By Gabrielle. Photos by Luke and Alexa.
Lisa Scott and I weren’t sure if she was the best fit for a Living With Kids tour, a Call It A Day recap, or a Growing A Family essay. She lives in a gorgeous home in Nova Scotia, leads an incredibly interesting life and built a shop as an Ethiopian advocate, and added kids to her life in an inspiring manner. Or two. So I thought about it and then suggested — which really means I asked with my fingers crossed — if she could show us around her home, tell us about her children and how they came to be hers, and also introduce us to her life’s work if she had a spare minute. Basically, I begged for a three-in-one feature! And, lucky for us, she agreed.
Her words are wonderful. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that her career has always landed in the helping professions, and this interview of hers is no exception. I’ve read it many times, and each time I think to myself, “This woman is a brave one.” And then I reach her ending and find myself in a tiny puddle. I sure hope you enjoy her as much as I do.
I met my husband Toby the first month at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I was not looking for love and either was he, but on such a small campus we kept bumping into each other, and he finally asked for my number. I was a bit standoffish in the beginning. The first time he called me, I told him I could not talk long as I was watching Oprah. He still asked me out, and the movie we went to see was The Commitments; fitting, as we have now been together 24 years. He really is my rock. From the outside I’m sure we could be seen as an opposites attract situation, but his loyalty and stability has been our life-line during challenging times we have faced as a family.
My husband and I remained students for a very long time as I completed my B.A. and he competed his PhD in Marine Ecology with a few intermittent surf trips to some great locations. This delayed our starting a family, but in 2002 the world changed with the arrival of my chubby baby Oskar with an enviable head of hair. What fun we have had with this guy. It’s such a cliché, but time does fly by. This July he turned thirteen, which was emotional for us as parents, but just another cake for him!
He is the type of kid who people in the community say, “I ran into Oskar and we had a great conversation.” That conversation could be about world travels, family, politics, or the rising price of groceries. He has the most wonderful mind. Always has. From the age of three to around six he would tell us “Don’t forget your imagination!” every time we left the house. At 13, that same creative mind uses my coffee grinder to grate kitty litter to form clay for his latest project. His abilities in the kitchen are a marvel and he is thrilled with a new subscription to Fine Cooking. All this creativity comes with a price: a big mess that is often left for me. We are working on it!
There are five years between my son and my eight-year-old daughter, Juniper. I had planned that my kids would be much closer, but I soon learned family planning does not quite work that way. In 2008, we travelled to Ethiopia to meet the person that would complete our family. Our daughter. This little lady is larger than life. She has affirmed for me that we all come into life with a temperament. Hers is very strong-willed, but with pure joy and love in her heart. This is a girl that knows what she likes, and when she likes it, she loves it. The most important part of her life right now is her friends. She is a loyal friend and is always thinking about the next play date. She came into our lives at one year old and it was immediately apparent that the two things that comforted her most were music and animals, and that remains. Although as a family we don’t have musical talent, she comes by it naturally. This past winter I took her back to Ethiopia to do some volunteer work. Not many seven year olds would have jumped into such extreme conditions without a flinch. Proud doesn’t come close to what I feel.
Lastly, I’m Lisa. I can ramble on about my family but come short on what to share about myself. I guess I would be best defined by my love of people! Nothing makes me happier than a gathering, and I believe whole-heartedly in the power of community and being an active member of it. Most of my career has been in the helping profession. Last year I left my job at the children’s hospital and I now run a business called Second Life Ethiopian Artisans that shares the work of Artisans in Ethiopia.
When we were looking for a home in 1999, we looked in the neighborhood of Halifax where my husband grew up and in which we had rented for eight years. It was depressing. The sky-high prices and the small homes motivated us to broaden our search.
My husband is an avid surfer, but I know that I am a city girl and could not live at the beach. Toby suggested we look at homes in Dartmouth. Dartmouth is across the bridge from Halifax and 20 minutes closer to most of Toby’s favorite breaks.
When we went to look at our house, we fought all the way across the bridge to Dartmouth. I made it clear I did not want to live in downtown Dartmouth; it was too far from Halifax! In fact, the house is a five-minute walk to the harbor ferry, which is only an eight-minute ride across. When we viewed our house, it was occupied by tenants and did not have a lot of furniture. We walked in and our jaws dropped. Needless to say I ate my words. The high ceiling, huge rooms, and most of all original detailing of this historic home were indeed a diamond in the rough! Our offer went in immediately!
We were aware we were buying a great house in a not-so-great neighborhood, but we were young and wanted to take the chance. A biker gang mostly occupied the house beside us. There was a house of ill repute across the street, and a drug house on the adjacent corner. Boy, were we naïve. The house is located right downtown, and at the time very few businesses were thriving and most of the homes were rented to people with lower incomes. The other residents, regardless of their walk of life, welcomed us in the neighborhood. The regulars would come by and see what new flowers were planted and to tell us stories of the previous owner who had lived in the house for several decades.
We are only the fifth owners of our house, built in 1888, and the first family to raise our children here. The original owner was a mercantile from New York City, followed by a doctor who lived and practiced in the home for 40 years, the Dean family, and in the end the Dean’s elderly son Garrett.
Some wonderful friendships were formed. In fact, one of the ladies who lived near by was an artist with very limited income. In 2002 when I had my son, she heard we had a rough time and left a card saying she had donated blood to the blood bank on our behalf. Every year forward, until she had to move, we would awake on Oskar’s birthday to our front sidewalk filled with the most amazing sidewalk chalk art. Although she had to move back across the bridge, we still keep in touch – the old fashioned way, by mail!
Buying in a not-so-thriving downtown allowed us to make other real estate investments in the community. We were taking a gamble that the future would be bright in this community. Fast forward to 2015 and we are still living in our diamond in the rough, and the along with the house, the community has blossomed. It is still a very affordable community, but values have really increased from when we bought. We have had several condos built near by, lots of businesses coming in and offering awesome eats and cool stores. We walk up the hill and through a large park called “The Commons” to get to school.
Both my kids are in the same school: a small elementary downstairs and the middle school upstairs. We are a ten-minute walk from Lake Banook – Dartmouth is also called the City of Lakes – where the kids have spent almost every day of every summer vacation paddling at our club. Five minutes down the street in the other direction is Halifax Harbor, the second largest natural harbor in the world. We feel pretty lucky that we live here. Our community and the people in it are special, but really I’m quite fond of the whole province.
We are the little provinces on the Atlantic Coast, one of four provinces called the Maritimes. Nova Scotia is just under a million people and the greater city of Halifax is at about 300,000. Most of the province is very rural. Fishing and farming communities, rich in culture and in history. Living in Atlantic Canada can mean some harsh weather conditions. This year we had our last major snow storm mid-April! Our summer is only about eight weeks of warm weather for swimming. The weather is a big topic of conversation here, but the saying goes, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes!”
I look forward to seeing how much more our community grows. I can’t do much about the weather, but I would love to see my immediate neighborhood keep its socio-economic diversity and to see our province retain the young people that go to the many universities in this city. We are getting there but we have room to grow!
When we first bought our home I was completely overwhelmed. It seems so mature and had so much history and I had never decorated a home. Our limited financial resources and the immediate need for them to be put into the mechanics of the home limited what we could do. I now see that we were given the gift of time. We got to know the house, and we got to know our tastes. It soon became apparent that we might not ever move from this house, so our renovation and decorating choices were made with the philosophy of do it once, and do it well.
My philosophy is to decorate with purpose. Either it needs to be functional, meaningful, or so beautiful I can’t live without it. We moved into a house with a lot of history, and we have been fortunate to have inherited a lot of artwork and some furniture that has family history. I want our house to reflect us and I feel the one thing that does that most is our family wall.
Our stairway has a huge wall and we have filled it with family snap shots, and we are really lucky to have two sets of portraits of family members four and five times removed. We tell the children they are being watched by all types of family!
Ethiopia is part of our soul and part of our home. As we travel back and forth, I have taken to trying to get to know and purchase from new artists. I love that part of Addis Ababa is hanging on our walls. There are so many meaningful treasures I have from our travels that I incorporate them into our daily living: kechene pottery, beautiful textiles, and woven household items.
When you are young, you think of all the things you want to do in life,. I have been lucky to do so many of the things I dreamed. I dreamed of motherhood, but I could have never imagined the path we took to it, or that it would be the single greatest challenge of my life and the truest joy in my soul.
After we were married we decided what would be would be, and that was Oskar. Never was there a pregnant woman so joyful, so excited, and so large. Lots of aspects of pregnancy are not fun or easy, but I marveled in them all.
My own mother died when I was 12 and so I did not have the stories of her pregnancies or the motherly support. I read every book I could and I was pretty sure I had it all in good hand. When the time came to deliver I was so excited. I felt prepared and I was going to be a mom. The lesson I learned was that despite carrying the baby and being the mother to this infant, I was at the mercy of so many people to help me. My nurse was my angel and as it turned out, my son had a very complicated delivery. His APGAR was 1 when he was finally born and stayed there for five minutes before shooting to eight. I met him when he was six hours old, in a recovery room where my husband had pushed his way into after my extensive surgery. It was a very complicated birth, one we are both lucky to have survived. However, we did survive and we thrived with the help of so many people.
The consultation after birth was that I could conceive, but I had to understand the risks of carrying another baby. We felt so blessed to have a healthy son and we had always wanted to adopt, so we opted to not take the chance with another pregnancy but to proceed with an adoption. Like pregnancy, I invested in learning everything I could about the process of adoption and the potential needs of our child. Heart and soul, we headed into a local adoption process that is administered by our government. The process was so frustrating. We had everything to offer, and were open to many situations, but it became clear that the politics of this process was flawed.
Three years into waiting for a child, our son was starting school and we were no further ahead. Around this time, my cousin, who lived in another province, was going through the process to adopt internationally. When I saw the referral picture of her daughter waiting for her in Ethiopia, I felt that perhaps we should pursue this. If it did not work, we would move forward as a family of three.
So many people have opinions on adoption, if it’s domestic or international, questions are routinely asked about motives for adoption and why we made choices we made. I could not have planned any of this. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, but every aspect of our adoption story is one of love for this baby girl, our daughter. Her story is private, but she knows her story and with every year she matures she will understand it in different ways.
The day we met our daughter in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, we were not much different than any other parent in the world. A small precious life was placed in our arms, and it was trusted that this child would thrive in love and support. Our daughter and her needs were very different than a child being placed at birth into their parents’ arms. I could write a book about the literal and figurative journey of bringing home a one year old from another culture, who had no reason to trust and had lost everything she knew. This time, all my reading did come in handy and we were completely committed to attachment adoption. We worked so very hard to earn the trust and love of this child.
To see her today, I can proudly boast we have done a darn good job. Like all parents, our journey continues.
When we adopted our daughter, I fell so deeply in love with her, but was overwhelmed and intrigued by her culture and the people of this country. We knew it was a huge responsibility to adopt a child from another culture – particularly a child whose color tells the world she is adopted. Because of these factors, the story of her adoption and her cultural roots are topics that flow in and out of our daily communication. It is just part of who we are, it is what is natural to us. There is no subtext; we are quite literal about all of it. When you share facts with a child in an age-appropriate context, they can usually digest it.
Ensuring my daughter knows her culture is vital to raising a strong independent woman. From the beginning, we made the commitment to return to her country every few years. The first trip I did alone. I felt as a mother I needed to work through my relationship with this culture, to understand it better in order to integrate it into my parenting.
I went with an amazing group called Canadian Humanitarian. They run centers that support orphans living with guardians. My role on the team was to do Grief Workshops for the guardians in the communities we visited. I used the resources of the hospital I worked at and provided the best information I could on helping kids cope with grief.
I am the mother of a child who was orphaned, and I am an orphaned child. When I stood in front of these women, it was intimidating, but when they found out that I too had lost a mother as a child, they embraced me and trusted me. My workshops grew into many one-on-one meetings. The stories from this work can be told, but they can never be felt like when you hear them face-to-face.
When I returned home, I processed the trip and I grieved hard, but this trip and the people I met cemented Ethiopia to me. My daughter was a little ticked that I had left her for three weeks, but I could tell she was proud. I would find this five year old with my phone watching videos. When she saw a video of me dancing, she told me, “Mom, these are my people – not your people!” One evening at supper she told me, “Ethiopians don’t eat beets.” And she asked that we just call her Ethiopian. I believe my experiencing her country without her made it a fact that we are all connected to Ethiopia.
This past March, just before her eighth birthday, I tool my daughter back to Ethiopia for three weeks. The first part of our trip was spent with the same humanitarian group, Canadian Humanitarian. This time we went into city slums to repair mud homes – Juniper and I entertained the kids while the men worked. We also brought portable puppet theaters made of PVC piping, and therapeutic puppets for each of the five Canadian Humanitarian Centers. We both helped the kids make sock puppets. At first they thought we were crazy, but once they saw the socks come to life they really got into it! We travelled to a rural community and no matter how long we went without water or electricity, Juniper never complained. She ran with the kids, taught them happy birthday songs and their ABCs and collected grasshoppers.
The last five days of our trip we spent meeting local weavers and artists for my business, Second Life Ethiopian Artisans. In 2013, I started this business as a way to integrate the Ethiopian culture into our daily life and home, and to do what I could to support the beauty of this country. Through visiting and developing relationships with artists and suppliers in Ethiopia, I have been able to bring affordable, high quality, and unique products to my customers. The company is called Second Life, as it is my daughter’s Amharic name translated to English. In addition, by supporting ethical craftsmanship in Ethiopia, we are giving the artist a chance at a better life. That translates to healthier families and more vibrant communities.
I truly believe in the power of one consumer providing opportunity for one artisan. Once that is multiplied, you have many consumers connected to not just the products, but also the well-being of an artisan on the other side of the world, an understanding of their culture, and a pride in what is created. The truth is, the business would not have started if I had not been so crazy about the weaving, jewelry, and art I came across while in Ethiopia. When I travel, I typically like to get to know local artists and their crafts. Weaving is a patriarchal trade in Ethiopia, with spinning being matriarchal. These skills have been passed for thousands of years and with some of the organizations I’m working with, these skills are being taught to individuals who otherwise would have been unemployable.
I found the quality of the products, combined with a fresh use of color and pattern, irresistible. The empty hockey bags that had been brought to the country filled with donations, were going home with items for my friends and family. It seemed only natural to take it one step further and create a more formal relationship with the artisans and allow the product to reach more people. We have grown steadily since our first shipment, and I look forward to developing a really solid business that reflects the brand of Ethiopia: a showcase for all that is authentic, vibrant, creative and strong in this country.
I feel like my kids might remember that I was cranking and constantly hounding them to do what’s right when they think back on this time in their lives, but I hope that they remember how present their parents were in their daily lives. One thing about a difficult journey to parenthood is you don’t take a thing for granted. We try really hard to have every aspect of our life be family-centered. We walk the kids to school each day, encourage their interests, we travel together and spend lots of time alone as a family at our cottage. We have really open communication and the kids know that any topic is open for discussion. I hope they look back and remember a really tight family unit.
You asked me what part of their childhood I already miss. Does anyone else mention this question makes them teary? Gosh, I think about the cribs and the toy boxes and the high chairs and sand boxes. The bathtub is a big one for me. You bring home this tiny little being that looks ridiculous in the tub and in a blink of an eye their chin is on their knees.
Seriously though, my favorite part of living in this house as a family is the sense of roots. I moved a lot as a kid, especially after my mom died, and I never felt I had roots. We moved into this home that has a history of people staying for decades. It’s the only home my kids have known and they have really deep roots here. I love that with these roots we have created our own traditions and identity.
I already miss the little people tucked into their beds at night. I will miss the silent kisses I sneak when they are asleep. I miss the dirty kitchen from my son’s awesome cooking experiments.
Now I’m actually crying, but I will miss this being our safe haven. It’s hard to think about letting them go into the world and find their own homes.
I wish someone had told me not to be so scared. Slow down, relax, enjoy the ride. I regret living with so much fear. I know it has stolen joy from experiences and it has also rubbed off on my husband and children. I’m anxious. I’m always worried someone will get hurt or die. I have had things happen in my life that let me know that yes it can happen to you, but I need to remind myself it likely won’t. I have let these worries grow into really big anxieties to the point in which I have needed help.
I wish I had been more reasonable, not caused so much stress for those around me. Instead of being anxious, I wish I had learned from my life that I can survive and I’m pretty darn strong.
Most people in my life likely don’t know I hold so much fear. In the last year I’ve made some good headway. I will never get through a day not worrying about my husband and kids, but instead of those being big worries, I’m working on them being fleeting moments. I want my kids to grow up without anxiety.
I need to set a good example.
Did your heart just break a little? I don’t know what it is about people sharing their struggles with the rest of us, but I find it so reassuring and healing and life-affirming all at once, don’t you? We are not in this alone. Lisa, your honesty helped a bunch of us today. I know this for sure. Thank you for sharing yourself with us.
This line is unforgettable to me: “I am the mother of a child who was orphaned, and I am an orphaned child.” So powerful. Lisa, I know you’re a trusted resource to the women and children you help.
P.S. – Are you living with your own kids in a unique way? Are you interested in sharing your home and experiences with us? Let me know! We love to be inspired! And it’s a lot of fun…I promise! Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.