Old photographs

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

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

A Tablespoon of Love

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

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

Families and dementia

The first time he accused me of stealing from him, he was lying on his bed reading The Northern Miner. “You stole my credit union statement,” he said.

I thought he was joking. I had Power of Attorney and could look at his accounts at any time. I had no need or reason to steal his monthly statement. “That’s what happens with some sons,” he said bitterly and turned back to his paper.

I said, “I never stole your credit union statement. How would I steal it?”

“I went to the Credit Union and it wasn’t there.”

“Jack probably picked it up.” His brother Jack often picked up his statements or his mail for him.

“You stole it,” he said. I called his brother. Sure enough, he’d picked up the statement. He told my father he’d picked up the statement. He came over and handed him the state­ment. “It’s a copy,” my father said. “It’s not an original.”

Dementia sneaks up on people. Someone you’ve known all your life and con­sider their behaviour stable, predictable, slowly, gradually, begins to change. There’s no way to see that their brain is getting less oxygen. The dis­ease is invisible. There’s the forgetfulness, of course, but people mistake forgetfulness with dementia. If you forget your car keys, that’s forgetful­ness. If you forget what the car key is for, that’s dementia. But long before you forget what a car key is used for the dis­ease has begun to change your behaviour. And the people around you still think that you are the same person they’ve known all their lives.

I was so furious over my fa­ther’s accusing me of stealing his credit union statements that I called West Jet and changed my flight from a month later to the next day. For the first time in our lives, my father and I parted with anger and raised voices. When I got home I wrote to the family lawyer say­ing that I refused to continue as my parents’ power of attorney and executor. Both positions require absolute trust between the two parties.

A month later my Uncle Jack called and said my father and he wanted me to continue in both positions. It took a lot of persuading but, finally, I agreed. It was an agreement that I came to regret.

Power of Attorney. POA. Everyone needs to designate someone as their POA. Oth­erwise the government steps in and time and again that has turned into a nightmare as face­less civil servants take over as­sets, sell off belongings, decide what the individual may or may not have. And charge for it.

Years before the incident over the credit union statement my parents had announced over lunch that at two o’clock we were going to see the family lawyer and they wanted me to sign documents making me their power of attorney. Sure, I said, blithely, never having heard of Power of Attorney before. It never occurred to me that I should have insisted on showing the documents to my own law­yer and have her explain what was involved and what should be modified in the agreement to protect my interests.

As Power of Attorney I had the right, once my parents became incapable of manag­ing their affairs, of taking over their bank accounts, their in­vestments, their rental property, even their home. I could keep them from having access to their assets. My duty was to act for their benefit as they would act for themselves. Easier said than done since people in the early stages of dementia don’t believe there’s anything wrong with them. Even people in the later stages will protest that they’re quite capable of taking care of their affairs. When my father was in Betel and no lon­ger could remember how to use the telephone, he still insisted that he wanted to trade penny stocks on the Vancouver Ex­change. Who was going to tell him no. After all, they could rightly argue that he was just doing what he’d been doing for close to seventy years.

One of the common ele­ments of dementia is paranoia. That paranoia is usually fo­cused on someone close, some­one with authority. While other behaviour may continue to be, or appear to be, quite normal, the person with paranoia inter­prets everything that the person of authority does in a paranoid way. A friend of mine had a call from her mother saying that her father was behaving strangely. He’d stopped eating anything she cooked. My friend went over the next morning at break­fast time. Her father was sitting with a bowl of porridge in front of him. “Why aren’t you eating your porridge? “she asked. He shuffled and looked away from her. “Is there something wrong with the porridge?” He didn’t reply. “If you don’t want it, I’ll eat it. I haven’t had breakfast.” She took the porridge bowl and dipped in the spoon. “You’re not going to eat that”, he burst out. “Why not?” she replied. “Do you think Mom’s trying to poison you?” She ate a couple of spoonfuls. “Why would she want to poison you?” Sheep­ishly, he took back the bowl. He had believed that his wife of decades was trying to poison him. When my father came to stay with me, as a courtesy, I served him first, then myself. He was, after all, both my fa­ther and my guest. But then I noticed he didn’t drink his cof­fee until I’d taken a drink of mine. He didn’t start eating his bacon and eggs until I started to eat mine and that was when I remembered my friend’s expe­rience with her father.

It is a long, hard road filled with pain as one deals with a parent or spouse who begins to behave in ways that are hurtful and illogical. They are, after all, the same person one has dealt with for most if not an en­tire lifetime.

At first, the changes are often subtle and are misinterpreted.

After my mother went into Betel, my father called me and in a dramatic, passionate phone call worthy of a melodrama asked if he could come to live with me. What could have been a one sentence request, “Is it all right if I come and live with you?” became a half hour of begging, pleading, manipulating. At the end of the call, I said sure, fine, I’ve got everything all organized in case you wanted to come to live here. I flew to Gimli. We flew back to Victoria and on the flight he was his usual charming self, even in his eighties drawing the stewardesses to him with his ready smile, his compliments and anecdotes.

It started off well. People came to visit and he always loved an audience. But then things began to go awry. One day he said he was going to walk to the mall which is about five blocks away. He’s always loved window shopping. He could spend hours wandering in and out of stores. However, today was Thanksgiving and we were to go to my nephew’s for Thanksgiving supper. Sup­per time came and went and there was no sign of my father. I walked to the mall. I searched inside and outside the mall. I came home and called my nephew who lives in Sidney.

“Sean,” I said, “your grand­father is missing. I can’t find him. Can you come and help me search?”

He jumped in his truck and started for Victoria. He was half way here when his wife called him on his cell phone and said, “Grandpa phoned me. He is on the transit bus and he’s getting off at the highway bus stop. I’ve got to go. Come back. I’ll phone Uncle Billy.”

She threw the two kids into the van and raced to the high­way. She stood at the bus stop, spotted my father’s homburg on the bus and started waving wildly. He got off quite non­chalantly. This man who had lived in the country and in the wilderness, who had hardly ever been on a transit bus, had walked to the mall, had asked someone how to take a bus downtown, had asked someone downtown how to take a bus to Sidney, thirty miles away. As the bus approached Sidney, my father asked one of the passen­gers if he had a cell phone. The passenger did and called the number my father gave him.

By the time I arrived, Thanksgiving supper was over. I ate reheated turkey. My father sat on the couch as if nothing unusual had happened. When I said it was time to go, he re­plied that he was going to stay the night at his grandson’s. I pointed out that they had a small house and no spare bed­room. Reluctantly, he came back with me.

Things seemed stable for a few days but then my niece, whom he loved dearly, was to come for a visit. They had a very special relationship be­cause my father and mother had helped to bring up her and her brother after their father was killed in an industrial accident in northern Canada. My father talked repeatedly about the fact that Kim was coming to visit.

The day she was to arrive, he got all dressed up in his pearl grey suit. He started out the door when I said, “Don’t leave now. Kim will be here in fifteen minutes.”

I’m just going for a walk,” he replied. I expected that he would walk up the hill to the end of the street, then walk back. Kim arrived but there was no sign of my father. Sup­per time came. We went to the gate to look up our dead end street. We looked down the main street that ran by the house. While Kim stayed at the house in case he turned up, I went searching. Up and down the streets of the neighbour­hood. Back to the house. Over to the mall. It began to get dark; it started to rain and in despair, I called the Saanich police and asked them to put out an APB on him. I called the hospitals. Then all we could do was wait and hope.

An hour passed, then two. I kept going to the front door to look out. We were having a cup of tea when there was a knock on the door. To my re­lief there he was between two policemen. Except my relief didn’t last. One of the police­men wanted to know my name, my father’s name, our relation­ship, then he said, “Your father says you’ve stolen all his mon­ey and he’s come to Victoria to get it back.” That started a half hour interrogation.

Elder abuse is common in Victoria. There are a lot of elderly to be abused. There are lots of people prepared to abuse them. When the police were satisfied that my father’s money hadn’t been stolen – I offered to show them my POA and his credit union statements – they left but not before in­forming me that they’d found my father downtown at Eaton’s Centre with six hundred dol­lars in his hand. He hadn’t been picked up because of the APB. Eaton’s security had noticed that he was confused, saw the money and whisked him into a safe area. I went to the kitch­en table and started to have tea with my father and niece. There was a knock on the door. The previous police were from the Victoria force. Now there was a Saanich officer and a so­cial worker. I invited them in. My father sat silent as we went through the same routine once again. They, too, left. Once they were gone, I said to my father, “Why did you say I’d stolen your money.” He smiled and said, “I didn’t want to have to pay for a taxi.”

Living with a bachelor like me isn’t very interesting. My routine is pretty predictable and boring. Because of this I tried to take him somewhere every two or three days, not any place special, Home Hard­ware or WalMart, just some­where to give him a chance to get out of the house. The night I took him to Home Hardware, I should have begun to realize that something odd was going on. In the past, he’d have spent hours walking the aisles, look­ing at everything there was for sale. But this night there was no doing the man-thing look­ing at tools. He’d always loved to window shop. However, ev­ery time I went to search for something, he followed me and when I suggested he have a cup of coffee he only moved to follow me from a distance. It wasn’t until Halloween when the penny dropped. The Gov­ernor General’s residence was decorated with pumpkins lined along the driveway. The pump­kins were carved in the like­ness of famous people from all walks of life. There were Hollywood actors and cartoon characters, politicians. People came by the thousands to oooh and aw.

I told him we’d go to see them. I thought he’d be enter­tained. It would give us some­thing to talk about. When we left for the GG’s, it was night time and he didn’t know Vic­toria well even in daylight. At night it was a complete mys­tery. More than once, he said to me, “Where are we going?” He sounded nervous. I explained once again about the pumpkins. When we arrived there was no place to park so I dropped him off at the gate and told him to wait there for me

It took awhile to find an empty parking space and by the time I got back my father was shaking so hard he couldn’t stop. It was then I realized that he was afraid and what he was afraid of was that I was going to leave him and disappear. My heart sunk. All the evenings out I’d planned to keep him entertained had been a night­mare for him. Instead of amus­ing him, they’d terrified him. After his mother died when he was twelve, his father had taken him to the city to visit his aunt. She had no children and she’d offered to take my fa­ther since my grandfather was now left with four children. Except they never told my fa­ther what they’d planned. He thought they’d go for coffee, then return to Gimli. Instead, my father was left behind at his aunt’s. I wondered as I drove home about what was going on in his mind that he could mix me up with his father leaving him behind. He’d left Gimli on both occasions. He’d gone to the city on both occasions. But many decades had passed. Later, though, on a number of occasions, when asked who I was, he replied, “This is my father.” When asked by a psy­chiatric nurse what our rela­tionship was, he said, “He’s my father.”

I thought my heart would break when I realized that ev­erything I had done to make things better for him had made him afraid. That this man who risked his life time and again without a second thought as he fished on Lake Winnipeg, who would, his brother Jack said “rather fight than eat”, could be reduced to shaking fear be­cause he thought he might de­liberately be left behind was devastating.

This, no longer was my fa­ther. Some stranger had taken over his mind. Nothing I did could be or would be interpret­ed in a normal fashion. Every action would be seen through the terrifying lens of paranoia.

After a life time’s relationship with my father, I now was dealing with someone I no longer knew.


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.

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)