All posts by Andrea Cordonier


Hidden in Plain Sight

A few weeks back I was taking my morning coffee on the expansive patio of a friend’s house in Winnipeg. My bare feet had graced this space a number of times, but I had not, until just then, grasped the obvious: I was walking on fossils – a LOT of fossils – which are 450 million years old.1

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It’s called Tyndall stone, a dolomitic limestone quarried about 40 kilometres north of the city in the Gillis Quarry at Garson, Manitoba.  It’s famous for its cream colour (the limestone) and striking mottling (the dolomite) caused by the burrowing of marine creatures during its creation.

It contains gastropods, brachiopods, cephalopods, trilobites, coral, and stromatoporoid fossils.2

Several Tyndall stone buildings number among my favourites: the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, the Manitoba Legislature, the Museum of Civilization (History) and the Empress Hotel in Victoria.  So how, I ask myself, can I NOT have known about the fossils? What have I been so busy looking at that they didn’t sink in? My ignorance underwhelms me.

The stone is fascinating and beautiful beyond compare and, apparently, ubiquitous in these parts. Once I knew what I was looking at/for I began to see it on buildings, walls and pavers everywhere.  An architectural tour of Winnipeg’s Tyndall stone buildings can be found here.

Talk about a living museum.

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Further reading:

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

Canada Rocks: The Geologic Journey, by Nick Eyles and Andrew Miall

Tyndall Stone, Winnipeg Architecture Foundation 





The Place We Put Our People

It is the remarkable uniformity – the sameness –  that slaps me in the face.

Pleasant. Clean. Spacious. Orderly. Middle class. Nice. A place you walk into and believe that your dad, mom or grandpa will be safe and taken care of, that everything will be okay, that you’re doing The Right Thing.

These buildings, like clusters of townhomes, neatly clad in grey and blue vinyl siding with generous windows and covered walkways through courtyard gardens filled with low-maintenance shrubberies and perennials, could be anywhere in Canada. If I didn’t feel the wicked midday dry-heat or see the summer-brown hills, I could be anywhere but where I am. I could be standing in my own father’s care facility.

“So you haven’t seen her for awhile?” the front desk administrator asks/comments. I think she is preparing me for what to expect. “It’s okay,” I say, to put her at ease, to prepare myself. “I lost my father to Alzheimer’s a year and a half ago. I know how this works.”

I’m prepared for the frequent napping, the dull eyes, the slack jaw, the searching hands, the low, slow speech and the beautiful flashes of momentary recognition I saw with my dad. Watch, listen carefully and stay in the moment, I remind myself. I’m not required to do anything except be present, to witness, to hold her hand, to stroke her face, to be. Hard, it is to do so little, to do so much.

But for all my imprinted memory, there are a couple of key things I’ve forgotten: How much my Auntie and my father look alike and the volume of kleenex required for a visit. Tomorrow I will bring the whole box.

In a family of 10 children my Auntie is next in line to my father and, for the first time, I realize how much they look alike. I gasp when I see her asleep in the oversized recliner. She is as gorgeous as ever with her thick, stylishly-cut hair, girlish figure and red-striped Gallic boatman’s shirt. It is equally the eyes, the round nose, and distinctive mouth that contain my father and traces of our entire genetic pool. I see him before me even more profoundly than I see him in my youngest child.

I will bring my kids along tomorrow, to these buildings of kind strangers. I want them to see their Auntie and the vestiges of their grandfather and to learn the rituals. We will scoop ice cream (her diet permitting) and walk around the gardens. We will hold her hand and then we will kiss her good-bye knowing we live far away and that this will likely be the last time we meet.

It is a blessing to be here, a gift not a punishment. There is the inevitability of loss but it is nothing compared to our extraordinary gain.


Literary Houses: Margaret Laurence

That house in Manawaka is the one which, more than any other, I carry with me. Known to the rest of the town as “the old Connor place” and to the family as the Brick House, it was plain as the winter turnips in its root cellar, sparsely windowed as some crusader’s embattled fortress in a heathen wilderness, its rooms in a perpetual gloom except in the brief height of summer. Many other brick structures had existed in Manawaka for as much as half a century, but at the time when my grandfather built his house, part dwelling place and part massive monument, it had been the first of its kind.

– Margaret Laurence, A Bird in the House, 1963

I’m living proof that Neepawa, Manitoba is a town to pass through on the way to somewhere else.  I’ve passed through a half-dozen times, always with a vanful of children who, until fairly recently, couldn’t be left to their own devices while I sated my curiosity in the teeny tiny museums of the towns that connect this sprawling country.

Away they would fly past my driver’s side window (the museums not the children), me wistfully staring at what I was missing, carefully tempering each shot of bitterness a creative mind feels at being cut off at the knees.

But today we didn’t drive by the directional signs to Margaret Laurence’s childhood home, real bricks and mortar that double as a literary house in her fictional town of Manawaka. Today, under lengthening shadows, I followed the signs to an empty parking lot behind the vacant Co-Op, across from the lovely Knox Presbyterian church. I sent the youngest around the corner to the Giant Tiger in search of cheap flipflops while the others lounged in the van, feet dangling out the windows, books or games in hand.

Unfortunately, it was 5:30pm and the house/museum was closed for the day: ironic, but not all bad. I disappeared with my camera  for a quickie tour of downtown Neepawa, carefully calculating my window of opportunity before someone would come looking for me or I’d be greeted upon my return with the classic “What took you so long?”

I hadn’t read Laurence since my first year in college, her clear words about daily struggles irrelevant to an 18-year-old lacking in real life experience. Timing, as I’ve said, is everything in picking up a book and I felt excited to revisit her work.

We continued on to Riding Mountain National Park, through Onanole to Poor Michael’s Emporium and Bookshop. I made a beeline for the Canadian author shelves which were packed with the usual suspects. Yes to The Stone Angel, A Jest of God, The Fire-Dwellers,  A Bird in the House, and her memoir, Dance on the Earth.  I passed on a first edition hardcopy of The Diviners which would have completed the Manawaka cycle.

It was 10 o’clock when we finally arrived in Ethelbert. “What took you so long?” my pajama-wearing brother asked, his family half-asleep on the couch, Bella’s birthday cake awaiting our arrival.

“It’s Margaret’s fault,” I told him, which was mostly true.

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Wild Blueberries Sudbury

Wild Treasure

We crossed the Vermillion River and pulled off onto the shoulder as  instructed. “Look for sunny hills,” he told me. “Really, they’re everywhere. I’ve heard it’s a great season.”

It was going to be women’s work – girl’s work too – crouched under the July sun, nestled in the shrubby groundcover, squinting for treasure. There were the wild blueberries, of course, but also slyly hidden strawberries the size of a baby’s thumbnail, ripe for the picking. They collapsed between my thumb and index finger releasing their sweet smell onto my hands and into the air, and their warm, perfect taste across my tongue. That smell from our hands would stay with us the rest of the day, expanding in the heat of the van and circulating on the currents from open windows.

This is exactly what summer smells like, I think, trying hard to hold on to a thing I know cannot be caught. There are other smells, too, of crushed or brushed plants releasing their sagey, antiseptic oils. “It reminds me of lavender,” Bella says. She tells me this is her zen work, berry picking, unaffected by the thunder of transports on the highway below. We will work for a half hour or so and end up with two pints which will be eaten with vanilla yogourt this afternoon. She is already planning for the raspberries and the saskatoons that are to come.

There is ritual to our picking: a marking of passing summers, of simple things that we love, of time spent together, of children growing up.



Bethesda Terrace’s Magical Minton Ceiling

Like other great cities, New York is a museum unto itself. It is possible to visit and never set foot inside any building – save for your hotel – and come away filled to the aesthetic brim. It’s all eye candy: the people, the architecture, the street art, the signs of wear, seasonal changes, the movement of everything, the intentional and unintentional.

The Minton tile ceiling design is made up of 15,876 individual encaustic tiles. These are divided between 49 panels. There are two repeated panel designs that differ only in the central motif being either large or small. Each panel is made up of 324 tiles. The tiles were fixed to cast iron back plates by a simple brass ‘dovetail bolt’. This ingenious fixing used a special slot in the back of each tile that was produced by inserting a wedge-shaped piece of wood that burnt out during firing. The head of the bolt could then be fitted and cemented for extra strength (Figure 2). Once in place, the protruding bolt was threaded through the back plate and secured with a nut (Figure 3). Each back plate was held in place by a grid of structural cast iron work attached to the Arcade stone and brickwork (Figure 4). 

Many private buildings in NYC restrict public access for reasons of privacy and security, so gems like the Woolworth Building are no longer open to common curiosity seekers. But for every inaccessible space, there are ten public jewels like Bethesda Terrace.

Although it appears to be natural, every detail in Olmsted and Vaux’s Central Park plan was purpose-built.  Bethesda Terrace, adjacent to the park’s 72nd Street Cross Drive, too, was purposely designed and implemented by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey to be “a place of social gathering.”1  Standing on the footbridge above, onlookers are presented with a lovely view of the terrace, fountain and lake. But its subterranean delights are well-concealed; the tiles aren’t visible until you descend the staircase and step inside.

I was triply rewarded for my visit: a bright sunny day cast dramatic shadows, furnishing high contrast between dark and light; the Peace Industry Music Group provided a breathtaking musical accompaniment in a cathedral-quality sound space; and nearly 16,000 magnificent Minton tiles, flanked by frescoes, stretched from one end of the arcade to the other.

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This is one of the most important installations of Minton tiles in the United States. Others include the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, DC and the exhibition display collection housed in the Smithsonian.  Bethesda Terrace is the only known use of Minton encaustic tiles in a suspended ceiling2


As if I wasn’t already agog at the tiles, I plunked myself down on the floor to stare at, listen to and photograph the beauty of the Peace Industry Music Group. Like a modern Van Trapp family, the group includes seven of nine siblings, plus guest players, led by father John Valiant Boyd.  The singing begins @ 2:30.

I returned one rainy morning and had the place mostly to myself. With a book and a thermos of coffee I could have tucked up in a niche and spent the day reading to my heart’s content, a sublime woman-cave in the picturesque heart of the city. Alas, my tile obsession – and corresponding list of must-sees – got the better of me, and off I went in search of the next treasure trove.

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Minton Tile Ceiling, Bethesda Terrace, New York by Danny Callaghan July, 2013