The Poetry of Sydney Hazel Steele

 

I have an unusual custom . While Valentine's Day is generally celebrated by everyone (at least , in North America) on February 14th, I always ignore it and observe the following day , February 15th, as my own personal holiday , which I call “Midwinter Day”. The daylight hours are lengthening noticeably in mid-February , and we can anticipate more sunlight , milder temperatures , and some relief from our Arctic-like weather during the latter half of winter , which I've always found more pleasant and endurable than the first half .

I have no particular ritual for Midwinter Day apart from cheerfully noting the passing of the harsher first half of the season . However , I always try to remember to read the poem , “Sun On Icicles”, each February 15th. It was written , probably back in the 1950s , by my paternal grandmother , Sydney Hazel Steele . Not long after recently observing this tradition I had the idea of publishing all her poetry on Chemexplore . Several decades ago one of my aunts prepared a compilation of my grandmother's poetry , entitled “From the Pen of Sydney Hazel Steele”. It's a Duo-Tang binder with photocopied pages of many of her writings , of which I have a copy . This collection includes “Sun On Icicles”.

I've transcribed the poetry selections from this booklet below , which I hope you'll enjoy . Several of them have been published in print before , such as in the Christian Science Monitor . I think my grandmother , who had an inquiring mind , a wide-ranging intelligence , a positive mentality , and a keen interest in science and technology (despite her very artistic temperament) , would have been quite accepting of the World Wide Web . I have little doubt she would have readily approved of her poetry being made universally available on a website such as Chemexplore , which is vastly more accesible to the public than hardcopy poetry books in a few libraries .

A brief biography of my grandmother might first be in order . She was born Sydney Hazel Ruse on February 18th, 1893 , in Toronto , Ontario , Canada , the eldest of the three daughters of Charles Ruse (1860-1936) and Rosalie Sydney McCullagh (1867-1919) . She was married to Robert Wilson Steele (1888-1949) , in 1915 . They lived in Montreal , Quebec , Canada until 1949 and had four children (my father and three younger daughters , my aunts) . Here are photos of my grandmother from several stages of her life :

This second photograph was taken when she was about 20 years old , in 1913 : one hundred years ago !

This last picture was taken by my father (a photography enthusiast) in the late 1930s , maybe around 1938 or 1939 when he was studying science at McGill University . He and SHS took a summer course then in botany ; their professor was Frère Marie-Victorin ; Wikipedia bio , who is now considered to be one of Quebec's first great scientists (underlined blue hyperlinks can be clicked when online to retrieve the article cited . The requested document will open in a new window) . This was back during la Noirceur – lit. “the darkness”, fig. “the Dark Ages”– when the only Quebecers studying science were anglophone students and a few of the Roman Catholic clergy . The Science complex at the nearby Université de Sherbrooke is named Pavillon Marie-Victorin in his honour . The photo was taken on a field trip to the countryside near Montreal to gather plant specimens for their classroom study . At the left side of SHS's head you'll notice – if you look very closely – another of Fr. Marie-Victorin's students , a Roman Catholic nun wearing a wimple (head-dress) . My grandmother and father were the only two lay-persons in his botany class ; the other students were several nuns .

Sydney Steele had a great aptitude and talent for languages and the arts . She actually was an artist for a while back in the late 1940s and into the 1950s , and might have reached a professional level had she been able , away from her many other interests , responsibilties , and distractions , to perfect her technique in oils and watercolours . Before her marriage she was a librarian ; and she was always a passionate bibliophile with an extensive personal library of all sorts of books . She founded the little library , now named after her , in the village of Georgeville in the Eastern Townships of Quebec to which she retired after the death of her husband in 1949 . Not content with merely buying books , she had a very heavy old book press in the barn adjacent to her house , on which she produced her own books , with fine paper and marbled covers (which she made herself) ; I now have several of these volumes .

Immersed in music since her childhood (both her parents were musicians and music teachers) , my grandmother loved classical music and had a large collection of vinyl LPs in that genre , as I recall . She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Toronto – as a medalist in modern languages , and one of its earliest women graduates – and undoubtedly she could have proceeded much further academically had not husband and family intervened . Even so , she took additional university courses just for the pleasure of learning : botany at the Université de Montréal (as mentioned ; she maintained , with considerable labour and expense , extensive gardens , including a rock garden , in Georgeville) , and Spanish at McGill University , in which she received the highest marks of her class . She was very fluent in French and skilled in Latin ; if I remember correctly , she tutored one of my cousins in Latin one summer to help him with his college course in the subject (for which he repayed her by labouring in her extensive gardens) . SHS had for many years a penpal in Denmark ; she tried to teach herself Danish so she could communicate better with her friend .

And by the way , among her many books she had half a dozen poetry anthologies , which I now own .

After a long , extraordinarily full , rich life Sydney Hazel Steele died in the Montreal General Hospital of inoperable stomach cancer on Saturday , October 30th , 1976 , at age 83½ years . She was survived by her four children , many grandchildren , and at least two great grandchildren (my nieces) .

 

Poetry “From the Pen of Sydney Hazel Steele”

 

Sun on Icicles

 

And now great icicles from eaves depending ,

Shining and sharp as swords ,

Points plunging earthwards ,

Pierce the heart with pleasure .

 

Fierce and frangible ,

They glitter and flash in the sun ,

Piercing with a pleasure that is

Singing and tangible .

 

I have a pretty good idea what inspired this poem . This is a picture of the Davenport House in Georgeville in which SHS lived from the 1950s to 1976 :

I also lived there , from 2000–06 , in the attic under the roof . Chemexplore and its early web pages originated from this location and era . I recall some huge icicles on the front of the house during mid-winter ; one was even a narrow pillar reaching from the roof edge to the ground . We definitely needed some good thermal insulation in the attic !

 

Sun On Snow

 

Diamond-bright eye-pricking ,

Prismatic pin-points of light

Flashing from cloudy-soft

Wool-whiteness of the still

Undisturbed snow –

Snow but new-fallen , feather-light ,

Downy-deep ,

Weightless and soundless and

Sunsprinkled ,

Prickling with sparklets that

Dazzle and dance as they

Sift through the eye-lashes –

Sun on new snow .

At the beginning of each winter SHS would design her own Christmas cards , usually having a Georgeville or winter motif . Many of these were beautiful little sketches made with a stippling technique . I have one such Christmas card here – an original , not a photocopy – with a poetic message , “Haiku For Winter”. I scanned the card to create the following JPEG image :

The stippling method has an interesting chemistry aspect . It somewhat resembles invisible ink , which I'm sure the reader has heard about . The desired image is drawn with a chemical solution (probably of an iron or copper salt) , which is dried on the paper . A second “developer” solution is then brushed on over the image . This latter chemical reacts with the first , just like invisible ink , turning it various shades of black and gray . SHS asked her grandson-the-chemist one time about the developer solution , which she was running low on ; could I obtain more of it from a chemical company ? I investigated and discovered it was a water solution of thioacetamide , which is a stable crystalline compound when dry , but when dissolved in water it slowly hydrolyses to acetamide and hydrogen sulfide . Aqueous thioacetamide has a pronounced odour of rotten eggs , typical of hydrogen sulfide . The H2S reacts with the iron or copper salt on the paper to produce microscopic black grains of the metal sulfide , which is the insoluble pigment forming the image . I was indeed able to buy for her a small bottle of reagent grade thioacetamide from a chemical company in Montreal .

The completed original “master artwork” was then taken to a professional printer for the production of the required number of printed Christmas cards , to be mailed out to family members and friends .

 

Lost Identity

 

Three seasons round , the fields and hills

Stand out as individuals .

One , white in bloom and red in stubble ,

Was Camber's buckwheat . The pale gold

That followed on the silver-green

Was Woodyatt's oats . Mars violet

(With just a touch of crimson) was

The rich ploughed field on Gordon's lot .

While Murrays sowed their hill to wheat

And corn stood high behind Martenz' ,

The velvet-deep of lush , bright green

Was pasture for the Dobell sheep .

 

Now , all one an identity

Are trees , that on the winter sky

Their airy autographs inscribe –

Elm , larch or maple , ash or oak –

In tracery fine , or sturdier stroke

(To each his own calligraphy)

While over field and hill below

Is spread the broad , white unity –

The silent anonymity –

Of snow ... on snow ... on snow .

[Published in the Christian Science Monitor , Home Forum section , February 2nd, 1959 .]

I'm unable to reproduce the indentation of these poems as they appear in the “From the Pen of Sydney Hazel Steele” booklet ; my HTML editor , FrontPage Express , won't permit such indenting , nor partial single spacing . However , all other aspects of the poems such as separate paragraphs and punctuation have been carefully preserved .

Black And Gold

 

How black and beautiful is night-black !

The rich , deep darkness of this night without a star –

With only a street-lamp glowing golden

Behind the laced branches of the snowed-on trees :

Black trunks , black branches , blacker against the light .

Snow in the golden net , too , dimly gleaming ,

Deepens the blackness deeper .

 

See how the blackness drinks up the gold !

See where the gauze-fine fringe of the gold keeps dissolving ,

In infinitesimal droplets ,

Into the enveloping blackness , the breathing blackness ,

Of the night-black night .

[Published in the Christian Science Monitor , Home Forum section , February 16th, 1959 .]

The following extract from a longer essay , “Snow Out Of Season” [October 22nd, 1959] , is a prose description of the imagery in “Black and Gold” :

“In the village street as twilight comes the warm glow seems to deepen under the snow-laden trees . The black-topped road is wet and in its shining surface and its shallow puddles it reflects the rich canvas that spreads above it , reflects the black uprights of the tree-trunks – blacker than itself – and doubles the effect of mellow light and colour . The snow that was so light in falling and that so deliberately picks out the distant detail of the hills , appears to lie heavy on the nearer trees . Heaped thick and moist upon the leafy branches , it presses with a soft insistence , until the twigs droop in rounded clusters , taking on a still and sculptured look that emphasizes the quiet of the hour . The street is empty . An occasional car goes by , makes its quick motion heard but scarcely stirs a leaf and , disappearing , passes into unreality again .

There are times when the twilight brings a kind of melancholy with it , but in this golden peace there is nothing but happiness . The kindness of the village fills the street . In the house across the way the first lamp is lit . Pale now , its light will deepen as the darkness comes , and – because in this friendly little place the curtain will not be drawn – it will spotlight , into the night , a rectangle of borrowed beauty which will vanish with the morning sun”.

One of SHS's watercolours was an excellent representation of the stark scenery of the Georgeville Road , looking across to “the house across the way” (then the Davidson's house) , in a late autumn or early winter evening or night-time , wet with early snow , as portrayed in “Black and Gold” and in “Snow Out Of Season”.

Prelude to Catching the Day-Break Ski-Special

 

From golden warmth of house

They emerge into a crystal

Clarity , ethereally blue .

Azure the air they move in ,

The air they breathe ,

For Sky is here , blue as a jay ,

In empty street ,

Among the snow-feathered trees .

 

They gather in a group , on the steps , with their skis .

 

Sky , when so close , is friendly , bidding these early-comers

To partake of its blue enchantment –

Offering it to them in the frosty ,

Frail goblet of the encroaching dawn .

 

Their clear , young voices break the light spell with delicacy ...

They pause ... it heals ... for moments it is whole .

Round as an O , it encircles them in an intimacy of gazing ;

Then they scatter into movement –

Kaleidoscopic

Fractions of scarlet, cerulean , emerald –

Falling into a pattern of young figures , laughing , talking ,

Bound for the early morning train .

 

To Sydney , in reply to hers of Feb. '68

 

A winter's day in Georgeville

Can be long ,

Lonely , and cold

With dusky shadows in the pines you love

Or it can be all sparkling white

And melting blue

And gold ,

When birds call greetings , friendly , peremptory ,

Bold ,

From every tree .

And then again , a day when skies are low

And soft and ochre-grey and charged

With snow ,

And our small world ticks on in measured

Silence as the snow flakes fall .

And lovely , lovely are they all –

The Dark – the Cold –

The Bright – the Blue –

The Grey – the Gold !

 

Here is a place and here is a time

To meet –

To gather together and be warmed by Love .

No need

For words – but in the Laughter – in the Look –

We need

The thing we most desire to find – and find it

Sweet .

[S.H.S. , March 9th, 1968]

“Sydney” undoubtedly refers to a grand-daughter , Sydney Murray , one of my cousins . Here's another prose selection from the collection :

 

Black and White

 

Snow came in the beginning of May . It fell all night long on the house , on the lawn , on the twisted old apple-tree . It fell silently , steadily , undisturbed by any wind , and in the morning the world was as white as it had been in mid-winter . Not a crocus was to be seen , not a squill , not a hand-span of bright turf or dark soil , and the birds flocked , clamouring , to the feeding-stations again . The crooked old tree was barely in bud , but the snow had clothed it with a gentle foliage of its own , and now every branch appeared to be hung with dark , exotic fruit . Fifty – or perhaps a hundred – hungry blackbirds , feathers fluffed out against the cold , were perched in the whiteness , uniting to be fed .

[S.H.S. , May 5th, 1961]

 

Two Modes for Spring

 

Major (last night)

On this bright night of stars the earth becomes

A place to stand on – merely a point

From which to push off into splendour , beauty , vastness –

But a vastness how familiar ! For to-night

The Moon's near neighbour , and the big stars

Lean down the frosty air like brothers .

Nothing seems far , nor any farness frightening –

Even the pale fringes of the Milky Way no stranger

Than galaxies of snowdrops seen by day

On the adjacent hill . These sparkling skies

Are no space-wanderer's great wilderness , but rather

The house of my inheritance , my childhood home .

 

Minor (this morning)

Early this morning , just before the dawn ,

I woke , or half-awoke , and knew that Spring had come ,

Sensing a difference in the fresh wind blowing

In through the open windows of my room –

In through the open dreams of my awaking .

It bore the cold , sweet scent of melting snows ,

And something besides – a sound belonging

To all those other Springs , from the far side of childhood –

The soft , contented , low confabulation

Of birds beneath the eaves , of birds returning .

All at once such tenderness of welcome

Stirred in my heart that , proud and starry skies forgotten ,

If I may not be here , I cried , when Spring comes round ,

In just my own , small corner of beloved earth –

Where snow lies late but swallows come , regardless –

O , then I shall be lost indeed , then must I mourn

Like some poor , wandered child as night comes down

Who can no longer find his way home .

 

The Answer

 

In my window I have a pot of miniature

White daffodils , just coming into bloom ,

From a handful of bulbs planted in October .

 

Through February I watched the green spears

Of the leaves push up , and saw the tiny

Flower-buds forming in their sheaves .

 

Early this morning I found , poised above

The green , on slender stalks , two tantalizing

Tall quotation-marks (raising their eyebrows in my direction , as if to say “Guess what” ?) .

 

Now that it is afternoon , I come looking for

The answer – and catch (winged , white perfection !)

A pair of little angels in their petticoats .

 

A Touch of Blue in the Kitchen-Garden

 

From this window I can look down

On the neat pattern of the kitchen-garden .

I see a short , man's figure , bending there , in blue jeans .

It is Mr. Judd , taking up the late vegetables .

Against the blue of jeans his hands and face look pink –

Quite pleasant with the spot of silver

That shows between his cap and collar .

He is working along a row of something grey-green now

(It could be Broccoli or Brussels Sprouts)

And just behind him are the dark , wine-coloured leaves

Of the tall Beet Chard .

 

It was a good idea , to put the kitchen-garden where it is .

Its off , contrasting colours are beautiful and striking

Against the white paint of the small grape arbour .

And looking at Mr. Judd's blue jeans , I think

That I shall plant a row of good Delphiniums

Along its path next summer .

 

[Published in the Christian Science Monitor , Home Forum section , date unrecorded]

 

October Song

 

Everything is blowing past the mountain !

Sing for joy !

For the flying leaves golden and the dancing brown ones ,

For the twirling twigs , and the space-patterns playing

Between the tossing branches and the blue , blue mountain ,

O , sing for joy !

For the stirring and the mingling , for the locking and the loosing ,

The embracing , of the branches as the wind rushes by .

 

Sing for the joy that's in the mountain ,

Deep down in the mountain ,

For the mountain stands steady .

Though the clouds race above it , and the shadows flow across it ,

When the locked branches loosen and the leaves dance by ,

Stands the blue of the mountain still ,

Behind all the motion .

 

For joy in the motion and for joy in the mountain

Sing !

Sing for joy !

 

The mountain referred to above is “The Elephant”, or Mount Elephantis , whose official name on older topographic maps is Sugar Loaf Mountain (GIF image , 684 KB) . It's located on the western side of Lake Memphremagog in Potton Township south of Sargent's Bay , and presents the aspect of a reclining elephant's upper body as observed from Georgeville . The northward-extending “ear” of the Elephant is called Hog's Back Ridge , on the side of which is an abandoned copper mine :

This view of the Elephant (from the Georgeville Dock) was photographed by the late Katherine Mackenzie , an author , naturalist , and longtime resident of Georgeville . I believe it was taken in February of 2002 , and shows the lake still open and ice-free , at least in its widest part between Georgeville and Sargent's Bay . In a typical winter the lake would be covered by about half a foot of ice in February . If I recall correctly , the lake didn't freeze over at all in the winter of 2001–02 , for the first time in living memory .

 

To Mount Elephantis From My Window In November

 

To-day , old Elephant , you look your age .

Your venerable , hoary back is humped

Heavy against the sky . Your very ear looks old ,

Its every ancient fold

And wrinkle etched in rime .

Your trunk lies supine in its long repose .

 

I have seen quiverings there ...

Last April's ambient , I swear ,

Some impulse felt , that made it waver

And shimmer between my eyes and you ;

And now November

Stills all the air .

I feel the centuries that sit upon your shoulders .

 

Once , worlds away and ages back , men gazed

In wonder at the Great Sphinx rising on the sands ...

But in those days already , here

Across the world , where no man stood

And gazed ... nor wrought , nor was ... you were :

Alone , and ancient in your solitude .

 

I wonder what you looked like then ?

Were your great flanks less lean , your bones less massive ?

Did the cloud-shadows ride across you then as now ?

(Leave you impassive ?)

Changing your contours for no eye to see ?

 

And did November

Hold you in stillness ? Do you sometimes remember

(Through the long winters) all those bygone ages ...

Back , back to your beginning ? ... To that echoing moaning

When Earth , with thunderings , thrust you forth ?

Was your trunk lifted then ? Did you salute the sun ?

Gambol a little , while the world was young ?

 

You have been old so long ....

In still November

Do you , like me , remember ... and remember ?

[S.H.S. , November , 1957]

 

Ghost Of A Queen

 

The day-time Moon peers , pale , from the Autumn sky ,

A fragment of a wafer , shadow-thin ,

Wan as the filmy wisp of cloud that drifts

Above the golden trees that top the hill .

 

Treasure this transient loveliness . Look now .

For , like a wraith , fast-fading in the light ,

She slips away to haunt the empty halls

Where she held sway among the stars last night .

 

Come Not Nearer , Moon

 

Come not nearer , Moon , but rather

Keep your cool enchantment ,

Your poet-making magic

Waxing and waning – waxing and waning –

In silence and silvery remoteness forever .

Be far – and so familiar .

Still stand for Strangeness –

Still be our Moon !

 

Time

 

What has become of you , Time , my friend , of late ?

I used to think I saw you plain – but now

I hardly know you , cannot see your face .

Only sometimes a sort of flickering reflection of you –

Flitting , slipping down long , shadowed stairways ,

Cutting corners , criss-crossing , kaleidoscopically

Tumbling into tranced patterns

Like a dream .

For instance :

That old man who passed just now

Outside on the street , when I was walking .

I looked into his face , and what I saw

Was a grey and wrinkled outline ;

A mouth trembling in a soft hollow ;

And old eyes , dimmed and watery from wind and wear ,

Gazed out beyond me to some beckoning wonder .

And as I looked the wrinkling outline wavered ,

Became transparent , tangled with another .

I thought I saw a child take on the softness of the mouth ,

The eyes' innocence .

He , too , was gazing past me , as one wavering on a threshold –

And he was one with the old man .

Was it one threshold , too ?

One wonder ?

 

Say , now , what meaning is there in month – minute ?

In now , or then – again , or always ?

Time , what are you ? – or are you , Time ?

 

Are you but a dream ?

 

Form

 

Six points for a snow-flake

Five points for a star :

Curving lines for Infinity

(Try to think that far)

The earth is round like an orange ,

Crescent recalls a moon :

Everything has a shape of its own –

(Learn it early , learn it soon :

Spread out your Euclid on your desk ,

Study your Algebra ,

Your Shakespeare , Shelley and Rupert Brooke ,

Your Whitman , Emerson and Eliot) ;

From the simple triangle isoceles

To the intricacies of man and trees .

 

Black and Green

 

Black is the Cat –

Velvet-clad Condescension

Deliberately posing on

Polished emerald

Of kitchen linoleum –

 

Tail , curled around toes ,

Encloses a motionless

Warm , silken sleepiness ...

 

From time to time appear

Thin slits of watchfulness

Briefly disclosing

Twin chips of emerald .

 

Imperturbable ,

Plumb in the middle of

Path between stove and table –

Sleek black on field of green ,

Complacent – cat colour-scheme .

 

After Many Years

 

I heard a lovely sound last night

Just after sundown (and the sky still light ...

The world growing dark) .

Then Sound was Sight .

I saw it as a crystal ball ,

And in it , clear and very small –

Small , as though far away , but clear –

A sky like this , a child called Dear ,

And one beside , in whose loved hand

Her own is nested .

Silent and close they stand ,

Caught in the glass , their faces to the skies ,

Waiting – And then ,

High up , a night-hawk swoops , and swooping , cries .

[S.H.S. , March , 1958]

 

Oh , Look , The Lovely Light !

A Speculation Upon the Novelty of Moon-Rockets , etc.

 

How often has the match been struck ?

How often has the infant crowed ?

 

How many are the grains of sand

That lie along the endless shore ?

How many aeons since God's hand

Flung out the patterns on His floor ?

 

And who , then , said , “This grain alone ,

Of all that star the vast Forever

Shall spark its neighbours” ? –Rather small

And not , Earth-man ? – though surely clever .

 

How often has the match been struck ?

(In unscanned Space – in Time forgotten)

How often has the infant crowed ?

(How many moons have been begotten ?)

[S.H.S. , October , 1957]

 

The Messenger

 

Go down into the catacombs of consciousness

To the labyrinths of language where

The words are kept , and bring me up

The word I want – the word to fit

This space , this thought . I have called down

But the right word will not answer .

So go you down and delve among the records .

(I wish they were arranged more neatly –)

 

Before you go now , study this line with me .

We need a word shaped so – It ought to be

Well-rounded here – with a point there – strong

In the arch , too . Bring me up no weakling ,

For much must hang on this one – and remember ,

Sound your word well . Be sure to see

It has a proper ring , and not off-key .

 

So , down you go to the burrow . The word is there ,

No doubt of that – and till you find it

You may not rest – nor I . You are a willing

Creature , though full of errors and misjudgements .

Often you weary – sometimes you weep , but

You must work , and I must drive you to it .

For of all games this is the most relentless .

 

You must go down and down , into the nether depths

Of subterranean storehouses to find

The hidden quarry . There you rummage ,

And come up – how often with the not-quite-right –

Then down again . This , while I sit , eyes closed ,

And all my being bent , hypnotically on .

That missing shape – that silent note –

Waiting – and willing you to come at last

Up , up with THE RIGHT WORD !

 

As a (chemistry) writer I certainly empathize with what SHS is saying in “The Messenger”, having on more than one occasion gone on an intensive mental search for that perfect word which remains frustratingly elusive .

The three devotional poems in “From the Pen of Sydney Hazel Steele” have been omitted from this web page . My grandmother was quite interested in religion ; she had a number of academic books on the subject , was an active member of the local United Church of Canada congregation , and she generously supported several church missionary causes . Her mother , Rosalie McCullagh , was the Australian-born daughter of missionary parents in the South Pacific islands ; they lived among , and preached Christianity to the cannibals on the island of Aneityum in modern-day Vanuatu) . To be honest , effusive expressions of religious sentiment make me feel uncomfortable , so I decided not to include those three particular poems in this compilation .

As mentioned above , SHS was an expert horticulturalist , maintaining several backyard gardens at a considerable expense of funds and labour . The three rather long and technical essays in the booklet about her gardens have also been omitted from this web page . Two of these essays appeared in professional horticultural publications , The Home Garden and the Journal of the Scottish Rock Garden . I must admit to have been somewhat overwhelmed by the taxonomic descriptions of all the plants and flowers !

Her encyclopedic knowledge of plants reminds me of an amusing story . In the late 1960s , as a college student , I was working one summer for a mining company here in the Eastern Townships of Quebec . We were doing a geophysical and geochemical survey in the Stoke Range northeast of the town of East Angus . One of the members of the exploration team who came from this remote , sparsely-populated rural region told me of an old woman who lived in a cabin in the hills . She was an herbalist , and was famous in the district for her potions ; the local people called her the “Witch of Stoke”. One of her medications , an ointment for healing wounds prepared from the sap of poplar trees , was supposedly called “barmagillia”. I thought my grandmother might be interested in it , and I mentioned it to her . She gave me a penetrating , thoughtful look , and said , “It must be Balm of Gilead”. Turning to a reference book immediately at hand – there were shelves of books in almost every room of her house , except the bathrooms and basement – she confirmed this as fact .

So in the end , there are the icicles . For me , these are emblematic of mid-winter , as they can form only with the return of warmth in the sunlight at that time . More than anything else they are a symbol of hope , of the steadily approaching springtime . When I was younger I associated icicles and warm sunshine with the maple syrup season in the Eastern Townships . There were the “sugaring off” parties out in the maple woods , the slightly sweet sap in the galvanized steel buckets , the smell of smoke from the vats of hot syrup , the muddy road in the sugar-bush , the rushing of cold , dark water in the thawing brooks . We can only endure the dark , cold , harsh first half of winter . The warming , brightening , melting second half of the season is the part of it in which we can take pleasure and enjoyment . “Sun on Icicles” will always remain a sentimental part of my celebration of Midwinter Day and the second better half of winter .

When I was researching my grandmother's biography from family genealogical records I was unable to find a newspaper obituary for her . Let this web page , then , be the informal obituary and public remembrance for Sydney Hazel Steele .

 

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