeks. I am rich with contacts that take their valuable time to acknowledge me. I have close friends and family eager to spend time with me.

The timing of all this is perfect. Now is the best stage of my life to collect birthday memories. Children inevitably forget the parties, lose touch with friends, and it all ends up a blur.

As an adult, I am aware of the importance of these “touch points”. I am wise enough to ponder them in my heart, revere them, and hold them as precious. Thankfully, my mind is still clear enough to remember them for some time.

Have you ever seen a young child with a mountain of birthday presents? Opening them becomes a chore. Wrapping paper falls away, revealing a carefully chosen gift, only to be glanced at and discarded on the pile to make room for the next present.

As an adult, I open each “gift” with care, examining the wrapping and appreciating the art that went into it. I focus on the spirit of the giver. I hold the gift in my heart and carry it with me forever.

How can I regret birthdays past when birthday present is so rewarding?

Though I may have been short-changed on parties as a child, I’m more than making up for it now.

Isn’t life wonderful?


May 17 Birthday Club (originally published May 17, 2009)

This week the May 17 Birthday Club conducted its 20th annual meeting.  It was festive as usual as we all got to soak up an hour or so hanging out with four other people who share little but having been born on the same day.

I first became aware of the club ten years ago when I hired a new assistant.  I was telling my colleague, Paul how amazing it was that the new hire had the same birthday as I do.   I rambled on about how I had never met anyone who shared my birthday.

Paul asked me when my birthday is and when I told him May 17, he said, “Mine too”.  I called “BS” and demanded he produce his driver’s license.   Sure enough; it is May 17.

He then proceeded to tell me that he and two other guys he had met through business get together for lunch on or near their birthday each year.  He immediately invited my new assistant and me to come to the next lunch and we have never looked back.

The first time we talked at length about our similarities and differences and wondered aloud whether there was any truth to our horoscope.  We discussed the various celebrities that share our day, among them Bob Saget and Dennis Hopper.  As the years passed we learned about each other’s passions and families.

Some years we met in November too for our half birthday just to catch up with each other.  Last year our spouses joined us for dinner to honour the 65th of one member and the 50th of another.

We have representation from four decades and we always discuss our ages and how time marches on.  (For years one member has stated his age as X “US” (generally giving him at least a 20% advantage!)) This year I told the group that I’m 17 for the third time!

We’ve witnessed many life changes.  One year a member lost his mother just before our meeting.  The following year he lost his father.  I remember him calling himself an orphan that year.  The next year we celebrated the birth of his first grandchild.

There have been graduations from Kindergarten , high school, and university.  We have witnessed career changes, once-in-a-lifetime vacations and acquisitions of businesses and property.  We have had births, deaths and weddings to discuss. Next year a new baby will be coming to the lunch.

This week we marveled at how our lives have evolved, all the fun we’ve had meeting with each other, and how quickly the years have passed.

Happy Birthday to my fellow May 17ers.  You have greatly enriched my life.  I am privileged to have lunched with you all these years.  I feel like I have found a family.  I sure hope we’re still meeting in 20 years.

And if your birthday is also May 17, you are automatically a member.  Drop me a line and we will gladly include you in the festivities next year.  It’s bunches of fun, but that’s just One Woman’s Opinion.

Where are the Real Mother’s Day Cards?

MothersDayWith Mother’s Day just around the corner you may not realize that some of us dread shopping for the perfect Mother’s Day card. It’s not that we don’t love or at least respect our mothers; we do, but not in the Hallmark tradition.

My friend Greg once confided in me the difficulty of finding an appropriate card. His mother was an abusive alcoholic when he was growing up so the “mother and apple pie” relationship never blossomed. She has been off the bottle for twenty or more years but she remains, what he calls, a “dry drunk.” She constantly demands his attention yet she is quick to criticize him at every turn.  She wields the sword of guilt if she thinks he doesn’t visit often enough, despite the hazards of a six-hour plus mountainous journey to her home.

Naturally he finds it difficult to relate to her with any genuine sentiment, despite his obligatory feelings as the eldest son and a responsible adult. Buying a suitable card is nearly impossible yet he wouldn’t dare risk not sending one.

Each year I find myself agonizing in front of the department store Mother’s Day Card displays, searching in vain for that perfect card that conveys my appreciation but without the over-the-top mush and gush. Statements like, “you’re my best friend” or “you were always there for me” simply don’t apply.

That’s not to say we are lacking respect for our mothers.  We’re cognizant of the importance of having been given life. We realize they made sacrifices and they managed to raise us in some fashion despite the challenges they had in their lives. We don’t necessarily blame them for the way things happened.

Greg and I are not alone. Several of my friends’ mothers have lied, cheated, and stolen from them and committed other un-motherly acts towards them and some still do. Some mothers insist on repeating the same awful sins their mothers imposed on them.

One friend’s mother ran off with another man when she was twelve years old. She basically raised herself from that moment as her devastated father was emasculated. Mother and daughter have managed to heal their relationship in the past decade, after a decade of estrangement, and they are still working through it. Obviously, a card that declares “you were always there for me” is totally inappropriate.

Another friend and her mother and siblings endured substantial physical abuse from her father for thirty years. Almost two decades after the abuse stopped her mother pretends it never happened; “father was a saint”, she declares. The rewriting of this tragic history trivializes the trauma her children endured. You can understand the near impossibility of finding a suitable card among the flowery, “I could always count on you in times of trouble” and “Mother, you mean the world to me”.

For those of us whose maternal relationships could be called strained at best, we need cards that wish them a good day, because we can say that with sincerity, but they must not include “everything you mean to me”, “you are my best”, and “I couldn’t have done it with out you” sentiments.

Perhaps we need some cards like these:

“You really messed up my childhood and consequently my adulthood but you’re still my mother and I honour that”.

“If you hadn’t been blotto throughout my childhood I could buy you a mushy card”.

How about, “Times have changed.  Thank God nobody HAS to get married anymore.”

Or “Too bad you didn’t consider adoption instead of the shotgun wedding; we could both have had happy lives.”

Perhaps, “Lucky for me abortion was illegal then”.  A variation could be “Too bad abortion wasn’t legal then!”

“I’ve come to accept your lack of mothering skills and chosen to be a better mother myself.”

Where are the cards that say, “It would have been nice if you had made me a Halloween costume or come to one parent-teacher interview”?

The simple, “Sorry I ruined your life”.

This one could be popular: “I wouldn’t have worked so hard to be born if I had known you would remind me how you had to endure 36 hours of labour every damned day of my sorry life”.

“Too bad you got short-changed on the oxytocin” (mother-love hormone).  Or maybe, “Instead of a day at the spa your gift is a shot of oxytocin.”

“I take full responsibility for all those stretch marks and your saggy breasts since you blame me for them anyway”.

How about, “Thanks for all the times you sent me to bed without supper; otherwise I would be fat”.

Then there’s, “I wish _____ was my mother; I suspect you do too”.

The ever popular, “Let’s face it; not everyone is cut out to be a mother.”

Even for those who weren’t traumatized, a basic “have a good day because I can wish that for strangers and even my enemies, however grudgingly.”

Sorry, I’ve gotten a little carried away. I found some morbid satisfaction in expressing these ugly truths on behalf of children everywhere with less-than-ideal mothers.

I am a grown-up and like many adults I have risen above the shortcomings of my parents. I understand their paths weren’t at all what they had dreamed they would be. I, long ago, forgave my parents and told myself they did they best they knew how; I truly believe they did.

I sincerely doubt there are many parents who purposely ruin their children. I made some stupid mistakes myself when I raised my own.

Let’s just have some cards that reflect the reality that every mother-child relationship isn’t necessarily something to celebrate. That doesn’t mean it can’t be acknowledged as nicely and vaguely as possible.

Happy Mother’s Day!

My Finishing Mom


Photo owned by

I am blessed to have had three mothers. My first mother, of course, gave birth to me. My grandmother assisted in my rearing; I consider her my second mom.

Then there is my ‘finishing” mom.

I call her that because she finished the job of raising me. You see, I was 17 when I married her son and like most 17-year-olds, I thought I was pretty smart. In reality, I knew nothing.

Through her open heart, smiling face, undying service and unconditional love, she gave me many tools that have shaped my life.

We bury her today. This is my tribute to Mildred Olsen.

My grandma met Mildred through work. They became fast friends. Grandma started attending the church down the street and found the Olsens attended there.

That’s where I first met my third mom. I remember her incessant smile. I also remember sitting behind her and seeing her rearrange the sausage curl at the end of her hair.

I was 14 and had an immediate crush on her son. Three years later I became her daughter-in-law and she became my mother-in-law, a title she hated because of the negativity surrounding mothers-in-law and the ensuing jokes. She worked hard to dispel the stereotype and she achieved that.


Photo owned by

She always treated me as though I were one of her children.  My Christmas and birthday gifts were as generous my sisters-in-law’s gifts.  She both praised and scolded me (gently) as if she were my own parent. I never resented it. In fact, I loved the feeling of family she instilled in me.

I imagine she was taken aback by my ignorance of keeping a home.  As the oldest in my family, I was expected to labour outside on the farm. The extent of my kitchen skills were peeling potatoes, setting the table and washing dishes.

She taught me how to cook. Not so much taught, but allowed me to observe and ask questions. I often helped her do her Christmas baking. I learned how important food presentation is. The tomatoes weren’t simply sliced, but neatly arranged on the plate. I still serve tomatoes this way.

Her apple pie was legendary. In fact, Pastor DeMaere told me she made the best apple pie he ever ate and he had been served thousands of slices of apple pie over the years. A roast beef dinner evokes sweet memories of her Sunday dinners.

Not only did I learn how to cook in her kitchen I learned hospitality. Mildred loved nothing more than having company. Out would come the coffee and squares or cakes. Her reward for serving her guests was their company. That suited me well. I am thankful I learned hostess etiquette at her side.

In her kitchen I also learned how to clean. Her kitchen gleamed. Everything was wiped down daily and because of that regularity it was easy to keep it up. I will never claim to be as meticulous as she was but I learned how nice it feels to work in a clean kitchen.

Her message was consistent: whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability. Go the extra mile. Make it look beautiful just because.

I used to marvel at her energy. She was the first one up and the last to bed, always working, always doing, usually for others.

When my babies came, she taught me how to care for them. She was their second mom and I always felt comfortable leaving my children in her care. I knew she loved them at least as much as I did. I am forever grateful that my children got to have all those comfortable memories of time spent at Grandma’s.


Photo owned by

She was our moral barometer. When the girls were teens and trying out racy language, they would claim it wasn’t so bad. “Would you say it front of Grandma?” They would hang their heads, “No.” Settled. If we were ashamed to do it in front of Grandma it was likely shameful.

She and I used to talk for hours on the phone or play games Sunday afternoons when the men were napping off their big meal. Those conversations shaped my thinking. Mildred also influenced me by sharing her self-help library. To this day my reading includes self-help books, which most people find boring.

Mildred had class, quiet dignity. She genuinely cared about people. She was happy in her roles of wife, mother, grandmother and homemaker.

Luckily, I see Mildred in my girls. R____ has her darker skin and hair and voluptuous figure. She reveals her pain through her eyes, just like her grandma. She is also meticulous in everything she does. H____ shares her openness, loving spirit and her innate sense of morality.  She thrives on company too. My girls both appreciate having known this wonderful woman and they acknowledge her profound influence in their lives.

As I compile this, the memories of her love flood my mind and it’s hard to choose which should be included.  The most indelible one is this:

My grandma and Mildred were neighbours and friends for decades and forever connected through their descendents. In the last years they were in the same seniors lodge for a time.

My grandma began to deteriorate. At one point she was unable to walk to the dining room for lunch. The lodge wasn’t exactly accommodating.

One day my sister arrived at the lodge in time to see this: Grandma was perched on the seat of Mildred’s walker. Mildred, bad heart and bad hip notwithstanding, was pushing Grandma slowly towards the dining room.

This image of my finishing mom supporting my second mom, regardless of the hardship it might cause her, is the statement of how Mildred lived her life. It is how I will forever remember her.

In service to others in her own quiet way. With a smile and great love.

“There is no greater love than to give one’s life for a friend.”

Thank you, Mildred, for finishing me, for being my grandma’s longest friend and for helping me raise my daughters. I could not have walked this way without you.

My Baby Sister


April on Tinker, circa 1970

April on Tinker, circa 1970 Photo owned by

Today, my baby sister, April celebrates her 50th birthday.

It’s hard to imagine her being 50. I wonder how my parents feel: their baby is 50!

What to get a 50-year-old woman who has a very happy life? She wants for nothing. She has family, friends, a nice home.

A party is out of the question. She hates being the centre of attention. She once threatened my life if I even thought of a surprise party like the one we threw for her husband’s 50th birthday.

Finally inspiration. A Letter to the Living. A few years ago I wrote about the importance of telling people how you feel about them before their eulogy.  I call them, “Letters to the Living.”

And I have never sent one to my sister. So here goes.

Dear April:

I remember the day you came to this planet. Mom announced to Dad that the baby was coming and our brother and I were shipped off to Grandma’s. I remember staying home with Dad a few days too.  He fed us and cared for us but he didn’t wash one dish. I remember Mom facing a pile of dirty dishes when she got home with you.

Dad’s parents were immediately taken aback by your name, as no Germans are named April. Named after a month! How absurd! All discussions ceased when Mom reminded them of Great-Uncle August. I happen to think April is a pretty name.

You changed our family. Our parents were finally old enough to be parents and they showered you with love, as much as they were able. In fact, Grandpa exclaimed that at last he saw “Mutterliebe”, mother love in our mother when she brought you home.

Brother and I loved kissing your soft baby arms, cooing, “Chicken wings, chicken wings!”  You would giggle and then pinch us so hard we would cry.

In typical sibling fashion your presence was barely tolerated at times. Other times, I was fiercely protective of you. I remember a friend of mine excluding you when I was eight and you were two. I insisted on your inclusion. She had no siblings. I concluded she didn’t understand love for a little sister.

Brother and I quickly figured out Mom and Dad had a soft spot for you. You became our ambassador, our negotiator. If we could convince you to ask them on our behalf, we reasoned, odds were in our favour of scoring.

Alas, you soon learned of the power you held and you often wielded it for your own good and against us. You adeptly extracted favours for your petitions to parents or you out and out refused us. I suspect you savoured your power over us.

You were ten when I left home. I have often regretted being wrapped up in my own life and not being a mentor or even a good big sister to you, especially as a teenager.  Somehow you grew up and became someone that I have long considered a lifelong friend.

Sisters we may be but we are different in so many ways. I have always known that you were the most intelligent of our parents’ children, though I wouldn’t admit it when I was young. Of course I let on that I was the smartest, but deep down, I knew.

As an adult, I enjoy the intelligent conversations we have. I relish sharing books with you, knowing you have the capacity to understand them as I do.  It’s not easy to find intellectual equals, but I have my sister.

There were times I was jealous of your relationship with Mom and Dad. Thankfully, I grew to value it. You did much to teach them how to love their children and to teach all of us how to have good relationships with our parents and children.

I remember a time when I doubted you would ever be a mother or much of one. How wrong was I?

One of my proudest thoughts has been of you tenderly rearing your children to be the fine citizens they are. I often boast about the accomplishments of my niece and nephew; we all know their mother was integral to their success. Thank you for having a son, whom I think of as a son. He holds a special place in our family of girls.

I am grateful for your thoughtfulness to my daughters and for being an example and mentor for them. They regard you highly, and they recognize the impact you’ve had on their life choices.

I admire how you handled being a stepmother and a grandmother at a really young age. I witnessed that you were always fair and loving towards your stepdaughters. I see you continuing to support them as they raise their families, exploding that whole evil stepmother myth. Well done!

I have you to thank for getting my business books in order. My detail-orientation gene is not as strong as yours.  When you did our books I enjoyed the regular interaction it forced. I miss that.

Your devotion to Grandma in her last years left an indelible mark on my heart. I couldn’t be there but I was comforted that you were and you would defend her to the death. And you did. Thank you for carrying that burden for our family. You did us all a great service.

I can’t think of many others I would enlist to plan a special event or navigate through government bureaucracy. I’m glad you’re the younger sister. You are better equipped to organize my geriatric care than I am yours!

I admire your ability to keep house so much better than I can. I simply didn’t inherit Grandmother’s neat freak tendencies and my priorities are different. But I sure do enjoy walking into your beautiful, neat, clean and orderly home.

Your ability to rise above life’s hurdles and mud holes is inspiring. It’s not easy to crawl from the depths and fashion a brand new life but you did it. You held up your head. You did the hard work. And you emerged a wonderful woman, wife, mother, sister, daughter, and friend.

I honour the day you were born, 50 years ago today.  I am thankful for the day I was given a sister. I am proud to call you my friend.

Happy Birthday, April!

Love, Shelley

More Great-fullness: Insights into Programs for the Blind

ASRAB logoIt seems everywhere I go lately, I am reminded to be grateful, or great-full, as my granddaughter puts it.

One of my volunteer gigs is as a board member for ASRAB, the Alberta Sport and Recreation Association for the Blind. The mandate of the organization is to provide sport and recreational activities for visually impaired individuals.

Last week I was invited to an event attended by 25 children, all with varying degrees of sightlessness. They were hosted by an organization called Courage Canada, whose goal that day was to introduce the children to Goalball, a game specifically for visually impaired athletes.

The organizers started with some basic drills so the kids could learn the techniques of the game. After the drills, they all got the chance to “play” for a few minutes.

The kids were so engaged and enthusiastic about this new learning opportunity, I found myself caught up by their laughter and cheering them on (quietly, since the athletes need to hear the ball) as they practiced their new skills.

I once read that when it comes to acts of kindness, recipients and givers both receive health benefits. But most remarkable is that witnesses to acts of kindness also achieve health benefits.

I experienced a gush of feel-good energy coursing through my body when I watched those kids experience their first Goalball save. I was immediately great-full for the Courage Canada representatives and cognizant of the honour I have in being associated with these people and organizations, working towards this noble cause.

ASRAB’s major annual fundraising event, Sight Night, is just around the corner. On Saturday, November 16th, 2013 the light from hundreds of headlamps will bob and weave along the Bow River Pathway as enthusiasts and supporters of visually impaired Albertans join in sight night Calgary – a fun run after dark.
 Runners can select the three, five or eight km courses starting from Eau Clair and incorporating the Peace Bridge.

All funds raised go to ASRAB programs, benefitting real people as opposed to going to fund research like so many other charities. I got to see the faces of the children that were directly affected by the volunteering and funding gifted to them by real people. I urge you to support this cause.

It’s not too late to participate. To sign up or learn more, go to

I hope to SEE you there! At least remember to be great-full for your sight!

See Poster Physical Literacy and Adapted Sport for Visually Impaired Children: Flyer – Physical Literacy Calgary Nov 21

New Old Friends

friendsOriginally Published April 19, 2013

Have you ever met someone and made an instant, almost “feels like family” connection?

I met with one of these “new old friends” this week.

I met J_____ a few weeks ago at a rubber chicken luncheon where I was speaking. She introduced herself as a fellow writer after I spoke and we exchanged business cards.

We agreed to meet for “pho”.

I’m there mere moments before she is. When she arrives she hugs me. That feels pretty good but it occurs to me that I’m hugging a stranger, something I would never have done 20 years ago! My, how I’ve grown!

In just over an hour, we discover remarkable intersections on our journeys. We have both nursed sick husbands, raised children and are actively involved in our grandchildren’s lives, though hers are boys and mine are girls.

She doesn’t look or act like a granny. Neither do I. But our enthusiasm for those little people oozes from both of us.

We have worked in many of the same industries. Politics and media are among our commonalities.

We have both accomplished much without expensive educations. Ours is self-directed through devouring books from an eclectic range of genres and taking courses that genuinely interest us, not fluff that meets program requirements.

We share our admiration for our city: she returns home after 25 years away; I adopted it as my home 18 years ago.

We agree we don’t see the point of retirement, especially if it means doing nothing. We’ve both done so many things and neither of us plans to slow down anytime soon.

She is on a mission to learn everything she can about the oil sands. I won a contest with my speech, “My Opinion of the Oil Sands“.

But what really resonates with me is her joy. She chooses to be happy despite the typical tears and tribulations of a life on this planet.

We share food which seems to be an intimate action for two women who have just met. I enjoy the incongruence of that.

We end with another great hug.

On my way home I bask in the warm glow of a budding friendship with someone whose story I feel I already know, yet I’m intrigued to learn more.

It feels a bit like a first date and there is chemistry.

It’s nice to have a new thread to weave into my life’s tapestry. Who knows what image will emerge?

Here’s to old friends and new friends, new old friends and old old friends, young friends and old friends. Thank you for enriching my life!