The Oranges of Peristroika, episode 2


Moscow station. Moscow station, I kept thinking It wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before. It was beyond anything I’d ever imagined. A maelstrom of people
Ivan had said, “Stay right behind me. Don’t lose sight of me.” Then we’d plunged into a turbulence of bodies and suitcases and boxes tied with rope. The noise was overwhelming. Afghanistan was not finished then and not since my childhood had I seen so many soldiers. I’d been born the year W.W.II started. There’d been an air base two mile south of town where they were trailing plots for the Battle of Britain so I’d grown up with all these men in uniform being around. But it hadn’t been like this. I was shocked by how young the soldiers were. Some still had the smooth faces of children, the gangly, disjointed bodies of adolescence.
The station seemed filled with darkness. The dark, heavy coats, the dark chapkas, the dark shoes. Here and there a red babushka glowed like a poppy in a dark field. Then all of a sudden there were the oranges, a pyramid of colour, crates of Egyptian oranges piled high. At home I took oranges for granted, stuffing a few into a plastic bag, without thinking about it. But here they glowed a bright as the golden domes of the cathedrals, brighter even, a mass of golden colour.
“Peristroika,” Ivan said. “Before it was the black market, now it is being a good citizen.”
“They don’t work for the government?”
Ivan shook his head. “Free enterprise. The new capitalists.”
“Stay here,” Ivan said, dropping his luggage beside a wall. Then he disappeared, swallowed up in the fierce current of bodies. All around the pile of oranges people eddied. Soldiers bought one or two before hurrying off to their trains. Ivan suddenly reappeared, a paper bag in his hand. He grabbed  his suitcase and said, “Come, come, we have to hurry!”
Frightened at the thought of being left behind or of losing sight of Ivan’s small, round figure, I rushed after him, pushing through the crowd until we came out on a train platform.
There, we paused, put down our bags for a moment’s rest. It was like something out of a movie, I thought. It was night and everywhere, Red Army uniforms, soldiers climbing onto trains, civilians lining up to get onto the cars, the platform in constant turmoil, and then two women went by, red arm bands on their coats.
“Who are they?” I asked and Ivan wrinkled his face in distaste.
“Nobody anymore. Pretty soon over.” He cut the air with his hand to signify finality. “Busybodies checking on everybody else’s business. Nothing better to do.”
The compartment was nicer than I expected. There was a single bed on each side with a table in the Centre against the wall under the widow. I hadn’t slept since leaving Canada and now, overwhelmed with tiredness, I took off my shoes and lay down. My body ached as if I’d been beaten. The shock of the day was still with me. St. Basil’s with its expression of Christianity beyond my understanding. The Kremlin with its high red walls. The eternal flame and its piles of fresh flowers.
The train jerked. Then jerked again and there was the sound of metal on metal and then the slow forward motion and tired as I was I had to look out the window. I didn’t want to miss anything. I sat at the table. Ivan opened a bottle of soda water. I’ll have to remember that, I thought, the bottle opener is under the table.
By the time we reached the outskirts of Moscow, the night had deepened and the brilliant white snow was now purple and gold. The stained buildings had given way to stretches of fresh snow and dachas surrounded by picket fences and scatterings of trees and empty, unused roads. The conductress had knocked and brought tea in glasses held with metal holders. The tea was strong and served with large hard lumps of sugar and biscuits. She had been stunningly beautiful, the way I knew Russian women could be, with blonde curly hair to her shoulders, a wedge blue cap on her head, a peasant blouse, a blue skirt and leather boots.
I wished I could say something to her, something in Russian, something kind and not stupid. Like most North Americans though I was trapped in English by my arrogance and all I knew was da and nyet and possibe and chapka and chi. so I said possibe when she handed me my tea. Then, unable to think of anything else, I dug in my handbag and took out a box of Purdy’s chocolates and opened it and held it out and was delighted by her pleasure. When she took one, I urged her to take another After she was gone and we were sitting at the table, sipping tea, I thought nothing could be better than this, I’d never forget this, the Army officers in their uniforms, the sound of the train, the snow covered dachas, the tea, the beautiful conductress. When I woke in the morning, still in my clothes, with a blanket thrown over me, Ivan was saying, “William, wake up, wake up, we are at Kiev soon.”
We took a car to the hotel. When I was in my room, I started to say something and Ivan held up one finger to stop me. Then he turned on the television so it was quite loud and no one could hear what we were saying.
Just before he left, he took the paper bag out of his suitcase. In it were four oranges. One for his wife, one for his son, one for himself. He took out the fourth orange and gave it to me. I didn’t want to take it because I guessed at what it must have cost but I knew I couldn’t say no without it being misunderstood so I took it and kept it and didn’t eat it until three days later when I was sitting in the park with the statue of Taras Tschevchenko. I took a long time eating it, using my pen knife to make thin slices, eating all of it, even the slightly bitter rind.

The Ten Cent Christmas

When my aunt was a recently married bride (she was eighteen), she and her husband were very poor. They lived in a shanty. Jack was an ordinary airman in the airforce and the pay was not intended to support both him and a wife. However, my aunt was beautiful and he was dashing in his uniform and they, like many young couples, were full of hope. Love, they believed, could overcome all problems.

Their first Christmas all they had between them was ten cents. Mind you ten cents still meant something. You could buy something with ten cents. It was two third of a  haircut, for example. It was two thirds of a ticket to a movie. It was two ice cream cones. Still, it was just ten cents.

They set up a tree and decorated it with what they were able to make.

My aunt went to the butcher shop and she said to the butcher, “Can I get some hamburger for ten cents?”

And the butcher, who had known her all his life for this was a small town, Gimli, Manitoba, where nearly everyone was related by blood or marriage even though new interlopers like my uncle were appearing because an airbase was being built for the war effort in Europe, said, “Sure, Florence.” And he took her dime.

He went to the back, away from the counter and, when he returned, he gave her a package wrapped in brown waxed paper and tied with butcher’s string.

When she got home and opened the package, there was the hamburger and with it, short ribs and steak.

My aunt is in her eighties now and in a nursing home but she has never forgotten that Christmas. She’s told me about it many times over the years and I’m always happy to hear and re-hear it.  

Snowing in Moscow, episode 1


It was snowing in Moscow when I arrived. Big flakes, as big as my thumbnail. As we stood in the lamplight at Shermatyvo, waiting for our car, the flakes spiraled like endless  small birds through the pools of light. The women were wearing bulky coats and the men long cloth coats or heavy jackets. Although it was nearly the end of December, the winter clothes weren’t needed. The air was swarm, the way that only winter air can be, as if it were soft to the touch, and underfoot the snow was turning to slush so that I was glad I’d bought waterproof boots at Sears before I’d left.
“Taxi, you want a taxi,” a man said in heavily accented English.
“Good capitalists,” Ivan said, laughing and waving himaway. “They have a car and they want to make a few rubles. Gorbachev’s New Man.”
Our car arrived and once I was sitting down, I realized how tired I was. It was dark out so there wasn’t much to see, snow and darkened buildings and , sometimes, a high fence. It wasn’t the way I had imagined it. The idea surprised me because I hadn’t realized I’d expected anything.
“You’ve been traveling a long time?” Ivan asked.
“Twenty-four hours,” I answered, wondering if it were true, confused by the lack of sleep, the eleven hour time change, the shifting images of airports, the surprise I always feel at having arrived somewhere distant after a long trip.
“We’ll be at the hotel s shortly. You’ll sleep then.”
But I didn’t sleep. Instead, I spent the night alternating between lying on my bed and standing in the window, watching the street. For most of the night the street was empty, then a city crew appeared,, noisily scraping away the snow and sometime after that a woman unlocked the doors to the building opposite the hotel.  She went inside and a minute later a light went on and I could see that she was in some kind of office. Then, gradually, although it was still dark, people began to appear in two’s and three’s and enter the buildings. Lights began to go on here and there.
Standing there, in the window of the Hotel Moscva, I had a sense of deja vu and this time I knew it what it was that I’d experienced at the airport. Something about our standing outside Shermatyvo made me feel  if I were a child again, waiting at a bus stop in Winnipeg with my grandmother and now, I felt like a young man, standing at a window of the St. Alex Hotel. There was the same winter darkness, the same bulky, dark clothed figures scurrying through the cold, that same intensity of light from the windows. The hotel room with its high ceiling and the bathroom with its black and white tiles had something elegant and practical about it at the same time, the way CN hotels always made me feel.
At breakfast, I was disappointed by the samovar. I’d always thought they were filled with tea but discovered it contained only hot water. There was a buffet of cheese and bread and sliced meat and cold vegetables. I wasn’t hungry but I drank four cups of chi. I learned to say chi right away. It was my first Russian word. There were others I knew because they’d become English words. Words like czar and commissar but this one would always be special to me, the way the first word learned in a foreign place is always special.
“Today,” Ivan said, “you go sightseeing with Olga. Very good English.  Very pretty. You take car. You brought camera? You can take pictures anywhere. Ask anything. Glasnost is here.”
But the car didn’t arrive. Ivan sent me to shop in the Berioshka while he telephoned about the car. Outside, the snow had quit falling and the day was clear and cold. When Ivan found me among the marushkas, he was apologetic about the car but shrugged his shoulders signifying nothing could be done. Later, Olga apologized twice more. It told  her I was glad someone else had taken the car because it meant we could walk. The day was colder than the previous one and the freshly frozen ice crunching under our feet and our breath rising in plumes reminded me of being twenty in Winnipeg. There was the delicious feeling of being warm inside my clothes and walking beside a pretty woman to somewhere interesting.
On the way to the Kremlin I suddenly felt that strange disorientation, I sometimes feel when I encounter something totally unexpected in a foreign place. City crews were hanging snowmen and bunting and signs saying Happy New Year on the lamp standards. The streets were thick with people dressed in the same motley of  jogging suits and American parkas that you’d see in Regina or Edmonton. Waiting at a red light, I was overcome with black and white images I’d repeatedly seen on World At War. It was like I kept expecting bombed out buildings and people struggling through the snow, pulling the dead on sleighs.
We waited in line for a ticket to the Cathedrals. The domes were surrounded by scaffolding. The new gold leaf shimmered in the clear winter sky, filling the air with yellow light. Before I left Canada, one of my friends said, “Moscow is an Eastern city. There you will know you are not in the West.” but as I stood in line, looking at the multiple onion domes and crooked crosses, instead of everything seeming foreign and mysterious, it made me think of Winnipeg and small prairie towns.
There were a hundred people ahead of us waiting for tickets. We shuffled forward for half an hour before we reached the booth. It had three windows. Although it was a holiday and the city was filled with visitors two of the windows were shut. The one that was open was small, no more than a hand’s width and so low that everyone had to bow down to ask for tickets.
After seeing the glory of the cathedrals from the outside, the interiors were a disappointment. They felt closed in, cramped, heavy, more like caves for the dead than entrances to the Resurrection. I could imagine centuries of worshippers crowded together in their dark clothes, holding candles, hoping to get a glimpse of the icons which rose from floor to ceiling, barbaric, full of vanity and authority, promising everything which was unobtainable on earth.
“Here are icons,” Olga said. I could hardly have missed them. The paintings were in rows from floor to ceiling. “We are not religious but these are our heritage, our history, so we must preserve them.”
She said it with all the felling of a tape recorder. Intrigued, I began to watch her out of the corner of my eye, wondering it would be possible for an honest moment to emerge, when she might say something she had not repeated a thousand or ten thousand times before. I’d heard that voice in other places, wherever there were tourists. Tour guides on buses talked like this. Except when I was in Hamburg. In Hamburg it had been different. The guide, even after he’d been told, could not grasp that we were Canadians. He would be describing some  historical building,  his voice running in a worn groove and then, as if he’d had a short circuit in  his program, he’d suddenly and bitterly describe  how the area had been bombed by Americans and how women and children and old people had to sleep in the snow and rain. These accusations would appear suddenly and disappear as suddenly, nearly incoherent fragments of some nightmare world.
“Here are more icons,” Olga said as we rounded a pillar. “You are Christian. You must like icons.” There was a flicker of emotion in her voice. Concern, I thought. As if she were worried that I was not reacting correctly, that my interest had not been properly calculated.
I thought I might try to explain to her about Christians, about the difference between Catholic and Protestant, about Martin Luther and graven images, about the splintered and splintering Catholic church, about Jimmy Swaggert, about people who kiss snakes to get close to God, about a religion so full of permutations it can preach forgiveness and love and yet manifest itself as a bumper sticker imploring every passerby to kill a Commie for Christ. Instead, I followed her down the narrow stone steps and into the sunlight and was happy with the crowds of children, the clusters of tourists, the Russians on holiday and wondered as she led me to see Napoleon’s cannon what she would look like without her large coat and her chapka, what she would wear if it were a warm day in June. Ivan had said over breakfast that she was a single mother and now I wondered if she had a lover, if when she went home at night she spoke to him with anger or passion or fear or love, with something in her voice other than the practiced neutrality of memorization and then I remembered the stories about eight people sharing a two or three room apartment and wondered instead if this, then, showing me about the city, was not what she escaped from but what she escaped to.
After the debris of Napoleon’s defeat, we looked at the Czar’s bell and the czar’s cannon. The czar’s cannon had never been fired and his bell had never been lifted from the ground. They had been built too big to actually be used. Now, they were just curiosities, concrete examples of ambition gone mad.
Olga left me at the hotel but after lunch, she returned with the missing car. We rode out to a brown and white castle that looked like it had been made of iced chocolate cake. She told me it had been used to house ex-czarinas. The idea took me by surprise. It had never occurred to me that one had to do something with left over czarinas. In America the divorce and widowed wives of the rich and powerful married someone who could afford to keep them and faded into an obscurity broken only by scandal or death. Like the cathedrals, the neglected castle was surrounded by scaffolding.
“Are they planning on having more czarinas?” I joked, pointing at the repairs.
“Peristroika. For tourists to look at.”
“And glasnost?”
“We can say what we wish. There are demonstrations nearly every day on Red Square.”
She showed me Moscow University, then we went to the Lenin Hills Here, because of the view, we got out of the car. I asked about the ski jump. She told me how high it was, the amount of materials in it, how long it took to build, how fast the skiers traveled. I said, thinking that even for a guide she knew an exceptional number of facts, “Does you son use the ski jump?”
She turned sharply toward me and blurted out, like someone else had suggested the same thing before me, “Never, never, would I let him do this. It’s much too dangerous.”
The chauffeur had got out and was smoking a Canadian cigarette a little ways away. She glanced at him, then added, just in case he had overheard what she had said,“Of course, if he showed talent and, if he could bring honour to the Soviet Union and if he was needed, I wouldn’t keep him from doing what was best for the country.”

Craft Fairs

I know Christmas is coming because the craft fairs have started. As we get closer to December, there will be as many as two or three on a weekend. There’s the one at Sidney that’s held in the Sancha Hall. There’s stuff for sale you couldn’t imagine. There’s more earrings for sale than there are people in Sidney. There’s more earrings for sale than there are people on Vancouver Island. There are earrings made of old blue jean cloth, bottle caps, melted plastic, ribbon, rolled magazine pages, copper, silver, gold, sea shells, computer innards. There are earrings made of feathers and even laquered spaghetti. If every person in Sydney bought two pair, there’d still be a semi-trailer load of earrings left to send to Quebec as an apology for our being called British Columbia.
There’s Christmas wreaths made out of plastic bags, sea shells, the corks from wine bottles. There’s a forest of cedar wreaths. Some wreaths are made of intertwined willow and others from dried bull kelp. You can’t say people on Vancouver Island lack imagination.
 There’s jams and jellies. I always buy a jar of Oregon Grape. If I’ve been too lazy to pick blackberries, I buy a half dozen jars of blackberry jelly. There’s home made mustard pickles, bottles of vinegar with plants floating in them. The health department made them  take the bottles of salad dressing with garlic cloves off the tables. Garlic and oil can form botulism. There’s cookies that look like trees and snowflakes and Santa Clause.
There’s always a lot of knitting. Sweaters for kids and sweaters for women but never any sweaters for men. Sidney men don’t wear sweaters, I guess. Or maybe because Sidney’s a retirement town there aren’t that many men left and their wives knit them all the sweaters they need. I’ve thought of filing a complaint of systemic discrimination over the lack of men’s sweaters year after year. However, no one would sell me Oregon grape jelly if I did.
There’s a craft fair at one of the arenas but I won’t go there anymore. They charge too much to get in and they don’t even give you a credit against your first purchase. It’s a bit like having to pay to get into a department store. Besides, they mostly have pottery. If you’re a pottery mavin, it’s the place to go. You can get pottery for everything from spoon holders to garlic jars. The sellers are up scale. They wear white tailored blouses and ankle length skirts and have had their hair permed. They all have business cards with raised printing. If you went to their house for supper, they’d swirl their wine in their glass and sniff it before letting you have some.
The best craft sale I ever went to was at Shirley. Shirely is north of Sooke and before Jordan River. It is so small that if you turn your head to look at a cow or somebody’s goat, you’ll miss it. It’s really just a small municipal hall painted CNR red even though there are no trains on the west side of the Island. Some stubble jumper must have brought the paint with him after he sold the farm.
I’d been to Jordan River. Jordan River is bigger than Shirley. It has a restaurant, a take out, a dry sort where the logging company organizes the logs by size, a small park and four houses. A lot of surfers go there in the winter. I like to sit in my truck and watch them ride the waves. A lot of kayakers also surf the waves. There’s a whole flotilla some days. While I was up there one Sunday we got a real West Coast storm. On the way back, the road was covered in branches. A tree had fallen across the highway but someone with a chain saw had already cut a piece out of it. Around here, people carry things like chain saws in their truck. You never know when it might come in handy.
When I got to Shirely, I saw a sign was up and cars were parked outside so I stopped. When I went in, the hall was lit with candles. A tree had taken out the power line. There was a wonderful, quiet feeling to the soft light and shadows. The coffee tasted particularly good as I drifted from table to table. Everyone was talking to everyone else. I expect in Shirley most people know each other and talk to each other all the time. But there quite a few people like me, non-Shirleyites who’d dropped by, and they were all talking, too. People are like that when they are faced with natural disasters.
My all-time favorite, though, is the Sooke craft fair. I’d pass up a trip to Europe rather than miss going to Sooke in November. Sooke’s half-way, sort of, between Jordan River and Victoria. It used to be a tiny fishing village, logging town. Now, like most of the island, it’s filled up and spread out with stubble jumpers who’ve jumped across the mountains to grow roses or kill salmon after driving a combine for forty years.
The hall is the second most important building in town. The most important building is the Legion because its got bingo and cheap beer. The Sooke hall is about four times the size of the Shirley hall. It’s raised up so you have to  climb a steep set of steps. The last time I started up those steps, a very attractive woman in a long wine-coloured dress with a lace vest was standing at the top. She had shoulder length curly dark hair pulled back and tied with an elegant pink ribbon. She was wearing rubber boots with a red line around the bottom. She saw me looking at the boots. She had, she told me, two pair of socks inside them. White cotton socks, then wool fisherman’s socks over those.  Her table was in front of the door and there was a terrible draft.
There’s a double set of doors. In the space between them, there’s always a something interesting. One year it was two reindeer someone had made out of logs and tree branches. The sculptor used an axe instead of a carving knife but there was no mistaking what they were. One year there were snowmen made from sheets.
When I go inside, I always follow a plan. I don’t want to miss any of the tables so I start by going to the right, looking only at the objects along the walls. It doesn’t matter how interesting something might be, if it’s on an inside table, I ignore it. As I worked my way around the tables,  music students played pieces up on stage. There was an audience of moms and dads and uncles and aunts in front of the stage. They clapped at the end of every piece. Some of the dealers clapped, too. They were the ones who didn’t have any customers at the moment.
There’s more stuff for sale than at the Bay. And the Bay in Victoria is four stories and covers a city block. At least it seems that there’s more stuff in the hall. No refrigerators or freezers but a lot of small items you can cram onto a table. There’s bottles of home-made fragrance. There’s pot pouris. There’s bees wax candles and bees wax plaques to hang on the wall. There’s walking sticks cut from the local forest. There’s the blacksmith with iron work. There are carvings in cedar that are done by sandblasting. There’s always wooden toys. If you don’t see just what you want, the builder will make you a toy to order. At least he did for me last year. He even delivered it to my door. There are things you put in the freezer or microwave and then wrap around whatever part of you has got arthritic There’s always some Cowichan knit goods. The Cowichan are a native tribe knit sweaters and socks and mittens. The knitted goods are big and bulky and warm and good for wearing when you go digging for clams.
It takes me at least two hours to see everything. Some things I go back to look at twice. I did buy a matching baby blanket and cap for the grandchild of some friends. The pattern is so intricate the knitter couldn’t have made more than a dollar an hour.
I never go to the Sooke craft fair without stopping at Mom’s cafe. Mom’s is right across the street. It’s got booths and a juke box with lights. There’s a blackboard with the names of the specials. It’s mostly families at the tables. Unless you’ve got a friend with you or have spent all day cutting down trees don’t order the roast beef dinner. It comes on a platter. The platter is filled to the edges. When you go to Mom’s you go to eat, not have your plate decorated with food art.
I used t think that craft fairs were all about buying and selling things. And they are, sort of. But there’s not much profit in them. Craft fairs around here are more about sharing something you’ve made. There’s a lot of pride in the items set out on the tables. Some people start right after  New Years, knitting or sewing or carving, getting ready for next season. Everything is reasonably priced. When I buy an item, it’s not the five or ten or twenty dollar bill that makes people’s eyes shine. It’s my thinking enough of something they’ve made with their own hands that matters. That’s what sends them back to the workshop to build something they’re out of and deliver it to my door days before Christmas even though it’s only a ten dollar item.

good days remembered


There’s longing and then there’s longing. I don’t mean Romeo and Juliet type longing. I mean longing longing. The kind that drives you out of the house on a rainy evening fifteen minutes before the grocery store closes. You drive there hoping that the doors will be open, race inside and grab a box of brownie mix from the shelf. That’s longing. I can’t think of a smile I’d walk a million miles for but for Namaste Brownie Mix brownie mix I’d drive six blocks at nine-forty-five on an ugly night.

That’s what it was like one Thursday many years ago. I’m not sure what caused me to think about it. The mention of a girlfriend’s mother who approved of me (not something that happened a lot) and showed her approval by making brownies every time I came over. Or maybe it just was because it was the same kind of day. It had rained all weekend. Not drizzled, like it usually does, but rained. Prairie type rain. The kind that makes you feel wet and chilled right through your GoreTex. It was that kind of day when the doorbell rang and my grandson with his lopsided grin and his jacket undone, said, “Hi, Grandpa. We’ve come to visit.”

His Mom and his baby sister were right behind him. After the kids got their jackets and boots off, they hunted up their Uncle and Aunt who were just getting out of bed. Sean got permission to use his uncle’s computer and Rebecca, after showing us her two toy dogs that mercifully had lost their ability to bark since the batteries had died, demanded we draw her mommies and daddy’s and babies. Her aunt, wise in the way of kids, found an old catalogue and cut out paper dolls. While their Mom and Dad were away playing soccer and golf, Kristin and Sean played FISH. Rebecca spread her cut outs over the kitchen table, creating and uncreating families. Then the grandkid’s parents turned up and we had the Shepherd’s pie I’d baked the night before.

Days like that are still memorable decades later. Not for anything special or unique but because the rain beats on the windows while we’re warm and comfortable. Because we’re together and have nothing that has to be talked about nor anything that can’t be talked about. Because there’s a four year old and a two year old who climb from one lap to the other, drawing our attention to toys and paper and crayons, swapping pencils with us, asking for drawings of sheep and pigs and cats, slipping in and out of the room and our conversation. All that was needed was someone to have come in the door with a violin or an accordion and play a tune or two and we’d have had a caleigh. A penny whistle would have done but none of us is musical and no magical visitor appeared, shaking raindrops from his shoulders and starting a tune.

After everyone had left, the house was a shambles, stuffed tigers and crayons and coloring books and cards spread about in a kind of happy chaos. That’s what me started thinking about my old girlfriend and her mother. She wasn’t a girlfriend, girlfriend, the serious sort. We went out a few times together then became friends, the kind of friends where there aren’t any complications from lust or jealousy. That meant I could keep eating brownies and arguing politics with her father. There’s a lot less rain than snow in Manitoba so it was mostly snowy Sundays that I and some of my friends would crowd through the door, take off our boots and spend the day arguing politics. It was a big family, seven kids if I remember correctly so organization was necessary and chaos was imminent. People came and joined the debate, shared the brownies.

Thanksgivings were crowded like that at my grandparents. They had a small house and big hearts. Lots of people, lots of talking, lots of laughter. My grandmother was a short, slight Irishwoman, with an Irish lilt to her voice and a quick welcome at the door. The earliest memory I have of visiting her was when I arrived at the back steps, probably brought into the city by some neighbor and dropped off. I said, “Here I are, Grandma.” It’s a line I’ve heard repeated many times. Hundreds of times I’ve come to that door, eventually bringing with me a wife and two children but each time I knocked, turned the handle and stepped into the stairwell, a faint, small voice always echoed “Here I are, Grandma.”

There were two major occasions in my grandparent’s lives. One was July 12 when my grandfather, a lifetime away from Ireland, would put on his Orange sash and march down Portage Ave. following the fifes and drums and King Billy on a white horse. It was an exercise in nostalgia for the Battle of the Boyne meant nothing in Canada where working class neighborhoods were a mixeture of Italians, Greeks, Scots, English and Scandinavians and there was every denomination of Protestant and Catholic. We went to hear the pipes, to see King William in his red coat and long wig, and to have my grandfather march by with a wave of his hand. We went for the train ride to the picnic, the egg sandwiches and the lemonade, the stories of Ireland with its green hills and soft rain.

The second holiday that really mattered was Christmas with its turkey and mashed potatoes and dressing and gravy and cranberry sauce. The food was good but it wasn’t that that made it Christmas. It was the getting there. The dressing up and having our hair brushed, the drive into the city, the carrying of gifts to the house, the excitement of arriving, my grandmother’s joyous cries and my grandfather’s quiet, satisfied smile, the smells and the sounds, the tiny living room crowded with a table and chairs, the sense that we were somehow doing this together, bound by blood and marriage and love.

Some people define an inheritance as how much money they receive upon a death. There’s never been much money in our family but there’s been many brownies, much spirited debate, many holiday meals, and many hearty welcomes. Money soon gets spent but the rainy day my grandchildren came to visit , I felt rich: I greeted my grandchildren at the door, I cooked for my family and we crowded around the kitchen table to swap stories and tell lies. We had such a good time that if there’d been even a penny whistle, we’d have had a caleigh.