Until just a few weeks ago, I had some hope that this Christmas letter would be significantly different from last year’s version, which looked back on the year that COVID-19 arrived and became a global pandemic (we found a Christmas ornament online that expressed our thoughts about 2020 — see if you can make out what it says). Before about mid-December, things were looking pretty good, relatively speaking: most people (the smart ones, anyway) had gotten not one but two shots of vaccine — in many cases, mRNA vaccines, which were developed faster than any other vaccine in human history. The rate of COVID growth had slowed in most places, hospitals were no longer overwhelmed, and Christmas looked like it might be something approaching normal.
Then we found out about the Omicron variant, which spreads somewhere between two and three times as rapidly as the Delta variant. International — and even local — travel suddenly became a gamble. If we’re double-vaxxed and boosted, does that mean we can still get together with family, or should we bail on Christmas yet again? With so many unknowns (is Omicron milder than Delta? Is this the beginning of the end, where we all get COVID but it doesn’t turn into anything serious and it gradually becomes just like the flu?) everyone has had to make their own personal choices — it’s like a roll of the dice, except you’re rolling at the same time you’re playing Russian roulette.
Last year, we wound up shelving our plans to have family at our place near Buckhorn for Christmas, and instead had a delicious meal and quiet evening with our next-door neighbours Marc and Kris. On Boxing Day, we wound up having a wonderful surprise visit from our oldest daughter Caitlin and her husband Wade, who called to say they were out for a walk and then showed up at the door, having driven all the way from Ancaster. We set up chairs and a propane fire-pit in the garage and had a charcuterie plate and some drinks, then went for a hike, and it was lovely. After things calmed down a bit, and we had gotten our first vaccine, we got together for a late Christmas at our place in March, and went for lots more hikes and skated on the pond and visited the neighbour’s sheep.
Speaking of sheep, some of you who get these letters and/or follow Becky or me on Facebook may remember the saga of Primo — the runt of the 2020 litter, who was shunned by his mother and basically raised by Becky and Zoe during the first COVID quarantine, and then stopped walking due to a vitamin deficiency, then miraculously learned to walk again and rejoined the flock. Unfortunately, whatever was wrong with Primo seemed to rear its ugly head again in the spring, and he sort of wasted away and eventually passed on to his eternal reward. He is buried up near the garden that his owner planted, and we said some words over his grave. It’s not easy being a sheep, but Primo did his best, and he was well loved for the year he was with us. May he rest in peace.
On a brighter note, Bella the sheep had another set of twins, who we named Butch and Sundance after trying a bunch of other matched names (the previous set of twins we named Pebbles and Bam-Bam). Unlike Primo, these two got big and strong very quickly and have blended in with their flock. We spent a couple of weeks in the spring making maple syrup from a couple of large trees by the driveway — boiling down the buckets of sap on the BBQ and then finishing it on the stove, a surprisingly delicate procedure if you don’t want the sap to suddenly become hard candy. I learned that syrup darkens as the season goes on, a result of bacteria coming to life as the weather warms up. We produced three different colours of syrup over two weeks, the last one as dark as strong coffee. It has a delicious, earthy sort of flavour, and is great over ice cream.
Spring brought warmer weather, flowers and visiting deer, a trip up to the cottage for May 24th, and our second vaccine shot in early June, which made us (temporarily at least) feel invincible, and Becky started volunteering at vaccine clinics as a way of paying it forward, something she continued to do throughout the year, especially when the boosters came. After our shots, we stopped in to see my mother Linda at her retirement home, which had been locked down for months — she and most of the rest of the people in it got COVID, although their cases were mostly mild (I visited her several times in the hospital after Christmas, all gowned and masked and face-masked and gloved — she mostly just read books and was eventually released). Near the end of the month, we gathered with Becky’s family at a resort on Otter Lake near Kingston, where we rented a bunch of cabins and had a great time pedalling around on their water bikes, playing volleyball and kayaking and hanging out on the beach.
Unfortunately, June also brought some bad news. I was very glad that we had visited with my mother earlier that month, because that was the last time we saw her alive. She had a massive brain hemorrhage — another in a long line of such assaults to her brain over the years — and never regained consciousness. Thanks to the understanding of the staff at Sunnybrook in Toronto, almost her entire family were able to be with her in a room in the emergency department, and were able to say their goodbyes before she finally passed on to her eternal reward. I’m sure she is regaling the angels with her wild stories and quoting at random from Shakespearean sonnets, one of her favorite pastimes.
Luckily, the restrictions on gathering in groups were lifted just after my mother passed away, which meant we were able to have a big group of friends and family at the cottage for a memorial celebration of her life — thankfully, it was a beautiful warm and sunny day, and we placed her favourite chair on the beach where she used to sit, with her hat and a book and a glass of wine, and then we toasted her memory and told funny stories about her, and it was lovely — or as lovely as such an event can be. If you’re interested in learning a bit more about her, I wrote something about her life and what she brought to the world.
The next couple of months were a bit of a blur of friends and family, a funeral, moving her things out of her place in Toronto, and trying to grab hold of summer before it disappeared. Among the highlights (for me at least) was that I got up close and personal with one of the young bald eagles that were born this year to a mating pair that took up residence in a tall pine on one of the islands in our lake (they don’t get their white heads and yellow feet for about five years apparently). It was fascinating to watch them grow and practice flying and hunting — something that I don’t remember seeing before at our lake, until the adults first showed up a couple of years ago. They are majestic. On the somewhat less-majestic front, we also adopted a young chipmunk, who we named Eric, and had fun feeding him peanuts in the shell down by the beach. And Meaghan and Zoe took in a somewhat troubled rescue cat named Pomegranate.
The end of summer brought another epic back-country camping trip with our friends Marc and Kris — this one to MacEwen Lake near Carnarvon, which required a couple of hours of paddling and only one fairly long and rocky portage. We had a great campsite on top of a rock outcropping that faced west, making it perfect for sunset viewing (and diving), although I confess my aging bones and muscles found the rocks less than inviting when it came to sitting — not to mention sleeping. I managed to tip both myself and Marc out of canoes (in separate incidents), and in my defence I would say I usually bring the kayak, so have grown unaccustomed to canoes. But luckily both our phones dried out as they are supposed to, and it was sunny, so no harm done. And we had cinnamon rolls cooked over the fire for my birthday, which was great.
Thanksgiving meant another big gathering of family at the cottage, where luckily it was warm enough to sit outside a lot of the time, and there was much guitar playing and drinking, and some amazing food of course, and some hikes to the nearby lookout. It all felt very… normal, which was nice. And then later in the fall, we got some fantastic news from Caitlin and Wade, news that made the storm clouds of COVID and everything else that has happened recede at least a little: they are expecting a baby sometime in late June or early July! Our first grandchild! Which means Becky and I are really old! But is still amazing! I for one am going to spoil that kid rotten, and I have already let Caitlin and Wade know this.
The rise of Omicron, not to mention whatever variants might follow it, has made everything about the future a giant question mark. Will we be travelling anywhere in 2022, or will we have to shelve those plans like we did last year? Who knows! But what we do know is that we are all healthy and happy — or as happy as we can be under the circumstances — and we are looking forward to having a bouncing baby grandchild to spoil in the not-too-distant future. We hope you and yours are likewise well and as happy as can be under the circumstances, and we wish you all the best for Christmas and for whatever comes our way in 2022.