ed_rex: Winter Warrior icon (Weekend Warrior)

Fright or flight?

The author takes the right seat - just don't touch anything! Photo by Raven

The strangeness of fear (or lack thereof)

December 11, 2016, OTTAWA — Fear — pure, irrational fear — is the damnedest thing.

I'm talking about the fears that don't make sense, or at least, that don't make sense when taken out of context. Fear of spiders that aren't poisonous, of rodents nott dangerous, of heights well-barricaded.

This last — heights — is my especial irrational bugaboo. Standing on a chair to reach a high shelf makes me uneasy. Getting onto the counter to change a light-bulb makes me nervous verging on frightened.

Hell, one of my earliest childhood memories comes from a terror near paralysis I experienced when I had to ride a down escalator at the old Eaton's in Montreal. In fact, it's only in the past five — maybe 10 — years, that I've learned to travel the moving staircases in more or less complete serenity.

But put me in an elevator or on an aeroplane, no matter that the latter, especially, is objectively much more dangerous than riding an escalator, and I feel no fear whatsoever.

At least, that's always been my experience on commercial airplanes. But I've wondered, ever since I first flew as a passenger in a Dash-8, how I would react were I to ride in the cockpit of a small aircraft, without the illusion of safety even a small passenger liner provides.

Would my fear of heights reassert itself in such a flimsy platform?

Last month, I finally found out whether I have any fear of flying.


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My mother came down from Sudbury

"No spring chicken" teaches lessons in accessibility

Image: Photo of Geoffrey Dow with Benita Hart, his mother

My mother is a cripple (her word, not mine). She's 83 years old, has two bionic knees and one of those is ... loose. Falling apart, she says, and the surgeons in Sudbury (all of whom work out of the same practice, so no shopping around for a second opinion unless you're willing to shop for one in Toronto or Ottawa) say she's too old for a replacement.

Despite that mechanical failure and a spine giving way to osteoporosis, and despite some problems with short-term memory (not, so far as I can tell, early-stage Alzheimer's or some other kind of dementia; but disconcerting nevertheless), her doctor tells her she's mostly in very good health and has every chance of seeing her 95th birthday.

She is, further, having the time of her life as a born-again celebrity of sorts (if only in Northern Ontario) and has made of her late uncle Jules' saying, "life is good", her own touchstone.

Image: Banner from CBC Sudbury's feature page for Benita Hart and 'Growing Old Ungracefully'.

Last week, a friend was driving down to Ottawa and wondered if she would care to accompany him. Travelling isn't as easy for her as it used to be, but she said yes, and so arrived in Ottawa last Thursday. And I saw her on Sunday.

* * *

A lot of people find my relationship with my mother a little strange. We actually like each quite a lot, as people as well as as mother and son, yet we probably don't see each other as often as once a year, we seldom email and, unless she's having computer issues (I have her running Linux Mint, so I'm her go-to guy for support when something's not working), we probably only talk on the phone every three or four months.

But those conversations usually last between two and four hours, and include healthy exchanges of politics and philosophy along with a a lot of laughter (and a little gossip), so I'm not bothered. And neither is she. After all, we both have lives.


She had asked about staying with me and Raven, but I had to remind her that inhabit the top two floors of a three-story town house. Though she's taken up distance walking through the good offices of a physiotherapist and a walker, her knees aren't up to a flight of stairs every time she wants to use the bathroom.

So, as I said, she stayed with a friend. And meanwhile, I had a friend of mine come into town on Thursday, whom I hadn't seen in 22 years. Since Sonia was only passing through town, I invited her to dinner and she stayed the night on our couch after we caught up and reminisced as old friends long out of touch will do. (It wasn't only the passing of time that was shocking about our reunion; it was also how many memories we did not share in common. Or, as Sonia put it, how lousy my memory was. Somehow, over the years, I had come to think of her as some sort of weird, near-celibate girl who was forever single; she had to reminded me that I'd met at least two of her boy-friends. But onwards. This entry is about Mom, and the lesson she taught me about accessibility issues.

You weren't expect a lesson, were you Gentle Reader?

I had work on Friday and Saturday, so it was only on Sunday afternoon, after my soccer game, that I actually saw me old mum in the flesh.

Image: Photo of Geoffrey Dow with Benita Hart, his mother, and her walker.

Cognizant of how difficult it can be for cripples the handicapped to get in and out of small cars, I'd foregone my usual compact in favour of renting a minivan, and it was in that vehicle that my mum, Raven and I set out for dinner, on the way detouring past our home, the inside of which my mother will never set foot.

We wanted to go to Saffron, a Persian eatery which — to our surprise if not quite shock — seems to no longer exist. We ended up at the Golden India restaurant, a Bangladeshi-style Indian restaurant on McArthur. Raven and I have been a couple of times before and found it far and away the best Indian food we've had in Ottawa. The dishes are subtly flavourful, even when "extremely" hot. (I ordered the brilliant Bangalore Pal and didn't regret a drop of the sweat I lost over it.)

But the good food and conversation were marred by a post-prandial occurrence.

Though the bathrooms were on the main floor, it turned out they were not, quite, accessible. The toilet, my mum said, was extremely low. There were no grab-bars. She very nearly had to call for help, just to get up off the shitter.

The things the able-bodied don't think about! (And despite my problems with arthritis, able-bodied is still how I think of myself!)

The restaurant's hostess apologized when my mother complained, but it was pretty pro forma. "No one else has ever complained," she said.

"Most people probably just don't come back," was my mother's response. And no doubt, she's right. Unlike my mother, most people don't want to make a fuss. Hell, my mother doesn't "want" to make a fuss either, but she (quite rightly) thinks that fusses sometimes need to be made.

Anyway, the incident left me contemplating the place we'd tried to take her the last time she was in town, the sometimes sublime Chahaya Malaysia. A low-key, mom-and-pop style restaurant serving brilliant food, it is a also one of those places whose bathrooms are in the basement. Tough shit for the handicapped. And a good thing it was closed the time we tried to introduce my mum to its brilliant food.

But the moral of the story is, even when we think we're aware of issues having to do with social justice, it's really damned easy to miss the things that don't affect us personally in some way. If you've ever wondered why the toilets in old folks' homes are so high, or the seats have risers, now you know: when the knees are going, standing up is no easy thing.

Thanks, mum. I hope you had a good drive back on Monday. Presumably, if something went wrong, one of my brothers would have called by now to let me know.

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"I'm really a very lucky person." — Benita Hart

My sainted mother says she's a very lucky person
My sainted mother, Benita Hart, is growing old ungracefully.

There's no getting around it: my mother is dying. Not of any specific disease, but of that monstrous universal, life.

As she puts it, "my spine is crumbling" and her new(er) artificial knee rattles around, causing her intense pain on very little activity. She isn't quite housebound yet, but it's a near thing. She's basically given up on cooking because standing at the stove and bending or reaching for things in the cupboards hurts.

I rather suspect that, on some level, pretty much everything hurts her, at least a little.

And yet, "I'll consider myself lucky," she said to me the other day when I was up to Sudbury for a visit, "if I have another five good — productive — years left. Really lucky if I get ten."

And yet, even if she doesn't get those five years beyond her current 81 — if she died tomorrow — I think it would be safe to say that she died happy.

My first full day in Sudbury, Tuesday, I took her out to run some errands. Well, two. A stop at a medical supply store to return one assistive device and to purchase another — some sort of portable chair-seat tilter to help the infirm stand up and a long bench to assist in getting in and out of the bath-tub, respectively. Then off to the grocery store, which (for her) meant getting out of the car right at the entrance, hobbling inside and taking a seat on a motorized shopping cart I was pleasantly surprised to see are provided for the handicapped customers.

And then to home, that was it. But the next day, she was forced to spend almost entirely in bed. She'd woken with her knee seized up and needing powerful pain-killers for the rest of the day. (On the plus side, I was gratified that she marathoned the excellent Sally Wainright mini-series, Happy Valley, despite that programs bleak and sometimes brutal content.)

Every time I see her, she's smaller and more fragile and this trip made that which I've understood intellectually for a long time viscerally clear: this visit could easily turn out to be my last visit with her; the next email or phone call could be it.

And yet, this terminal stage of her life, with its pain, loss of energy and focus, sees my mother happier than I think I have ever known her to be.

Although many (perhaps most) of her old friends left Sudbury over a relatively short time, she has managed to cultivate a new (and mostly younger) group of friends, including a special friendship with a much younger man (well, he's in his early 60s, I think) that isn't quite romantic but shares a lot of characteristics of a romance. He is also the man who drove her to Ottawa to visit Raven and I last year). And a renewed sense of professional purpose through her weekly gig on CBC Radio, which brings in welcome money and certain amount of local celebrity, which she is enjoying every bit as much as she ought to.

She isn't in denial about death's proximity, nor is the old atheist scared of it (No heroic measures! she says, and she means it), but she plans to keep on living just as long as there is joy to found in it. When the pain or the disability comes to outweigh the joy, then, she says, she will be happy to let go.

At the risk of sounding sappy, me old mum's attitude towards life (and death) is frankly inspiring. (And the fact that 81 is only 31 years away from where I am now is frankly sobering. It's been nearly a month since I turned 50 and those 24 days went awfully god damned fast. That's sobering, too.)

Speaking of my birthday, I'll leave you with a brief video Raven took after we returned from birthday weekend of skating and snow-shoeing in Montebello, Quebec, at left.

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"I understand my mother now," said my mother, "when she used to say, 'O! to be 75 again!"

And, sort of, I think I can understand it, too. My mother isn't that far past 80 — she'll be 79 in December — but she has visibly aged in the past couple of years. Her skin hangs loose where it used to be firm, her eyes seem to be permanently shrouded, almost bruised, by pouches of dark skin, lighter when she's rested, much darker when she's tired.

And I, Young Geoffrey only by vain (in both senses of the word) self-designation, am old enough to join in that conversation of complaint, what with my arthritis, my psoriasis and (maybe) my sciatica. "Yeah," I said, laughing. "Whoever it was that said that aging is beautiful can go fuck themselves!"

My long weekend — Canada Dominion Day nearly forgotten — was a good one.

It began when I picked up the rental car on Friday morning and, I guess, ended when I dropped it off this morning.

We had the car only thanks to Raven's foresight and perspicacity. Three or four weeks before, she insisted that I book the car now and, when I did, all but two of the company's locations were already out of vehicles for the long weekend. Duh, Young Geoffrey! Duh!.

Anyway, it was a good trip, and one bolstered by a phone call coming just outside of Ottawa: barring some monstrous unforeseen glitch, our apartment-hunt is over!

I don't think i've said anything about this particular place due to my atavistic fear of jinxing things, but *crosses fingers* I think it's safe to speak up now. The place is right downtown, maybe six or seven blocks from Parliament Hill. It's a (very) small two-bedroom apartment on the top floor (of two) of an old, non-descript (very) low-rise building. What the real estate agents would probably describe as cozy.

But it seems to be well-maintained, the landlord is okay with us brining in a small washer (a must for Raven) and, well, location, location, location. Raven will have about a 200-pace commute to work and while I will have another four or so kilometres added on to my bike-ride, I don't mind at all.

We are supposed to sign the lease on Saturday and move in on the 4th. Don't congratulate me yet, but feel free to cross your fingers in solidarity with mine own digits.

But yes, that call started us off on our voyage in good spirits, which we mostly maintained for the duration fo the trip. About which, really, there's not a great deal to say. I spent some time installing a new operating system, Linux Mint 13 (Mate), since Ubuntu stopped working with their (and my) printer and later versions have "upgraded" the user-interface to emulate the hideous Mac interface.

So of necessity, we didn't get much beyond my mother's apartment (apologies once more Souguy — once again, we'll have to put things off 'till "next time") where, I believe, the proverbial good time was had by all.

Our return-trip was uneventful, but for an unexpectedly delicious stop for lunch in North Bay at Habaneros Southwest Grill whose Tex-Mex food was, frankly, awesome.

Once home, cooking was out of the question, so it was out for Chinese we went, justifying it with the argument that we were still, technically, on holiday.

Vhut result? Only the fortune cookie knows for sure! )

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On the inter-connectedness of some things

The MacKenzie-Papineau Monument in Ottawa
The MacKenzie-Papineau Monument in Ottawa. Photo by The Phantom Photographer.

The past couple of weeks have offered some stark reminders of how small the world can seem.

I attended a ceremony at the Spanish embassy on the 20th, and a funeral in the south end of Ottawa on the 22nd. Both events involved family.

I could not help but be reminded of just deep are my own roots into the past. For instance, I am but a single "degree of separation" from the 19th century; my father's father, who lived until 1996, was born in 1899 and fought in the Russian Revolution.

Almost two weeks ago now, my father's last remaining aunt, his mother's sister, passed away (though her funeral was not held until this past Saturday).

I didn't know her well; she had been more of an occasional, if benevolent, presence than a person to me, but the elegies I heard made me wish I had known her much better.

Mother of five, whose husband ran out shortly after the last baby was born, Auntie Pearl raised her children on her own. By all reports, she did so with a generosity and love that spread far beyond her blood-ties; I think close to a hundred people turned out to say goodbye, many of them friends, not family.

Coincidentally and on a much happier note, on my mother's side of the family, my great uncle Jules was in town last week, the last living Canadian veteran of the Spanish Civil War.

Uncle Jules was here at the request of the government of Spain which, finally, was to follow through on a promise made 15 years ago to those who had volunteered to fight against Franco's fascists in the dark days before the Second World War.

Entirely by accident, during a ceremony at the Spanish Embassy, I learned that the man who designed Ottawa's memorial to the "Mac-Paps" lives in Sudbury and knows my mother, as does his wife, who is the editor of Sudbury Living, a magazine for which my mother has been writing recently.

The world can sometimes seem very close indeed. And history too is often not nearly so far away as it seems.

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I won't go into dream-detail this time around. Suffice it to say that making coffee, of all things, at least twice played an important role in the proceedings. First time, when I found myself for some reason working once again for my former employer; second when I was part of Control (yes, oldsters, that "Control"). Neither 86 nor 99 put in an appearance, but the waiting room was quite full of evil doers, all apparently patiently waiting their turn to wreak KAOS-style havoc.

The machine itself was of an unfamiliar design and I more than once found myself irritated by the fact that the measurements were all in metric, leaving me quite at sea when it came to grinding the beans: though I think in kilometres and degrees celsius by default, when it comes to making coffee it's still table-spoons for me.

* * *

It seems I will probably not be hosting the African Diaspora this week after all. My cousins mother-in-law (and entourage) has instead arranged for a couple of rooms in the home of a retired couple - whether of there acquaintance or simply found via the internet, I am not sure. However, the ladies are elderly, and the place is in Thornhill, apparently quite a long walk from the nearest bus-stop. God knows, if I were in their place, I would prefer the cramped quarters on offer downtown over the windy desolation of suburbia any day.

But I am not them, so who knows? And besides - especially given that I haven't met the woman for some 18 years (though she knows well who I am - "That's Carl's oldest son, isn't it?" she asked my cousin when my offer had been transmitted. She and my dad get along quite well), it may be they feel the imposition would be simply a little too much.

Naturally I am in truth relieved; my place is only a one-bedroom apartment (with sun-room/office). But I am also disappointed. It would have been an interesting week, whatever the inconveniences that would have accompanied it.

Nevertheless, my nightly orgies can continue without let-up after all. Unless they change their minds and telephone me to say they are coming after all.

* * *

I'm afraid I have been neglecting the keyboard these past few days. I have bogged-down on "The Adventures of Ashera" and will not likely be getting back to it today; though she hasn't confirmed, I am tentatively committed to helping Siya move into her new place today. And tomorrow, I have an appointment about which I can say nothing - now or ever! - but that much of my day is spoken for (yes! suffer Gentle Readers! Suffer!).

* * *

My continuing quest for pre-sleep comfort-reading led me to pull off my shelf a 30 year-old issue of the excellent (I had remarkable taste as a kid, I tells ya!) old fanzine, Algol. It contained an article by Poul Anderson. Never one of my favourite SF writers, he was nevertheless a craftsman of the higher orders and I have enjoyed his work and even own a collection of his stroies.

His piece was a meandering one. Having been asked to provide some sort of memoir, he instead discussed mostly his methods and habits when it came to writing (3,000 words a day, the son-of-a-bitch!). What most struck me was when he quoted a descriptive passage from one of his own stories as an example of a "rule" he strove to follow when doing such things.

Namely, that a description should not only be visual, but should encompass all of the senses, alluding to what things feel and smell like, etc, as well as to what things look like.

Good advice, which I shall endeavour to remember. I suspect that my own descriptive passages have not been thin only - as I had thought - because my powers of visual observation are, in life, rather limited (I don't just forget names, I forget faces, too).

In fact, maybe some practice is in order.

It was a cool and quiet morning. The morning light through the dirty, stained windows of his office was bright but thin, hinting strongly at the anaemic winter sun that was soon to come. The yard beyond the glass was unkempt, an large patch of green in the midst of the city that allowed the man to imagine he was beyond the urban borders, if he squinted a little. The leaves drooped, looking tired, nearing the end of a lot and hot summer. There was little movement. Only the nearest leaves indicated the air was moving at all.

Shit. That sucks, doesn't it? Well, one must practice.
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The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

-- J R R Tolkien

One of the traits that first intrigued me about - and so attracted me to - Laura was our shared interest in history. Though she had only just turned 17 when we met, I could make reference to the Vietnam or Second World War and she would know what I was talking about more often than not. Unlike the vast majority of her (of of my) contemporaries, she understood, as I do, that the past is not "dead" but is, rather, more akin to stretch of road on which we continue to walk; the past is disappearing from view but in an important if metaphorical way it still exists and continues to influence the lives of all of us today.

My past weekend began on Friday afternoon when I left the office early to catch the 5 o'clock express for Sudbury. My great-uncle Jules would be turning 90 years old on Sunday and I had no intention of missing either the Saturday or the Sunday celebrations planned in his honour.

As a child, I didn't know Jules well. He was a slow-spoken, quiet man, to my eyes at least, over-shadowed in social situations by his first wife who, to be honest, I did not much like.

I began to get to know about a decade or so, and discovered a remarkably fit man who remained deeply involved with the world, a passionately political thinker who nevertheless took great joy from life and found much to laugh about within it, despite having buried his first wife and two of his children. He and my younger were working on my mother's house and Jules at 80 wielded a hammer like a much younger man, which was appropriate given that he was looking forward to a second marriage.

Born to Finnish immigrants - his father, a renowned Finnish poet and journalist, and committed Communist - his childhood was one one of hard work and extreme poverty. Nevertheless, Jules made a career as an architect and taught the subject at Ryerson. He was twice a husband and is a father and grand-father.

But in terms of family lore, of family mythology, it was as a teenager that he left his greatest mark, literally sneaking out of the country to join the Mackenzie Papineau Battalion and sail to France, from which country he made his way to Spain to join the fight against Francisco Franco's Fascist government, which - with the help of Hitler and Mussolini's regime's had overthrown the democratically-elected Republican government.

                                 Jules circa 1937.                                                 Jules, April 30, 2007.

He fought in three major battles and was captured by Italian troops in (I believe) 1938. He spent about a year as a prisoner of war and was saved from execution (he was actually on the firing line) by the good fortune of an Italian general happening by and putting a stop to the proceedings. The war was drawing to a close - Jules' belief that Western democracies would come to the aid of their fellow democratic government having proven vain - and Jules and his comrades were to be exchanged for Italian prisoners held by the Republicans.

Of the 1,500 or so (my research has yielded conflicting numbers) Canadians who volunteered, Jules was one of the 700 or so survivors. According to a speaker at Sunday's party, there are only 5 survivors alive today.

During the 1990s, he was a leader of a campaign to have the Mac-Paps recognized as Canadian veterans. They succeeded part-way, with the 2001 unveiling of the National Monument to the MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion. As men who were early to see the threat Fascism posed to the world, I was more than pleased to see Jules' work achieve that success, if I was also satisfied that they have not been officially designated as veterans.

(That is probably an argument for another time. My basic position is that while my heart lies with the Mac-Paps, it does not lie with - for example - those Canadians who volunteered to fight in Vietnam. Though Canada should have stepped up to the plate to defend the Spanish democracy, it did not do so and I don't believe we should re-write history in that way.)

All of which is background I was more or less familiar with. What I had not realized was that Jules was as well-known outside of the family as it turned out on Saturday that he is. Though I did not notice any members of the press in attendance, well over 100 people turned out for Saturday's public celebration, including Sudbury's Mayor, John Rodriguez.

I mention this not to name-drop (as very political people, I grew up with MPs, MPPs and labour leaders as regular guests in my parents' house), but to mention his brief speech.

Rodriguez spoke of coming to Canada as "a young Socialist" who joined the "closest thing to a Socialist party in Canada" - the NDP - for which he served 5 terms as a Sudbury-area MP. He spoke warmly of Jules and of Sudbury's Finnish community in general (many of whom had originally come as refugees shortly after the turn of the last century as Communists, fleeing a military dictatorship in the old country) but what struck me most was to hear a sitting mayor of a major Canadian city publicly declaring himself a Socialist in the year 2007.

In this age of (happily, fading) neocon/neo-liberal triumphalism, it is more than a little heartening to be reminded that history is not nearly at an end and that the values and beliefs that sent my great-uncle to risk his life for the cause of democracy and social justice live on.

* * *

Sunday's affair was for friends and family only and was held (perhaps somewhat incongruously) at a golf-course owned by a friend of Jules (who, yes, is still golfing, along with working on his memoirs).

After a number of heartfelt and touching tributes, Jules himself spoke. He spoke of social justice, of the need for constant struggle and he spoke too of his own, long, life. I mentioned earlier that he is a man who has outlived 2 wives and two children, who developed scurvy while a prisoner of war, whose own government considered him a traitor for his involvement in Spain and whose secret police kept tabs on him for decades. Yet he smiled as he spoke and emphasized what a wonderful life he has led, what joy it has brought him and how he looks forward to the future.

The proof of that, I think, is in the pictures. Only click if you want to see random pictures of people you don't know. )
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(The following post is quite long, probably not very well-written, and almost certainly of very little interest to most of you. But I for some reason had to get it out of my system; previous attempts have been a good deal more ambitious, but that very ambition seemed to lead to pretentiousness and prose of the purplest hue. And so, you’ve been warned – mind you, I think some of the pictures are pretty nice.)

It may seem kind of insensitive to make my first post in weeks an item that has almost nothing to do with the latest "natural disaster" to entertain those of us enslaved to the silicon teat.

But what the hell. I don't know anyone in New Orleans, I've never visited the city, and like most of you, my interest is the morbid abstraction of a westerner who - on a gut level - still does not believe that IT CAN HAPPEN HERE.

Welcome to the 21st century, people. Whether or not the recent increase in number and severity of hurricanes has much or anything to do with "global warming", this is just a taste of things to come. While icecaps melt and the Dutch are getting nervous, and those of us with brains and means are moving to higher ground, we can at the same time enjoy the smaller, human, pleasures that life sometimes provides.

* * *

First of all, for those who are wondering, New York didn't happen (for which my anxieties are mostly thankful). Between Laura's lack of photo-idea, the very short time-line, and the fact the producers offered a contract that wanted exclusive control of all of Laura's images in perpetuity (an unenforceable clause, I suspect, but still ...), we decided this was an opportunity whose knock she could afford to ignore.

Her other new career is moving, though neither as quickly nor quite as lucratively as we had hoped. Our financial situation, in the short run, well, sucks. We're living on my credit cards for the next couple of weeks. The longer-term is looking better, though. I'm looking at a 15% raise on the first of October, retroactive to May 24, which chunk of money will go a good way to keeping the wolves from the door.

And despite the financial stressors, the weeks since my last past have been good ones. If you're interested, below the cut you'll find a travel report, a lot of photos and some soppy appreciation of some of my family. La Belle Province, Snuggling George W. Bush and More! )

July 2017

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