“Those craters, which introduced me to the pain of life, which taught me about the un-solidness of ground, also became a portal to my becoming a writer.”
~ Kyo Maclear
On the eve of my marriage, in August 1998, my father gave me a beautiful lacquer box with a black and white photo inside. It showed my father from behind peering out over a lunar landscape. Written on the back were the words:
This is a very historic photo of a time of horror and happiness. In September 1969 I traveled from Hanoi to the border with the South — the first television correspondent to do so. What I saw no one in the West at first believed, countryside bombed so totally that it looked like the craters of the Moon. When I returned to Hanoi (traveling at night to hide from the bombing), I vowed I’d do a television history of Vietnam some day to “repair” the damage. That same day in Hanoi I received wonderful news that forever altered my life: a telegram from Mummy saying you were on your way!
Tuesday, March 19th, 2013
A lifelong writer, HYACINTHE MILLER is editing drafts of her non-fiction book (Police Officer: Journeys from Recruit to Chief), two novels, and an anthology of erotic short stories. She is president of the Writers’ Community of York Region and a member of Sisters in Crime and Toronto Romance Writers. She maintains a blog, Write in Plain Sight, and is developing another site called The Police Professional.
* * *
I’ve always been enamoured of snapshots, those frozen fleeting seconds of our lives that outlast memory.
The date printed on the pinked margin reads February 1938. Grandmother’s thick wavy hair is pinned back under a fancy hat. The camera registers her dark oval face, her unblinking gaze under a solemn brow, the fox-head stole draped around her shoulders. Her fingers grip a wooden plinth, as if to press it into the floor.
“My mother was a dainty woman,” Mom would whisper, prying the lid from a dusty storage box and easing grandmother’s shoes from a bed of crinkly tissue. Tiny (size 4), low-heeled and shiny black and soft as frosting, with a comforting, worn scent, those boots were a talisman. Wiping her eyes with the corner of her apron, she’d turn away to look at something I couldn’t see. I’d trace the sweep of leather buttons, the cobbler’s stitched signature on the instep. There was no question of me putting them on — at age ten I was almost as tall as my mother, with feet far too big. Eleven months after the portrait was taken, grandmother sat in a dentist’s chair to have a tooth extracted and didn’t awaken from the ether. At age 19 the orphaned guardian of three younger siblings, my stoic, graceful mother would wear the weight of that death all of her life.
The photo of my mother at 22 hangs on the wall of my sewing room, in an antique frame we unearthed in her garage after she died suddenly in 1998. In it she is shy, slender, hopeful — I was that way too, once. She’s affianced of my father, a dreamy lad deployed as a sapper with the British Corps of Engineers in the pestilential trenches of Second World War Egypt. We’re not sure how they met, or when. My brothers and I speculate, injecting romance or intrigue into an invented history. In that unruly garden behind the family walk-up in Montreal, Mom looks more incandescent than sunlight. In fading convent-school cursive, she wrote on the reverse, Greeting to My Beloved, Christmas 1942. He returned two years later, not the man she’d thought she knew, but a wary, tight-lipped husk, besotted by an Englishwoman who’d reclaim him twelve years later, leaving my mother bereft again, this time with three small children of her own. Mom mourned/adored him till she died. I learned the persistence of love.
My daddy, whom I would love even when he no longer knew me, stands at parade rest in a postcard photograph, cap rakishly askew over his right ear, dark khaki uniform sharply pressed, boots spit-shined, cloth service belt wrapped tight around his narrow waist. Birthed in a village somewhere in Cuba and lacking proper documentation, he’d lied about his age to enlist in the army. The sweet-faced poet-photographer-machinist-farmer looks to be on the threshold of tears. He inscribed the photo, From Ronnie to dear Eunice, with his love. Underneath what looks like a hastily sketched bird is a blotch of red, whether wax or a scrap from an album I don’t know. But it resembles a misshapen heart. When I first found the picture among my mother’s things, those words, his love, struck me as odd phrasing, but recalling the lives they’d lived — briefly together and decades apart — I knew that he’d lost whatever self he had, after he sailed on that troop ship and puked his way to war. He’d shaken hands with the Shadow.
In a yellowing cellophane bag tucked on the top shelf of my closet, I’ve kept the pair of impossibly tiny pink booties that were mine. They seem more fitting for a doll than a full-term infant. I was born fourteen days short of my parents’ first anniversary. Babies were smaller in those lean days after the Armistice. I recall stories of how poor they were. How important the family connections. The sweater Mom knitted fits my outstretched hand. Decorated with scalloped edges, eyelet rows, and yellow ducks, the fine wool sweater’s much washed, the stitches barely felted, no longer pristine white but aged to ivory.
Jess and I have been best friends since February 1961, when she blew into Sister John Francis’s class at Denis Morris High School, nudging the trajectory of my future. Drum corps and cheerleading, smoking Export ‘A’s pilfered from her dad, and . . . boys. At age 16, we are so innocent in our matching white jackets. Not for nothing in 1992 are we wearing dark sweaters, reflecting, perhaps, the lessons shaping our lives. In the photo I’ve grown into the same cautious eyes that were my dad’s. Unlike him, though, I’ve saved my self.
The Superman sweater, knit when my son was in grade seven and before heroes fell from favour, later kept my mother comfy too. Graduated to a new outfit, he dropped by for a scheduled break from patrolling the 400 series highways, proud to show Nana his police cruiser. Years later, he would wear his dress uniform to her funeral. Captured forever in this photo, their innocent connection still warms.
And when I thought that my options for bliss had frayed to a thread and that my fate, like that of all the women in my family, was to grow old alone, I met him at IKEA, my Swedish Viking. His first gift was a signet ring with stylized initials reading LH in one direction, HM in the other. Our lives have intertwined, like the letters. What serendipity.
Wednesday, March 6th, 2013
From Rudy Wiebe’s memoir Of This Earth: A Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest (Knopf Canada, 2006; Vintage Canada, 2007):
“My first memory: water arcing and the length of Liz’s small leg scalded; which is not as dreadful as Abe’s throat, but why are the rafters there? Why would we bathe upstairs in the sleeping loft? Where is Mary? The extremely hot, very heavy kettle would have had to be hoisted up the ladder stairs you needed two hands to clutch and climb — hoisted somehow by Helen who was always sickly, never strong? This should have happened in our lean-to kitchen, as usual, beside the woodstove where Mary would simply swing the kettle around by its handle, off the firebox and tilt it over the washtub.
But in this, the first undeniable memory of my life, nothing is more fixed than that low, open jaw of roof rafters and three of us screaming. Childhood can only remain what you have not forgotten.”
Your Pages . . .
1. Write about your ”first undeniable memory.”
2. Describe an accident or injury that happened to someone else — a sibling, a friend — as you recall it.
3. Write about an early memory that has never quite made sense to you, one with missing pieces or fuzzy edges. (A former student of mine called these “memory shadows.”) Leave the draft for a few days, then come back to it and see if you can layer in more details that render the memory clearer.
Wednesday, February 27th, 2013
When Freda Coulter participated in one of my memoir writing workshop series for North York Central Library’s Canadiana Department, I was so moved by a version of the following family history story that I asked her to share it with you here. Fans of tales about grand estates and the people who lived and worked on them, such as the popular Masterpiece Theatre series Downton Abbey or novels like Kate Morton’s The House at Riverton, will find it intriguing — and inspiring.
Freda is currently writing her memoirs.
“I grew up hearing her mantra, ‘Well, dear, things have to be some way and they’re this way so we best get on with it.’ I know that advice has stood me in good stead over the years.”
Granny was short, ample bosomed, and had a great lap. I remember that, and more.
She had such an influence on me growing up that it had long been a dream of mine to try to trace her steps and see for myself the places she lived and worked in Ireland (at that time Ireland was not divided; it was all part of the U.K.) — from grand estates to a guest house she owned and operated with her daughter, my aunt Dody.
In 2010, thanks to one of my sons, Mike, I realized my dream.
My husband and I had moved our family, including Aunt Dody, to Canada in 1977, five years after my mother passed away. It was the time of “the Troubles,” and although one gets used to the challenges and can live with them, we wanted to give our sons, ages nine and eleven, a wider view of the world. I had visited Ireland often since moving here, and 2010 was to be such a year. But this time, Mike suggested we go together. He and his wife Kate were going to England to see Kate’s mum for a couple of weeks in August, and he and I could stay on another week and go find some of the places Granny had lived. Would I like that?
Would I! I could hardly believe my ears. Over the years I had pieced together Granny’s movements after moving from England back to Ireland shortly after 1900. Now I would get to spend a week combing that beautiful island, and with my son.
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I was the fourth of six children, and when each of us was about to be born, my aunt Dora (“Dody”), who was ten years older than Mum, would leave Granny and come to stay with Mum for a few days to look after things. But by the time the youngest was due, because of her arthritis Granny couldn’t be alone, so she suggested to Mum, “Come here and bring the two youngest with you.” I was six years old, and my sister Ann was two.
Granny’s home then was a Victorian three-storey terrace house in a seaside town in Northern Ireland. It was here that Helen was born in October of 1946. A couple of weeks later, Dad arrived to take us all home, but Granny said, “Why don’t you leave Freda here until Christmas and get yourself settled.” We had always spent Christmas with Granny and Aunt Dora, and we did so again that December, but afterwards, Granny said, “Why don’t you leave Freda here until Easter.” So I stayed on. And when I went home for Easter, Granny said to Mum, “Why don’t you let her finish out her school year,” so I returned once again!
Granny was like a mother to me, although I also had a close relationship with my own parents. I lived with her and Dody (who never married) while going to school and eventually attending Stranmillis Training College for teachers in Belfast. I was 18 and living in college residence for my first year in 1958 when Granny died at age 89.
§ § §
As I think of Granny, warm memories come flooding back. Like all houses of that era hers had bedrooms with fireplaces complete with mantelshelf. In the mornings when I was small, she would point to a wrapped “sweetie” sitting there and tell me that the little “birdie” had brought it for me. I asked, “How does the birdie get in?” because the windows were kept closed in the winter. She answered, “It can come down the chimney.” Even at six years old I was a bit skeptical, until one morning when I woke up and noticed bird poop on the window. “I suppose that happened as the birdie was on its way to the chimney!” said Granny. She and I kept this up long after we both knew we were playing a game.
Granny taught me to play cards; we would play for hours. We played board games as well. And she taught me to knit. She also gave me my love of reading. She had a quick wit and was a wonderful storyteller. She knew so many Irish sayings and turns of phrase. When I read Maeve Binchy now I can just hear Granny in my head. She took joy in the simplest of things in life – I guess that’s because she didn’t have much.
§ § §
Though Granny rarely talked about her life, I know she had had it hard. She was born Jane Ann Telford on a farm in Ireland in 1869, the eldest of nine children. In the late 1880s she moved to London to find work. My grandfather-to-be, George Robinson, moved there for the same reason. They met while working in a big house in Weston Green in London. She was a parlour maid, and he a coachman and blacksmith. They married in 1892, and Dody was born there the following year. But my grandfather had angina and by 1901 they had moved back to Ireland for his health. His first job there was in County Wicklow.
My grandfather worked on several large estates owned by the landed gentry, who were usually from England and only came to live in Ireland at certain times of the year. When he died suddenly in 1907 in Tipperary, Mum was just four years old and her sister Dora fourteen. There was nothing else for it but for Granny to find work where she could keep her children with her. That meant returning to service in the “big houses.”
She moved first to the west of Ireland and worked as housekeeper to General Clive, whose estate was in County Mayo. She lived in The Rock House when he was in residence, but when he wasn’t there and the house was closed up, she moved to one of the workers’ cottages. In the 1920s, during the Irish Civil War, she worked as housekeeper for Lord Leitrim at Lough Rynn Castle in County Leitrim, and lived in the castle. (Granny remarried there in 1923 – and, according to my dad, what a disaster that turned out to be!)
The next I know of Granny is that by 1932 at age 63 she had left her husband and rented an old Victorian house beside Queen’s University in Belfast and was taking in students.
Four years later, her rheumatoid arthritis got so bad that Dody gave up her job in Derry to take care of her. They rented a house in Bangor, County Down, a seaside place, and started up a guest house. This was the first real home for either of them. And it was there I came to live with them when I was six.
I continued to live with Aunt Dody till I married in 1964, and my husband, children and I brought her with us to Canada in 1977.
Over the years, I heard snippets about life in Ireland in those days from Aunt Dody and Mum and occasionally from Granny herself. Common to all three of them were comments on what it was like to live in the west of Ireland with nothing but the sound of wind howling in the trees, the rain dashing on the bedroom windows, and the roar of the sea. It all sounded so bleak.
How I wish I had asked more questions.
§ § §
In preparing for the trip with Mike, I created a timeline from 1901 to 1946, the year I went to live with Granny. I researched all the places to see if they were still around and in what form.
We chose not to visit them chronologically. In fact we started with her last place of employment, Lough Rynn Castle, in Mohill, County Leitrim — now a five-star hotel. As we drove along the winding road to the hotel I remembered hearing Granny talk about the three-mile road running through the estate. She was there during the Irish rebellion and witnessed many disturbing events. There was no farming then — just bush and gardens around the castle.
Sitting in the drawing room of the hotel, looking out over Lough Rynn, I wondered what thoughts had run through her head. She was always pragmatic, after all. I grew up hearing her mantra, “Well, dear, things have to be some way and they’re this way so we best get on with it.” I know that advice has stood me in good stead over the years.
From there we went west, to where she had worked as a housekeeper to General Clive. His 38,000-acre estate was in Claggan, Ballycroy, County Mayo. It was his “holiday place for hunting, fishing and shooting.” Claggan is almost as far west in Ireland as you can go, opposite Achill Island – very remote even now. Driving along these narrow country roads with hardly a house in sight, the ocean on one side and the mountain on the other, I can only imagine how bereft Granny must have felt. She would have been grieving the sudden loss of her husband and the life they’d known – and what must it have been like to come to this desolate place where her employer only lived three weeks of every year and she was alone with the children for the rest.
Little had changed in the hundred years since she was there, and I pictured my mum as a little girl running through the fields and along the shore. Knowing her as I did, I could feel her loss and her pain.
We found the other estates where Granny had worked, five in all – including those in Newtownmountkennedy in County Wicklow, and Templemore in County Tipperary — but none affected us as much as this place.
§ § §
A year after this journey, at a family gathering, Mike surprised me with a wonderful gift – a hardcover book titled Finding Granny. He created it online using Shutterfly and it’s full of photographs and anecdotes from our trip.
As I look through it now, I picture us travelling down country roads, getting lost, asking directions, and not quite understanding the dialect. On one road, so narrow it was impossible to drive any faster than 20 kilometres an hour, Mike pointed to a speed limit sign: 80 km. “Do you think we’ll get caught for speeding?” he said, and we laughed.
I was so grateful to have had my son with me on this slow, meaningful journey, a more emotional one than either of us had anticipated. I felt joy at being able to fulfill my dream of retracing Granny’s moves. Through it I felt a greater connection to my grandmother, my mum, and my aunt. It was like stepping into their world of one hundred years ago.
Finding Granny is a precious reminder of that experience.
Monday, February 11th, 2013
A couple of weeks ago I posted a quote from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s autobiography The Alpine Path: The Story of My Career, along with three exercise questions to encourage you to write about a place, or places, special in your memory.
Sandra Shaw Homer liked the idea, and surprised me by sending in the following engaging short reminiscence, which I’m now sharing with you. A writer and resident of Costa Rica, Sandy was guest speaker for my Namaste Gardens writers’ retreat in 2012.
Perhaps Sandy’s recollections will in turn trigger memories in you. If so, well, don’t just think ′em; write ′em!
Katie Smith lived about a half-mile down the road on the other side of the bridge that spanned the widest, darkest pool in the creek, and she was just my age. We lived on our bicycles when we were 12 — that is, when we weren’t building snow forts to protect us from Bobby Benner’s ice-filled snowballs or creating our imaginary garden on the sandbar downstream.
The Benners lived in a log cabin at the end of the dirt road that angled away from the pool just before the bridge. I only saw the inside of that cabin once — perhaps on a chilly Halloween night — and I remember the white plaster starkly outlined against the old black logs — who knew how old that place was? — and a smell of generations of endless woodstove winters. I thought at the time that it would be interesting to know those people better, but Bobby Benner, being older than Katie and me, was our enemy and constant tormentor.
The only time we were safe from him was when we were skating on the pool, all our parents huddled around the bonfire on the bank, smoking cigarettes and sipping whiskey out of dented flasks that they kept mostly hidden in their pockets. When a child fell down, a parent would come waddling out onto the ice in well-stuffed rubber boots to haul him or her upright. Sometimes the adult would skid and fall, and then it was mayhem.
Katie and I attended the sixth grade at Macungie Twsp School. That’s what it said in big letters right across the side of the red brick six-classroom building. My mother thought this was funny, and so we always called it the “macungietwispschool.” Only later did I learn what a “township” was. This was rural Pennsylvania, and most of children were farm kids, not always regular attendants.
Right across the road from us was the Lichtenwalner place, century-old house, bank barn and outbuildings all facing each other like circling wagons. This made it convenient to get from one place to another in winter weather. From the Lichtenwalners we bought our eggs, and once I was invited for a hog killing. The screaming impressed me, and I left before the butchering began. I think I had been invited by David Lichtenwalner, a couple of years my senior, who had a crush on me. But I had already been taught to be a perfect snob.
In rainy weather, Katie, my younger sister, and a small neighbor boy named Lyn and I played in our own bank barn. In Pennsylvania Dutch country a bank barn is simply one built into a slope, with the stables for livestock at the semi-underground level, and a cavernous dusty space above, reachable by an earth bank at the back (or a trap door and ladder from below). The base of our barn was built of fieldstone, the storage space above of wood and the roof slates hauled a century past from some nearby river. In haying time, that storage space would fill with carefully stacked wire-bound bales of hay. In summer it would empty and nothing remained for us children to do on a rainy day except scamper up and down the ladders and across long-smoothed, hand-hewn 12-inch wooden beams, playing tag with a basketball. Our mother never knew.
In spite of the fact that it wasn’t a mile from our house to the school, county school board regulations required that I travel to and fro by bus. And, for the most unfathomable reason, the bus would turn right at the Lichtenwalner place and wander around the countryside until it got to Katie’s house (the next-to-last stop on the 45-minute run) and finally mine. Being the last ones off the bus gave us many opportunities to cement our friendship and “make plans.”
Although, we got into an argument once, and we were still of an age to feel we needed to settle it physically. I jumped off the bus right behind her and pulled her to the ground, pummeling her as best I could, with her elbows fending me off. Even though her mother was outside in seconds, screaming and pulling us apart, I already felt how absurd it was to be physically fighting with my best friend, and I wanted to laugh. It was only the one time, and we made up, but was the damage ever undone?
Bicycle summers. Those are what I remember best. We could go for miles on those back-country asphalt roads, the sun high, the sky a breezy blue, the dusty, sharp smell of corn, alfalfa and hay rising from the fields on either side of us, sitting high on our saddles, or leaning forward in a make-believe race, no one to worry about where we were going or what we did. That was freedom.
♦ ♦ ♦
SANDRA SHAW HOMER has lived in Costa Rica for more than 20 years, where she has taught languages and worked as an interpreter/translator and environmental activist. Between 1997 and 2000 she wrote a regular column, “Local Color,” for the English-language weekly The Tico Times. She became a Costa Rican citizen in 2002. In a previous life she headed her own public relations firm in Philadelphia and wrote occasional articles for the local business press. Her writing has appeared on a couple of blogs, notably Living Abroad in Costa Rica.
Tuesday, February 5th, 2013
I pay my bills by working as a freelance writer/editor. Usually, that entails me hewing and sanding language about others’ thoughts and interests. A hygienic business, for the most part — subjects kept safely distant, taut, and orderly. But this Seven Treasures project: it required trekking through much bramblier and overgrown woods than I expected. My words here carry the cuts, scrapes, and burrs that prove I made the journey (even if I’m not sure where I’ve arrived).
1. “Into the Primitive”
This is the first object winking at me from my dusty cabinet of curiosities: Jack London’s The Call of the Wild — 7 3/4” x 5 1/8” x nearly 14/16”. Unabridged. Illustrated. Published in Wisconsin. According to my mum’s note written on the flyleaf, I received this “as a prize for spelling in grade 2, June 1974.” The cover art is blue midnight, wintery northern-spruce forest, and snarling jaws: clearly for boys only! I musta wept some lonesome-critter tears that summer.
2. My Little Friend
Another maternal inscription. This time, not literal. He stands barely 2 9/16” tall. Mostly creamy grey, with traces of yellow and blue paint in the creases of his long coat and belt. This is Dopey: the seventh dwarf — my mum’s tiny figurine from the late 1930s or early ’40s.
We moved out of my childhood home when I was 15 and most of my toys vanished. Not certain how. But Dopey stuck around ’til I unearthed him years later from a wooden whisky box lurking in a spidery corner of my grandparents’ cellar. He’s my talisman. We’ve been on some top-notch rambles together.
3. Ducks Are People
My father fell ill when I was 15. He passed away seven years later. Memories of dad as a vital person are the ones I strive to hang on to. Best of all: down at the lake — floating, tinkering, smoking, napping.
Among the few trinkets that came to me when he died is a green metal pin-on button (rusty on the back) — 2 1/8” across. In the centre there’s a white cartoon silhouette of a smiling duck, with the words “Love a Little White Duck” slung around the circumference. I can’t recall my father ever wearing this button, nor do I even know where it came from or what the message means. But at least it’s clear this mysterious bit of paint and tin was something that made him laugh enough to keep.
4. Rhymes with Memory
I couldn’t have just one book amongst my treasures. This next one measures 4 3/8” x 6 5/8” x 1 1/8”, and, like the volume before, it too was a school prize. Forty-three years before I howled with Jack London, my grandfather received Arthur Quiller-Couch’s redoubtable Oxford Book of Victorian Verse for “general proficiency” in form IVB at Ashbury. Its 1,023 pages are thin, serious tissues, but the volume itself is sturdily bound in faded scarlet morocco.
I read Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush” from this little book at his funeral. It bolstered me to speak those old rhymes and to rekindle, through “the growing gloom,” my granddad’s “happy good-night air.”
5. Uisge Beatha
Here’s one that’s cheerier (about time). Throughout my childhood I was absorbed by nature’s mysterious creatures and corners, blathering vigorously to whatever adult would listen about uncanny forest footprints, the ghost of Anne Boleyn, WWII fighter planes that vanished around Bermuda, and scaly beasts that reside in watery caves. But it used to drive me nuts (still does) when I would hear about so-called scientific missions to “find” Nessie. So bullyish and so wrong to disturb her misty Scots solitude!
When Auntie Margaret passed away, I pocketed from a shelf in her home a ceramic figurine of the enigmatic creature herself. A smiling wee lass (4 15/16” nose to tail) sporting a jaunty tam and a belly full of Beneagles, my Nessie paddles blithely, undisturbed, across the surface of her grey-green loch.
6. Joie d’Hiver
Within about a month of decamping to Montreal in late summer 1989 I fell hard for another new transplant named Dennis. Around the same time we met, Den learned that he had taken second prize in that year’s Labour Day weekend novel competition sponsored by Arsenal Pulp Press. The even better news contained in that letter was that Arsenal’s editor so admired the manuscript he invited Den to rework it for publication.
Now, when I thumb through the resulting book — Dog Years — I time-travel back to that long, sub-zero St. Lawrence winter where I was kept warm by two entwined intensities: a new relationship and Den’s powerful word-alchemy.
Organic last: in places a thumbnail thick, shaggy, craggy, grey-brown bark surrounds the pale creamy-orange heart of a half-circle fist-and-knuckles fragment of silver maple.
Throughout my childhood, that ancient dragon stood on the west side of my grandparent’s place. He shaded my bedroom from summer’s late-afternoon sun, made room for all my scrappy birdhouses. The tiniest puff of breeze and every branch would snap to life with glinting, quaking, argent-green eyes.
I was down south at university when he was felled. I recall the knee-buckling drift I felt when I returned home one holiday to find his space empty, the illumination switched off. A few limb-shards lay scattered in the ragged mid-December snow. I retrieved one. Twenty years on and those woody rings preserve my friend’s sharp, spicy aroma.
* * *
MORGAN HOLMES grew up on the igneous shield of Northern Ontario. He spent most of his 20s in Montreal, and since then has found himself skirting Lake Ontario’s lowland shores. A freelance writer and editor (www.wordmeridian.com), Morgan also teaches continuing-education courses at Ryerson University (Shakespeare in Performance, The Art of Promotional Writing). When off the clock, he likes to spend time on wordless pursuits — his top three being piping, hiking, and canoeing.
To learn about other contributors to this series and the stories behind their treasures, click here.
Tuesday, November 13th, 2012