Old photographs

I dredged them out of the crawl space. Plastic yellow and red boxes filled with 35mm colour slides, strips of black and white film in brittle paper sheaths. They’d made many moves, Winnipeg to Riverton, to Snow Lake, to Pinawa, Manitoba, then off to Iowa and Missouri and, finally, to BC. Here, they’d moved to four different houses. The evidence of those towns and cities is all there, although some places spark no memories. Perhaps they were taken during a move but why did I take them? It’s a mystery.

I’ve had to relearn how to use a scanner, to master some new programs, although master is probably the wrong word since I’m struggling to understand some of the functions. I’ve managed to copy the slides and film onto the computer.
The first thing I’ve discovered is that even in their plastic boxes, the pictures are covered in dust. I’ve had to go to London Drugs to buy a lens brush. I’ll have to start all over again, cleaning slides and film strips before I make a final copy.
Dust or not, I’m reliving my life. Once again, my daughter is all dressed up in a pink dress, sitting in her high chair, reaching for the birthday cake her mother has made for her. In another picture she is sitting astride a kiddy car (at least that’s what I think we called it). It’s got bright red metal pedals, a wooden seat. She’s got on white shoes and white socks with her pink dress. I’m not sure she’ll be able to reach the pedals. She’ll grow into her gift.
But who gave her this locomotion, this childhood treasure? Did we buy it? Is it from her grandparents?  I’ll have to call my ex. She remembers everything. Like most men, I’m not good at details. She was at home, spending each day with our daughter, taking care of her, helping her, teaching her, making the world a good place for her. I was off every day teaching school.
That’s the problem with being young and having children. Young is a very busy time of life. Going to school, getting a job, working for advancement, buying a house, a car, furniture. We were fortunate because my wife was able to stay home. But I was learning to be a high school teacher and tutoring on the side.  
There’s another picture, earlier, taken from the back as our daughter is teaching herself to walk. She’s using the edge of the couch to help her pudgy little legs hold her up.
I remember that couch. All we had was a hundred and fifty dollars. Even in those days a hundred and fifty dollars wouldn’t buy much. A friend of a friend sent us to a factory that made furniture. That’s what I loved about Winnipeg. There was lots of manufacturing and if you couldn’t afford Eaton’s or The Bay, there was usually a connection that would get you through the door of a wholesale.
Even the wholesale didn’t have anything for a hundred and fifty dollars. But, the owner, seeing two broke kids in desperate need said, “You know what? Someone ordered a couch. They put on a down payment then didn’t want it. Custom made. One fifty and it’s yours.”
Green fake leather. Built for giants. It was the biggest couch I’d ever seen. We took it. We could seat the whole family on it. It was not built for moving but we moved frequently and we took it with us. What else can you do when you get a great Winnipeg bargain? Years later when we left for Iowa so I could go to graduate school, we didn’t haul it with us. I wonder what happened to it? I’ll have to ask my ex.
Each day, I send my son and daughter a picture from their past. My son wrote back and said he remembered the sandals he’s wearing at the cottage in Gimli. They were a bit too long and he kept stubbing his toes. He admires a flowered shirt that I’m wearing at the beach and says that he’d wear a shirt like that. In those days I wore nothing but flowered shirts. I’d forgotten. When we moved to BC, I adopted the local camouflage, plain shirt, tie, tweed jackets, wool slacks in winter, cotton in summer. I gave up my cavalry boots for shoes.
I go back time and again to the picture of my one year old daughter on her kiddie car. My heart aches as I look at her for with the picture comes the memory of picking her up, holding her, helping her learn to walk.
I would that I’d taken a thousand thousand pictures of her and her brother but I came from a family that hardly ever took pictures. We have to make do with these few small treasures.
When my daughter saw the picture of her one year old self in the high chair reaching for the birthday cake, she wrote back and asked, “Is that me?”  Yes, yes, that was you. It all seems quite magical, birth and growth and aging. All the people we have been. Yes, let me remind you of your younger self.
A busy time. Lesson plans. Grading papers. Tutoring to make extra money. Taking classes for a BEd. Writing. Writing. Trying to get published.
But there was time for a cake, for a birthday party, for presents, for a pretty dress, for a photograph. 
Thank God for that photograph.

A Tablespoon of Love

I love cooking.
I’m not talking about having one speciality such as barbecued steak that can be whipped up once a summer.

I’m talking about lamb shoulder chops, sweet potato, onions, carrots, a bit of broccoli stem, simmered together for an easy supper for visitors. My mother always said if you want the kids to hang around, feed them. It’s great advice. Noses get anchored to delicious aromas, stomachs anticipate satisfying food. 
I’m talking about the attraction of Trinidad curried chicken steeping overnight in coconut milk, soya sauce, chilli pepper, salt, then fried the next afternoon in turmeric and curry and, when the chicken is falling off the bone, setting it aside in a warm oven while cooking chunky green pepper, apple, onions, celery in the curry gravy, then putting everything together in a welter of tastes and smells. Ladled over steaming rice, served with side dishes of chopped fresh fruit, dried raisins, almonds, cashews, this is a dish that is part of family lore,  that is anticipated months in advance, that tantalizes the neighbourhood through the open windows. The windows are open, even in winter, because with a lot of people cooking, the kitchen heats up and fills with steam. This is a dish that requires a big plate with a nicely turned up edge to hold everything. What’s particularly good about it for feeding visitors is that it can be prepared the previous day. Beer, tea or yogurt drinks wash it down well.
For years I’ve made Trinidad curried chicken for Christmas Eve. Non-traditional food for the Eve and a traditional Christmas dinner at my daughter’s for the Day. My daughter and her husband are both good cooks. Their tables groans with turkey, sweet and white potatoes, gravy, vegetables of many kinds, condiments, stuffing,all followed by homemade pie, cookies, slices. However, there are empty places at the festive table now for my son in law’s parents are gone. My parents are gone. There are friends who used to join us who are no longer here. Yet, when we raise a glass or a fork, it is with happy memories from meals gone by.
We’ve all grown older. That affects both the cooking and the eating. When my daughter now says, “I’ve got three kinds of pie. What would you like?” we used to say, “Yes.” No one says “Yes” anymore to all three. There was a time when we could eat ice cream pumpkin pie, pecan pie and apple pie and never put on a pound.
My mother was a wonderful cook. My father was a good and inventive cook. When you grow up with people who love to cook, it is hard not to delight in the selecting, the preparation, the cooking, the serving of food.
My mother made lemon pie with love. When my father married her at the age of twenty, he said, “I’m going to have lemon pie every day.” He didn’t eat lemon pie every day but we ate it often, crisp, flaky crust, deep lemon, high meringue slightly toasted on top. When we were playing or working outdoors and it came close to coffee time and we could smell the lemon faintly on the air, we licked our lips in anticipation.
Love is as important to cooking as butter. You don’t find it listed in the recipe book because it is understood that good food requires love. Two tablespoons flour, one tablespoon butter, two tablespoons of love.
Love gives you a dozen raisin tarts with a crust that crumbles in your mouth. When you bite into the sweet richness what are you tasting but love?
Good family cooking ruined me, of course. I’m not just talking about my waist line. My doctor says eight pounds have to come off. It’s a struggle. However, good family cooking also ruined me for restaurants and prepared foods. I try restaurants but then sit there fiddling with a meal I wouldn’t serve or eat at home. I buy convenience food from the store freezer but seldom buy it twice. I don’t find it convenient to eat food that offers nothing but convenience.
We often talk about great meals we’ve shared. Less often, we talk about great meals we’ve prepared together. Yet, the choosing of the menu, the shopping, the preparation of the food, the cooking, done together creates a team, brings people together in a happy task, gives everyone a stake in the banquet set before usl.
Food isn’t just for eating. It is also one of the ties that bind family and friends.
During this holiday season, or any holiday season, give your children and grandchildren a gift that will serve them the rest of their lives. Get them to help in the kitchen. Give them a chance to say, “I cooked the broccoli.” Or, “I helped make the rice pudding. “ or the stuffing or salad.
Make helping in the kitchen it fun. Don’t worry about the mess.  Start kids with something simple and quick, something that they’ll want to eat. If you are making pastry, make sure you have some left over and let them roll it up with cinnamon and butter and brown sugar. Cut the roll into pieces and pop them into the oven on a cookie sheet. When the pastry is ready, share some with them with a glass of cold milk and find something to laugh about. Love and laughter go together.
Take them shopping to the grocery store, not for a humungous cart full of groceries, but for some of the amazing variety of Chinese vegetables you can find nowadays. Buy enough for a stir fry, then leave. If you don’t own a wok, go buy one. Get them to help you to discover what you should do with mo qua or daikon. Solve the mystery of bok choy. Make the mysterious familiar. Food is a mystery waiting to be revealed.
It wasn’t until I was married that I was introduced to the taste of kippers, green peppers and mangoes. I introduced my wife to pickerel cheeks with sweet and sour sauce, holopchi, skyr with strawberries.
Not all experiments work out. Keep some shepherd’s pie in the freezer. There’s nothing wrong with homemade shepherd’s pie and catsup. If nothing else, you can always whip up toasted cheese and bacon sandwiches served with fresh fruit.
This is Canada. Our neighbours and often our relatives by marriage come from the four corners of the earth. Ask them to make an ethnic dish. At one time, we had a Ukrainian neighbour. We started some festive meals with kutya (boiled wheat and honey) and ended with Icelandic vinarterta (a seven layer torte a prune filling). 

Playhouse

There was an old shack on the property when I bought this place. It sat on some bricks. It looked like it had been a kid’s playhouse at one time but in recent years had been used for storing gardening tools. I decided to turn it back into a playhouse now that that I had grandchildren. The first thing it needed was a roof. Without a roof, you’ve got nothing.

I thought about simply putting on some rolled asphalt sheets but the carriage house had a new cedar roof and I thought it would be nice if I did the playhouse roof the same. The first thing I did was pull off the old asphalt shingle. Underneath, the original plywood was riddled with dry rot. I pulled that off too and found myself with four walls and eight stringers, two of which had also succumbed to the rot. That’s the way, isn’t it? You think everything’s solid, immutable, going to last forever and then you take a piece off just to look and you find the whole things rotten to the core. Political parties, homes for orphans, marriages. No wonder a lot of people don’t look.

There doesn’t look too much to shingling. Think again. The first thing’s the shingles. Shingles are shingles, right? Wrong. There’s shakes and shingles and different grades of shingles. You’ve got to measure and calculate and decide how many bundles you want. I took my truck to the lumberyard and heaved in half a dozen bundles, then I gave them my credit card. It was going to be a thin month.

That all went well enough. But many large enterprises fail because someone got a detail wrong. That’s the way it was with the nails.

I’m old enough to remember when clerks got paid enough to live on and stayed on a job until they were an expert. If you didn’t know something about glass or putty or nails, you asked and the clerk told you what you needed to know. It was sort of like having a walking, talking encyclopedia at your beck and call. I went to the local franchise, it doesn’t matter which one, they’re all the same. I explained to the kid behind the desk that I would be putting cedar shingles on and needed shingle nails. He filled a bag for me and I paid at the desk.

The first thing you’ve got to do when you’re shingling a roof, is nail a row of shingles along the bottom edge. Then you nail another row over top, staggering to cover the gaps. Once that’s done, you nail a long board above this double set of shingles and but the next row up against it. As I nailed down the shingles, I kept splitting them. Some shingles started out six inches wide and ended up not much wider than a match. I tried a different hammer, then putting the nails into different places in the shingle. Nothing worked. I drove over to the lumber yard, not the home handyman place, but a real lumber yard where contractors go for supplies.

“Why’re you using roofing nails if your putting on shingles?” Made a difference. Roofing nails are thick, ridges, with big flat heads. Shingles nails are thin with small, barely discernible heads. The work went a little faster after that.

There’s something about this turning over the running of a business to sixteen year old that bugs the hell out of me. When I go to buy something I don’t just expect to pay for the product. I expect to pay to have someone who knows what he’s doing selling the product. But somewhere along the way, the bright lights of business figured out if you broke down all the tasks people do in stores, then you could give those tasks to any dolt and pay them minimum wage. Suddenly, the consumer is supposed to be an expert in everything from automobile parts to pant sizes. I’m surprised that given the use of computers on airlines that the pilots are old enough to shave.

This playhouse is turning into a major project. Since the roof was going to be new, I thought I’d put up white wallboard and paint it with brightly colored pictures. That’s what you get from watching too many of those carpentering is easy shows. I’m inclined to remember how easy it looks and forget that they have one million dollars worth of equipment to do any conceivable task while I have a hammer, a saw that needs sharpening and a drill that is so old you turn it by hand.

My son-in-law came to the rescue. He carpenters as a hobby. He can look at something with a slight squint, whip out a tape measure, make a bunch of pencil marks then cut lumber into pieces that all fit together and actually make something. The process amazes me. There is, somewhere in his head, a little section that sees in three D, that estimates and calculates, an organizes. That something, in spite of my having had a grandfather who was a carpenter, is missing in me.

Three years after we were married, when my wife was big with our second child, by big, I mean BIG–she was short, small boned and so far out in front that she had trouble keeping her balance–she decided that the kids were going to need bunk beds and since we couldn’t afford to buy them, she’d make them. We signed up for a evening course in carpentry. I was there are her camouflage. In those un-PC days, it was unheard of for women to take carpentry courses. There were ten men and her. And me. She came with plans for the bunk beds. I hadn’t the faintest idea of what I wanted to make. Instead, I practiced cutting perfectly good planks into smaller and smaller pieces. The night she went to use the rip saw, every man in the shop leaned forward, ready to pounce. There was her and her stomach and the blade and every guy there was terrified he was going to witness an instant cesarean. By the time the boards were cut, the guys wanted to run me through the rip saw.

At the end of the course, she had her bunk beds and I had a pile of sawdust. But that wasn’t surprising. I’d never had any desire to take woodworking since my experience in grade seven. There were those kids whose fathers were carpenters. They glued dark wood and light wood together ,then turned it on the lathe. They made exquisite lamps and ashtrays. I jammed my thumb into the lathe and the wood ground out a deep v that still causes me pain today when the weather turns cold.

I did finish shingling the roof. I even shingled the walls. My son-in-law studying the lines of the shingles said he could tell the job was done by someone who’s very creative.

The Best Days

(From my diary)

There will be no better days than today. There may be days as good. Days that are good but different. But today was as good as it gets.

My mother and father are visiting. They dithered until my sister-in-law, she-who-makes-decisions-instantly, bought them airplane tickets. I moved the firm guest mattress from the back bedroom to the front guest bedroom. My mother’s got asthma so I vacuumed. Then I dusted. My son and I went hunting for Anamed. It, we knew, was located somewhere in the decaying neighbourhoodsof Esquimalt. Esquimalt’s been around so long that some of the houses have a tilt. The navy base is there and the army was stationed there so there are a lot of white stucco box-like apartment blocks. It’s got a fine waterfront park and some elegant homes but it’s the closest thing Victoria has to a lower class neighbourhood. People here drink their beer out of a bottle instead of perrier out of a glass. The yards have large vegetable gardens rather than flower gardens. A row of rhubarb is lower class. A row of roses is middle class. A palm tree or two in a yard close to the water is upper class.

We had to ask directions at a couple of shops before we found Anamed. They rent out medical equipment. My mother needed a nebulizer. That’s a machine that asthmatics can use to help them breathe. We stocked up on groceries. We did all those things you do when you’re getting ready for the holidays.

My parent’s arrived. My mother started baking before she got her coat off. Raisin butter tarts, apple pie, lemon meringue pie. My father settled in front of channel fifty-two. He watches channel fifty-two with the sound off. That’s because it’s the stock market channel. All that happens all day long is that the stock trades on Montreal, Toronto, Alberta and Vancouver roll by. He brings Canadian Mines Handbook with him plus a suitcase of historical mining data.

I never used to watch the stock market. I knew a stock market existed. I’d seen the earliest one in Europe in Stockholm. But then we got the market channel and my father took up residence in the middle of living room surrounded by books and papers. Every so often, he yells, “Look at that. Look at ‘er move.” I go in to see letters and numbers scrolling by. A green line over the name of the stock means it’s up, blue means no change in price, red means it’s down. He never calls me when it’s blue or red so when I go in to see what he’s yelling about, I look for the green. CTP just went to a dollar! he shouts. Then he’s on the phone calling his broker to buy or sell. It’s much more exciting that football or hockey games once you know the rules and what to look for. Sometimes, I pull up a chair beside him and root for whatever penny stock he’s just bought.

Today was Sunday. There was no stock market. My mother wasn’t baking. She was waiting for my daughter-in-law to take h er shopping. There is an incredibly female bravery that all the males in the family admire but have no desire to emulate. My mother and daughter in law drove away serenely into the chaos of Xmas shopping at the malls.

Although there was a dry rain (dry rain for anyone living East of Hope is West Coast rain that is so light you can work or golf without getting more than damp), I started digging out three laurel stumps. God made all the trees except one. That was the Laurel. The Devil made that one. I dug out as much earth as I could, moved a dry rock wall (a dry rock wall has no mortar), then began hacking away with my axe. My father came to supervise and suggested I stop trying to beat the stumps to death. He went to the store and bought me a file. I sharpened the axe. It’s amazing what a difference it made. I got all three laurel out, then filled the hole back in and rebuilt the rock wall. Then I cleaned up the branches that were scattered all over the yard from the last wind storm.

That’s when my daughter and her family turned up. I went inside with them. I made Bill’s instant sandwiches. Bacon thrown into the microwave, bread into toaster, cheese sliced, a tomato diced, the whole thing assembled open-face and put for a minute under the broiler. In the midst of sandwiches and coffee, my daughter in law and mother turned up. My daughter in law, seeing us all, said, “I’ll go get Val.” Val’s my son. By the time they got back I had thawed two pounds of hamburger, fried it with onions and had rice cooking. The kitchen got more crowded as I opened two cans of Campbell’s tomato soup, two cans of kidney beans, two cans of tomatoes and dumped them into a pot with the onions and hamburger, dumped in six teaspoons of chili powder, two teaspoons of vinegar and left the pot to simmer. This is instant chili. I know there’s chili you cook for a week, chili you only make over an open fire of mesquite bushes. My chili is the chili you learn to make when you’re a single parent with starving teenagers. It’s ready in half an hour. It’s really good after an hour. It’s so good that I sometimes eat it for breakfast over the left over rice.

The kid’s drank orange pop, we drank coffee by the gallon, we solved all the world’s problems, we tried to solve the mystery of four puzzles I once bought at a craft fair and which have sat in the back of a closet gathering dust. We stimulated our appetite with raisin butter tarts. We finally all sat around the living room table and ate chili and rice from large bowls. When Sean climbed into his mother’s lap and Rebecca put both arms around her father’s arm and rested her head on him it was time to call it a day.

Somewhere this afternoon there was suffering. All around us there is unhappiness. Sometimes it enters our lives in little and big ways. But today is one of those times we have to shore up our defenses for when those unhappy times come.