Alzheimer’s and Kindness

Today, when I went to visit the nursing home where both my parents currently live, I discovered my mother in the doorway of her bathroom entangled in her nightgown. She was naked from the waist up and unable to find the appropriate holes for her head and arms.

“Help me,” she said but I don’t think she had any idea she was speaking to her son.

I’m not used to idea of finding my mother half-naked and confused, of having to help her with this simplest of tasks. Normally a nurse would magically appear to take over but today the hall is empty. I managed to straighten out the nightgown, to get her arms and head into the right places.

“Take off my pants,” she said and went and sat on the edge of her bed. I pulled of her shoes and slacks and pulled down her nightgown.

My father had appeared from his room. “This is crazy,” he said and turned and left. There are no double rooms so my parents, although t hey are married sixty-eight years, are living separately. Few couples come here. Nearly all the residents are women, widows who sit in lines close to the exit, wearing bracelets that lock the doors automatically if they try to leave.

My mother tried to pull back her blanket but couldn’t for along with Alzheimer’s she has macular degeneration and, therefore, only peripheral vision. I pulled back the blanket, helped her into bed where she curled up into a fetal position. I covered her and, although it was only three thirty in the afternoon, wished her good night.

This, for the young readers who believe no such fate could come their way, was a woman who was a credit union manager for twenty-two years, who sold insurance, who regularly braved northern winter roads to bring supplies to my father at his commercial fish camp.

My mother loves this nursing home, or loved it, when she was still aware. She wanted to come here and quickly joined in the activities. She looked forward to volunteering for folding face cloths. She enjoyed Friday night happy hours, the church services, the mind games, the physical exercises, the company of other women.

My father, on the other hand, hates it here. He came unwillingly, driven in by his inability to live alone or with anyone else. Before he came here his paranoid dementia brought him to my home half a continent away in Victoria, then after he became convinced that I had stolen his morphine pills, his money, was trying to poison him, had listening devices in all the walls, his paranoia drove him away. Unable to live on his own, he raged against having to move into a care facility. He refuses to participate. He goes into rants over the food. He particularly despises pasta.

He has good days and bad days. On the good days I have my father back, not the charming, amusing man most people, including me, remember but, at least a person who is rational and can talk knowledgeably about his great passion, the penny stock market. Most of the time he is angry. The morphine he has to take to control the pain from a shattered vertebra increases the paranoia but he can’t get by without it. It’s a fine balance. Enough drugs to control the pain but not too much that would mean he sleeps all the time.

There is a resident here who just celebrated his one hundred and fifth birthday. “I don’t want to be like that,” my father says. He is agitated. He is lying on his bed. He swings his legs over the side, picks up his cane, starts to stand up, lies down again. He repeats this motion over and over again, only occasionally standing up and walking as far as the door of his room, then back. “I want to die.”

“I want to die. I want to die.” I hear this refrain over and over again but he also wants to see the doctor every Friday when the doctor comes to visit.

Shortly after I arrived at the beginning of June, my father had a fall. The nursing home called and I immediately went there. There’d been a bed check at five a.m. At six forty-five he’d rung the emergency bell.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said. He’s a mess. His face is cut from his right eye to well down his cheek. His arm is broken. His hand is unrecognizable. It is a swollen lump like half a black cantelope. “I woke up and I was lying on the floor. I kept trying to get up and kept slipping. I thought it was water.” It wasn’t. He was slipping in his own blood.

He can stand more pain than any other person I’ve known. He once was on the road to his fish camp. He heard a car coming very fast on the gravel. He ran to the front of his car but before he could get any further a car came around the curve and rammed into the rear of his car, knocking him onto his back and driving his car over him. It ran up one leg and ended with a front tire on his chest. The driver and passenger thought he was dead. When they saw he wasn’t, they lifted the front end of the car off him. He

was paralyzed and couldn’t move. They put the car down, the driver lifted the front end and the passenger pulled him free. By the time help arrived, my father was sitting in his own vehicle and refused to go to the hospital. He did, however, go to the hospital three days later because of the pain. His leg looked like an overripe banana and had a crack in the bone.

No sissy, this guy.

They bandage his face and put a tensor bandage on his arm. He doesn’t complain. However, in the days to come, he is convinced that his injuries are the result of a beating. “I couldn’t have got hurt like that from falling out of bed,” he says, completely forgetting that he was found at the entrance to the washroom. The most likely cause was a TIA, a small stroke that often presages a larger one.

I come every day. I bring mr. big chocolate bars, jelly beans, licorice all sorts, bags of bulk cookies from SuperA. I’d bring gold and silver if it would help.

I nearly always bring Chico Bandito, my chihauhau because Chico loves to be patted and praised. For many here, a chance to pat a dog is the only opportunity to express physical affection. I’ve learned to say hello to everyone because while my parents have many visitors, some residents have none.

This morning, I picked up my aunt Florence and we drove to Selkirk to Gilbart’s funeral home. My parents want to be cremated. My mother wants her ashes buried in her mother’s grave. My father wants his ashes buried in my mother’s father’s grave. They’ve left clear instructions in their wills.

I’m a bit hesitant about preplanning. I don’t want to feel like I’m rushing my parents toward death. But we plan many things– marriages, pregnancies, christenings, educations–why not this? With the undertaker, I discuss the details of picking up bodies, of cremation,

of services then, with my aunt’s help, pick out two urns. A flowered one for my mother because the pattern reminds me of one of her favorite dresses. Seagulls on a blue background for my father because on his boat on Lake Winnipeg with blue sky above and blue water beneath, he always was happy. I think everything is done when I make out a cheque but I’ve forgotten my parents’ social insurance numbers. I promise to telephone with them as soon as I get home.

Later, when I’m back at the nursing home, I see a nurse bring my father his pills and, sitting

beside him on the bed while he takes them, rub his back and quietly tell him he’s doing just fine. My mother, awake for awhile, has had a good day because she participated in the face cloth folding where she can visit and still feel useful.

This is a place filled with tragedy but tragedy softened by kindness and compassion and, I realize, that those are two of the many things this place has taught me.

To change the world is impossible but to say hello, to lift a chihauhau into someone’s lap,

to accept my mother’s nakedness and help her dress, to hate my father’s paranoia but not my father, to take on the role of decision maker, these I can do to make the world a better place..

First published in Logberg-Heimskringla

Canada’s oldest ethnic newspaper

100-283 Portage Ave., Winnipeg, Manitoba R3B2B5


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.


Mr. Curtis has come and gone. You’d like him. He’s not a big talker. That’s not surprising for someone who works alone most of the time. He’s a brick layer. There are lots of brick layers and stone masons in Victoria. What’s sets Mr. Curtis apart is his willingness to take on small jobs, the kind of jobs that go with Heritage homes. Most of the people I first contacted wanted to work on big contracts, building all the chimneys in a new condominium or putting up a stone wall eight feet high by two blocks long. That’s what they do now. The developers, that is. Before they build a single unit for someone to live in, they put up a large board with a picture of the condos-to-be, then they build a wall, station a guard at the gate and sell security to retirees terrified of all the violence in New York and Detroit. A contract for a wall that surrounds a city block is worth a lot of money. Fixing my wall is only worth four hundred dollars. That’s twenty-five dollars an hour for two eight hour days.

I called Mr. Curtis because I’d had a beefy man in a plaid jacket come to my door to tell me that my chimney’s were in imminent danger of snuffing out my life and the life of my loved ones. They could, he said, waving me out the door and onto the lawn, where he pointed at them accusingly, collapse at that very moment, come crashing through the roof and crush anyone below. My wife, for example. I don’t have a wife but even if I did, I’m not sure that his argument was one that might make me reach for my wallet. I can think of some days when I did have a wife that his bit of information would have made me nod with satisfaction, go back into the house and hope for an earthquake. There was only one solution this rather flabby man with soft hands declared and that was to give him twenty-five hundred dollars. Then his men would swarm aloft and save me and my loved ones from certain death.

I’d never given much thought to chimneys. They’re a bit like wives or husbands, something that’s always around, but not something one thinks about all that much until there’s a disaster of some sort. Chimneys are not what immediately springs to mind when starting a conversation. Although, I have had conversations in which I’ve told people that in Iceland there are no chimneys. That’s because the homes are heated with hot water from the volcanoes. It’s not quite true that no houses have chimneys. Some of the older homes have chimneys. They predate the large hot water pipeline that brings a river of hot water from the volcanoes into Reykjavik.

I chased the doom sayer from the door. I didn’t really believe him anymore than I believe those people who come by occasionally to hand out pamphlets declaring that the end of the world is near and that I should repent and contribute all my worldly goods to their cause. I never give them anything because if the end is really near, they have absolutely no need of worldly goods. If the end isn’t near, then I need my own worldly goods. However, the contradiction seems lost on them. Yet, over the next few days I found myself glancing up at the chimneys. When you have a two story house with a steep roof, it’s hard to tell whether your chimneys are secretely plotting to fall on you. At night I found myself calculating whether a chimney, if it toppled in my direction, would reach the bed.

There was, also, of course, the possibility of an earthquake. In Victoria we have earthquakes every day. Not that you’ll find it mentioned in the tourist brochures. The island is split with a fault line. The result is waking up occasionally and thinking someone has run into the house with a truck. Other times I wake up to hear the furniture jiggling. One gets used it. One gets used to just about anything. When I first came here if someone said the earth moved, I assumed they were referring to Hemingway. Now, I assume there has been a tremblor that I’ve slept through.

I don’t really believe the island is going to split apart and disappear beneath the waves. Even so, I don’t hang any pictures over the beds. Three years ago I went to an earthquake preparedness course put on by the university and since then I’ve been meaning to put in an emergency water and food supply.The course, which lasted three hours, could be summed up by saying don’t let anything fall on you, there won’t be any help from off the island for at least seventy-two hours and don’t flush your toilet because the tank holds the only water you’re likely to have available.

After fretting for a week, I called Mr. Curtis. He was very reassuring.

“No,” he said, “the chimney won’t fall down. But it does need to be repaired.” He didn’t have the time right then. Life is filled with contradictions. There is massive unemployment on the island yet trades people are harder to book an appointment with than heart surgeons. He would return as soon as he had time. And he did. That’s when I started belieiving in miracles.

He explained that he’d have to charge five hundred and twenty-five for the one chimney. He didn’t want to talk about the second or third chimneys. “We’ll see how this one goes,” he said. “Then we’ll decide about the others. The reason for the price is I’ll need my brother-in-law to build a platform on the roof so I can stand.”

I was going away but, as he said, he didn’t need me there to supervise. I suspect he was just as happy I was going to be three thousand miles away. And sure enough, when I returned, I could tell just by looking from the ground that the chimney had been rebuilt and restuccoed. He did the second chimney, heaving scaffolding up to the upstairs deck, then dismantling it and heaving it down. For that chimney he wanted three and a quarter. The third chimney, he said, didn’t need anything done with it. He’s a man that doesn’t have to make work for himself by doing unnecessary jobs.

I don’t look skyward anymore but I know the chimneys are there in a way I didn’t know before. Solid and dependable, with good mortar and good caps on them, secure against the winter wind and rain. I wonder, though, what we’re going to do when the Mr. Curtis’s aren’t around anymore.

the mad shoppers

When my son left for California to take a Masters degree in Fine Arts, he left behind a garage full of sculptures and endless boxes of items he couldn’t take with him but wouldn’t throw out. There’s a universal rule when it comes to garage space: the amount of belongings necessary to fill it up will appear. The sculpture was one thing–well, half a dozen, actually, all angles and iron with sharp corners that tore clothing which came closer than six inches–but then my nephew arrived from Manitoba to go to horticultural school. He didn’t bring much with him. A stereo, a truck and a girlfriend. But then he started getting customers and the customers, trying to be good to him, gave him things. A lawn mower here, a light table there. There had to be some place to put it. So it went into the garage. Then there was the potting soil and the pots and the tarpaulins and after his mother turned up and took me and my credit card shopping, a pile of beat up furniture that was being replaced.

My nephew’s mother, my sister-in-law that is, is a terrifying shopper. She moved from a village on the edge of not much to the city and found her metier. It’s shopping. Of course, she had a mentor. My father was a shopper from hell. If given half a chance, he’d buy things out of other people’s shopping carts. Once, after he’d had a few drinks and was walking home, he met a man on a bicycle. In the basket were two baby goats–I’d say kids but most people nowadays know nothing about goats and would think I was talking about his children. The goat transporter was transporting his goats to Winnipeg Beach where he had a buyer. My father gave him five dollars for the goats. He proudly brought them home to show my mother. She was aghast. We lived in town, on a town lot and she’d never owned a pet, never mind goats. She sent him back to find the man on the bicycle. It cost him another five dollars to get the owner to take them back.

Once, he and my sister-in-law went shopping in Winnipeg without my mother. It was a dangerous situation. Their favourite haunt was a salvage company just off highway 59. You never knew what would be there. Whatever disaster might bring. Fire or flood. Train wrecks. Bankruptcies. Some weeks it was furniture. Another time groceries. This time it was paint. A dollar a gallon. There was an entire semi-trailer load. They were on the verge of buying it when my father remembered the goats and thought he should check with my mother first. There were no returns at the salvage yard.

“A dollar a gallon,” my father said to my mother when he got home. “Think of the price of paint. We’ll make a fortune. There’s a thousand gallons. We buy it at one dollar a gallon and sell it for…” His words faded away as he calculated a fortune. “Do you know what paint sells for nowadays?” he asked.

“No,” my mother said. She’s a woman who doesn’t mince words.

“Why not buy it?” he pleaded. “Why pass up an opportunity?”

She told me later she had visions of one thousand gallons of paint stacked in our backyard, slowing rusting away. My father is a great buyer but not much of a seller. He’s more inclined to hoard things. Like the papers in the basement. Boxes of them. Piles of them. Cupboards full of them. Waiting for the day when he might need something they contain. They’re not cross indexed, they’re not indexed, they’re not even organized by date.

My sister-in-law was out to beat him at his own game. She once saw a coat on sale at a really good price so she bought twelve. In different colors. One for each day of the week and five for special occasions. They hang on a rack beside the thirty-six plaid shirts she got for ninety-nine cents apiece.

Me, I’m the other way. I throw things out with abandon. Stuff comes in the front door and goes out the back door so fast that when my parents visit me, they sometimes have to rescue the daily paper from the recycling bin in order to read the news. I’m also a procrastinator when it comes to buying anything. I like to take my time thinking about a purchase. It once took me two years to pick out a suit.

My sister-in-law came to visit for a week and asked if I’d bought new furniture for my study. I said I was still thinking about it.

That was a year ago” she said. “Get your credit card.”

She dragged me through Standard Furniture, Office Depot, The Bay, Eaton’s, The Brick, the government salvage store then, when I thought we’d exhausted all the possibilities, barked out directions to Victoria Book and Stationary.

“Too expensive,” I said. “Going there is a waste of time.”

Six feet inside the door, before I’d had a chance to prove my point with one of their sticker prices, she’d confronted a sales clerk. The clerk snapped to attention. Sales clerks know real shoppers when they see one. Or smell one. Shoppers have a plastic, credit card smell about them that’s unmistakable to the trained nose.

“We’re moving,” the clerk said, “and all our staff’s furniture is on sale for half price.”

So there I was going from office to office, looking at furniture at which some hapless employee was working.

“Do you like that?” my sister-in-law said, pointing to a gray desk.

“I guess so,” I said.

“Good,” she said. “Guess so means he thinks it’s great. We’ll take it.”

We bought a corner desk, a matching filing cabinet, book shelves, a matching table, a longer matching table, a room divider. She harried the clerk into the warehouse where the clerk wheeled chairs past us at startling speed until we found one that matched.

Then we went to Standard Furniture where she made them show us every rattan couch on the premises. I bought one.

“My credit card’s run out,” I said when I saw her eyeing a chesterfield and chair. She didn’t approve of the three love seats I have in the living room, I bought them off some guys lawn for three hundred apiece. You sort of need to know where to sit on them to avoid the springs but other than that they’re okay.

“Next year,” she said as she snapped off delivery orders. “Single men,” she said as she gave me a disgusted look. “What a hopeless lot.”

The Trading Ships

It‘s 1872 and after a long, hard winter, isolated from neighbouring farms by wind, snow and sleet that come in howling storms, trapped inside with no heat but body heat from the other household members plus some heat from the cattle in their pens, it‘s time to ride to the coast to a Markaðr, the annual trip to trade goods with the Danish ships that have anchored off-shore, a trip that each way may take ten days.

The winter has been spent with everyone knitting and weaving on a fixed and standing loom. The good weavers wove three yards a day of wadmal, as the cloth is called. It comes in a variety of colors: grey, black, light blue, the russet brown of undyed wool, and sometimes white.

On the trip to the trading station, every rider had two horses so that the rider could change as the horses got tired. With them was also a string of pack horses loaded with supplies. In the packs would be woolen mittens, stockings, fine socks, ordinary wadmal jackets, fine wadmal jackets, wool, eiderdown, other bird feathers, tallow, butter, salted mutton and beef. There might even have been one or two fox skins and maybe some bird skins. Swan skins have become rare by this time, and command a high price.

Women rode side saddle to the harbour where the trading fair was held. Side-saddles were little more than chairs set sideways on a horse. The side-saddles gave the rider little control over the horse and women were at greater risk than men when fording rivers. The side-saddles used for this yearly event had unusually elaborate foot-boards, with backs of worked brass to display the farmer’s wealth and status.

As you get closer to the harbour, you can see other groups of horses and riders that are descending from the hills and, before you, groups of farmers and peasants have already gathered in clusters in front of the shore. The men greet each other with the traditional kiss, then study the ships.

You pitch your tents and begin by finding out what is being charged and paid by the Danish merchants. No cash changes hands. Everything is done by trading goods. The Danes control both the selling and buying prices.

The Sýslumaðr, in his gold-laced cap and uniform buttons struts about to keep order, because the drinking is heavy. The Sýslumaðr was similar to a sheriff. He was granted an area called Sýsla in which he was responsible for collecting tolls, taxes and fines, and upholding the law. The Danish merchants are free-handed with liquor before the bargaining begins so there is a party atmosphere to the gathering.

The men row out to the two Danish ships and scramble up the ladders. The women wear white head-kerchiefs over their usual black caps, and instead of shawls they cover their shoulders with short scarves that reach only to the waist. In spite of their bulky petticoats, they manage to climb the ladders and over the gunwales of the ships.

The ships have been constructed like a store. There´s a desk and a counter. Sometimes, the stores supply most of the Icelanders necessities—dry goods, clothes and caps, saddlery, wool carders, querns of basalt for grinding grain, horse shoes, and spinnning wheels; sugar, grain, tobacco, and especially rye spirits. Everything is needed: timber, salt, grain, coffee, spices. The timber consists of pine and fir, the forms are beams for roofing and framing, twenty-two to twenty-four feet long, one-inch boards for siding for houses, three-inch planks and finer woods for the cabinet maker. Salt is essential for salting both fish and meat and the only local salt that is available sometimes is called dirty salt because it comes from burning seaweed. There may be birch wood, sawn and split for fuel, but it is not for ordinary people. Only the Danish merchants can afford it. There are cereals – rye and wheat – that can be bought as grain, flour or already made into biscuits. The farmers prefer the grain because the flour is often mouldy or in poor condition. Buying grain means the laborious task of grinding it with a handmill but that is work for the servants. They can do that when they are not pounding hardfish with a stone hammer to ready it for eating. You will be buying a lower-quality rice in quantity, because, like most Icelanders, you like to make rice milk. In the years between 1864 and 1870, the amount of imported rice quintupled. The available spices are usually cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Twist tobacco is bought for chewing as well as smoking. The favorite form of tobacco is snuff.

The merchants have a large cargo of port, sherry, claret and champagne, rum and cognac, and even cherry brandy to trade with the better off farmers. Most such liquor is expensive and of poor quality. Sometimes, the traders bring so much liquor that they don’t have room for the supplies the Icelanders want and need. The brennivin, kornschnapps and rye spirits are cheap. The profits for the traders are high.

According to F. R. Burton, who attended one of these markets, there was considerable hard drinking and loud hymn singing at night.

When the trading and visiting are done, it is time to return to the farm. The horses’ pack saddles are set on pieces of turf to protect the horses from saddle sores. Each saddle has wooden pegs jutting from its sides, and wooden chests full of the traded goods are hung from the pegs. The trip will be slow because the packs often shift and have to be righted.

Although it is summer, traversing the quaking bogs, ravines and rivers may be made more difficult by rain, sleet and snow. The hæði and the river fords have holes filled with quicksand that horses sink into and have to be pulled out. Some rivers have ice rushing down from the glaciers.There is the occasional ferry. In most cases, it is a small rowboat that can only take people and their supplies. The horses have to be driven into the water to swim for the other bank. Some turn back and have to be caught and forced back into the river. Most of the time, though, there is no ferry and you have to follow a local guide across the least dangerous path.

But you‘ve been to visit the fair, boarded the trade ships, purchased at least some of the goods you need for the coming year, seen people you haven´t seen for twelve months, caught up on news. In the weeks ahead, there is shortening daylight, growing darkness, winter wind and rain and cold, but you‘ve been to the fair, been inside the ships and bought at least some of the things you’ll need to survive for another year.

(With notes and quotes from F.R. Burton, 1872)

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.

My Mother’s Cookbooks

There are six of them. One’s missing a cover. They’re all well-worn, tattered edges, split spines. Two of them are actual cook-books made by someone else. Gimli Gourment Recipes published by the Johnson Memorial Hospital Auxiliary is in pretty good shape. It’s still got its cover. The recipes are identified by women in the community who donated them. Pie Pastry by Joey Thordarson. Doughnuts by Mrs. A. Kasupski. There’s Lekuchen and Snickerdoodles. Jello Graham Wafer Cake and something called Broken Glass Dessert. It’s made with lemon, lime and cherry “jellow” (sic). There are a lot of hamburger recipes. But the Icelandic quality of Gimli is evident with Kyofa, an Icelandic Meat Loaf. There’s no date on the cookbook but you know there wasn’t much money around because there are a lot of jello recipes and casseroles. People still made their own pickles. There are recipes for Bread and Butter Pickles and Fourteen Day Pickles.

It is impossible to tell where the second published cookbook came from because its cover is long gone. The pages are well thumbed and a bit stained from the ingredients of many recipes. It, too, owes its contents to various housewives, although these come from farther afield. Raisin, Date, and Nut Pie has been contributed by Mrs. T. S. Arason from Cypress River, Man. Million Dollar Pickle is from Mrs. F. A. Finson of Port Arthur, Ont. There are a lot of pies and tarts. Vinegar tarts. Lemon cheese tarts. Coconut tarts. Puddings are important. Part way through the book there is a loose page of Household Hints. “When silver becomes dull” it says, “rub it with a piece of potato dipped in baking soda.” “When making mayonnaise and the white of the egg to the mixture after the vinegar is added. This will prevent curdling.” These were the precursors to Martha Stewart, TV and the Internet.

Here, there are pages of recipes for pickles, relishes and jams. With these recipes you can make Watermelon Rind Pickle or pickle cherries. With all this chopping, kneading boiling, baking there was still a few minutes for leisure because there is one page for making cocktails and cooling drinks.

This book provided all sorts of support to the new housewife. In a tine of little medical assistance and few medications, it provides pages dedicated to Invalid Cookery. It details the contents of a liquid diet, a soft solid diet, a light diet, a full diet. It explains how to make gruels, how to albumenize milk, to make junket, and beef tea. It reveals its heritage with two pages on how to make flatbrauð, mysuostur and pönnukökur. That’s flatbread, a whey cheese and crepes rolled hot with brown sugar. All Icelandic.

But it is not these books that interest me as much as the other four my mother made for herself. Many of the recipes are in her tidy hand. Others have been clipped and pasted into the pages with her notes beside them. Although her parents both came from Northern Ireland, there are no Irish recipes here. She married at sixteen into an Icelandic Canadian family and community and became so much part of the Icelandic tradition that she even learned to make Rosettes.

The first recipe in the book gives the recipe for rosettes: a cup of flour, a cup of milk, a pinch of salt, 2 eggs and a teaspoon of sugar. It explains how to mix the ingredients but in a separate note to one side it says to “Dip Rosette iron into hot fat to heat. Shake off surplus fat. Dip into batter, making sure no batter goes over the edge of the mold. Dip into fat and fry till Golden Brown. Then remove and place on brown paper.” These Rosettes when made properly have the shape of a rose are light, crunchy and usually topped with a dollop whipped cream and a dab of strawberry jam. The recipe floods me with memories of watching my mother holding what looked like a branding iron, making each rosette individually, while I and my brother waited away from the hot of hot fat, knowing that we’d each get one along with instructions to go outside and play.

The pages are nearly as soft as tissue. Many of the recipes are blurred from having water or milk dropped on them. The recipe for Chinese Chews, becomes more obscure as it goes down the page.

There’s a recipe for homemade Marshmallow, for Julia’s Perogies and Holopchi. The recipes are not organized as in a formal cookbook under categories. They follow one after the other as my mother discovered them.

In the three ring binder there is a recipe for Snowballs. I pity anyone who did not grow up; having Snowballs at Christmas. They were made weeks in advance and packed into small boxes and put away until guests came for Christmas. Sinfully rich, made of mashed potatoes, icing sugar, peppermint flavoring, Baker’s chocolate, corn starch, and coconut, they melted in your mouth.

My mother loved desserts. Her lemon pies were legendary. No guest could leave without having had a raisin tart or two. However, she made other things we clamored for. Many Sundays when she asked us what we wanted for supper, we said rabbit pie. Browned rabbit, baked with vegetables and gravy, sealed with a tender pie crust.

There is a recipe for pinwheel sandwiches. When my mother made these for special occasions, my brother and I would volunteer to help make round sandwiches in return for getting to eat the ends. The bread loaf was sliced lengthwise, spread with softened cheese, then rolled around a pickle so when the roll was sliced, the sandwich had a green centre and a spiral of yellow cheese.

There’s a recipe for stew and dumplings, a dish that filled the house and had us looking around the corner into the kitchen to see how soon it would be ready. It was a family meal, first just for us, then after married, for our families as well. And in her recipe books as we grew older there is evidence of our lives. My ex is enshrined with “Mary Anne’s Pancakes.” My son with “Val’s Waffles.” My brother’s teenage girlfriend is remembered with “Nina’s Icebox Cookies.”

There are recipes for puffed wheat cake and rice crispy cake. My mother made it in large pans. She kept sacks of puffed wheat under the cupboard. No matter how busy she was there was always time for making puffed wheat cake or rice crispy cake. She had a sweet tooth and it shows in her cook books. She passed that sweet tooth on to me. I have a love for cream puffs, calla lilies, vinarterta, and pies of all descriptions, including green tomato pie.

We all learned to cook. My mother was tolerant in the kitchen. It was a domain she was happy to share. My father cooked. His specialty was fresh water fish. I cook. My brother cooked. You can’t be around someone who enjoys cooking so much and not catch some of that enthusiasm.

The last hard covered scribbler stops part way through. There are blank pages but then I stumble on a recipe for pumpkin pie. There is nothing special about it. Not like my daughter’s ice cream Sunday pumpkin pie. It’s just a regular pumpkin pie recipe. But it is written with a black marker in large letters. My mother wrote it out, I realize, after she got macular degeneration. She could no longer read her usual recipes. In these large dark letters is her tragedy. Finding ways to be able to read, to be able to cook, for a little while longer before she had to stop altogether, then go into a nursing home.

It’s all there. A woman’s life. A family’s life. The memories. The people. The years when times were hard and hamburger and jello filled the pages and later, when times were better, there was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding recipes. It’s all there.

(A slightly different version appeared in Logberg-Heimskringla)

The Toronto Zoo

“I heard that the Toronto zoo might be closed down. How can you do that? It’s Canada’s most important zoo. It’s known for its conservation activities itsand interactive education.”

I phoned him because I love zoos. I think they’re one of the few ways we have of teaching respect for other species. They’re a bit of hope in a world where the number of endangered species increases every day. He’d picked up the phone because we’d been friends when we were young. We saw each other maybe once a year or so. I’d heard he was politically connected. Now he was a big shot, living in a house in Forest Hill, driving a car that cost about the same as my mortgage.

“It’s sitting on prime land,” he said. “Seven hundred and ten acres. Do you know what that would be worth to a developer?“

“What about the animals?” I asked.

He hesitated, cleared his throat and said, “You never heard this from me. Okay? I’m just an advisor.”

`”Okay,” I said.

“They’ve got to cut the budget. Everything has to be on the table. They`ve got to able to discuss every possibility. Interest payments are killing them.”

`”Sure,” I said.

“The first thought was sell off the animals, shut down the zoo, put the land up for sale. Simple, clean. Easy to understand but then my grandkids heard the idea and their class had just gone to the zoo. My granddaughter loves the monkeys and my grandson loves the lions.” There was a long pause. I could hear him shifting in his chair. “It`s gotta be user pay. Not you and me pay. User pay. Toronto has changed. Another suggestion is to increase revenue. There are high class restaurants that like serving exotic food. There are a lot of people who`ll pay big dollars for a rhino steak or lion chops.`”

`”I`ve heard of them,” I said.

“It`s no different than breeding cows or pigs or chickens. There`s even a big demand for snake. I don`t get it but some people are into snake soup. We`ve got the facilities. We`ve got the vets. We can supply zebra or water buffalo anywhere in the world. Butcher it, chop it up, package it. Onto a plane. My wife buys lamb from New Zealand. What`s the difference?”

`”I don`t know,” I said. And I didn`t. What`s the difference? There was a package of ground buffalo in my fridge. How’s a buffalo any different from a giraffe? “It just doesn’t seem right.”

“There’s no money,” he said. He sounded exasperated. “Nobody wants anything cut. Nobody wants more taxes. Let somebody else pay. We want, we want, we want. Like a bunch of little kids. It’s like my granddaughter. She wanted a new bike. She just got a new bike a couple of months ago. Her dad said he couldn’t afford it right now. She said, ‘Put it on your credit card.’ Eight years old. Don’t save for it. Don’t work for it. Put it on your credit card. What are we teaching kids today?’”

“It’s the best zoo in Canada.”

“Maybe we can’t afford to be the best in everything anymore. You want a cancer operation or you want to see the chimps? You want bus service or you want to look at a wart hog? You still out there on that island?”

“Yeah,” I admitted.

“You should’ve come to Toronto, used your brains to do some business, you’d be driving a Mercedes. You’d have been a neighbour. You got a better plan?”

“No,” I admitted. “But I haven’t been trying to come up with one.”

“Call me in a week. Give me a better plan than sell the animals, subdivide the land, sell it to the developers. Or find a way to cut operating costs and bring in revenue. No more somebody else pay. It pays for itself or it goes.”

There was a long pause. I could hear him breathing. Short, sharp, exasperated breaths. He was a heavy smoker, always exasperated, in a hurry. He didn’t have time to be retired. He’d be fidgeting with some papers, deciding whether to invest in some start-up company. Time was money. Friendship was fine for old time’s sake but talking to me wasn’t helping the bottom line.

“Toronto has changed,” he said. “It can’t afford to be number one on somebody else’s money. Like the Greeks. Like everybody. Put it on your credit card. The world has changed. Do you read the news out there? No more Santa Clause. Let Vancouver be number one. ” He took a long, deep breath then let it out slowly. “You didn’t hear it from me,” he said, then he hung up.

West Coast Icelanders

I was on Salt Spring Island the other day planing arbutus. My friend Richard was putting the planks through the planer and I was catching them and holding them even so they wouldn’t snipe.

If you haven’t lived on the West Coast, you probably don’t know what an arbutus is. . It doesn’t shed its leaves seasonally. Instead, it sheds its bark. The old bark is often deep red or purple and comes away in long strips. The new bark is a pale, yellow green, smooth, sensuous.

All around us are majestic firs with salal filling any open spaces. To my right the ground drops away in a tangle of deadfall, sea spray and cedar. Between the trees I can see Galiano Island, then in the far distance, the mountains of North Vancouver. Below us on the sharp falling ridges, the tangle of salal is so thick I can’t push my way through it. Before cutting down a tree, I have to hack an escape path in case the tree twists as it falls. Hacking through the salal isn’t without its risks. The ground is riddled with wasp nests. Twice now I’ve stepped on a nest. The wasps swarm out, yellow and black and angry. In places where trees have been removed, there are tangles of blackberry canes rising up to six feet or more. Large mounds of canes covered in sharp, curved thorns and delicious fruit. For those who haven’t seen them, picture black raspberries, but much larger than most raspberries. In blackberry season, it’s easy to tell who has been picking, because their arms are covered in long scratches and their hands are stained purple.

This is the world of the Icelanders who kept traveling West, from Kinmount, to Toronto, to Winnipeg, to the Pacific Coast. Some Icelanders came first to Winnipeg, then hearing of the West Coast continued on. There were those who chose the Coast as their first destination, however. Some came in the 1880s – enough that Victoria had a vibrant and viable Icelandic community with Sunday musicals and poetry readings. A recession drove many of those people to Point Roberts and to Boundary Bay in the USA.

This was a world as different from Manitoba as Manitoba was from Iceland.

Ben Sivertz was part of this world. Although his name doesn’t sound Icelandic, his father and mother both came from Iceland. After graduating from high school he was a seaman and ship’s officer in the Merchant Marine. He served in the Royal Canadian Navy and ran a school for navigation. He retired with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. I wouldn’t have known that he was awarded the Order of the British Empire if I hadn’t asked about a picture on the living room wall.

His obituary said that “he joined the Department of External Affairs in 1946 and moved to the Department of Northern Affairs in 1950. He served as Director of Northern Administration from 1957 until 1963 when he was appointed Commissioner. He was Commissioner of the NWT from 1963 to 1967. He came to the post after a career as a foreign service officer in the Department of External Affairs and Chief of the Arctic division in the Department of Northern Affairs.”

The arena in Hay River is named after Ben.

He was also the only person I’ve known who owned an original Van Gogh.

Ben took Mattie Gislasson and me on a walkabout in Fernwood. He pointed out each house in which Icelanders lived and named the families. He even showed us where there used to be an Icelandic store.

On our tour, I saw Ben’s pride in the Icelandic community, in his Icelandic roots, in the Icelanders who came to the edge of Canada to settle. He was ninety-three when we did that walkabout and when he used to walk two kilometers uphill on a Saturday morning from his retirement home to my place. We’d have a visit then at noon I’d drive him back to his retirement home so we could have lunch together.

True to his roots, before he died, he wrote three books, one about his mother, one about his father, and an autobiography.

Sitting in the truck on the way back to Swartz Bay, listening to the throb of the engine, the dark shapes of the islands slipping by, I thought of how different was the experience of the West Coast Icelanders from those who stayed in Gimli or Winnipeg, how they had adapted to this world of forests and mountains while keeping their identity as strong as did those who had stayed in Nýa Ísland.

(This essay first appeared in Lögberg-Heimskringla)