Archive for October, 2009

Reflections on a kitchen floor

October 31, 2009

The String Quartet K458 of Mozart ran sweeping melodies through Kay’s thoughts mingled with some odd memories.

Lizbet was arriving. The kitchen floor desperately needed cleaning. There were coffee spills, coin size, around the microwave and in the corner where she prepared food.  There was the spot where some drawing charcoal had spilled. She had cleaned up, more or less, but there was a circle of grey spanning the radius of her arm-length where she had wiped it. She’d gone on with her drawing and not gone back to finish the job.  She would not want Lizbet to see that.

Kay carefully lowered herself onto her achy knees and dipped the floor cloth in the lukewarm soapy water. She began her scrubbing, concentrating on the lines of faux-tile that caught the dirt. Who, she grumbled silently, would design a kitchen vinyl flooring with ridges to catch the dirt. It was diabolical. It must have been a man who had never cleaned a kitchen floor.

She wondered if her mother was looking down on her from Heaven. If so, she might have been chuckling that it was  Kay’s little hell on earth, to be scrubbing floors, albeit her own. She might have been doing a little bit of “I told you so-ing”.

Kay had always known that her mother had vicariously wished many things for Kay without really asking whether Kay had wanted them for herself. Some had worked out well – like the music lessons. No, Kay had not become the Concert pianist her mother had hoped. (Thank God, Kay prayed silently. The life of a Concert Pianist cannot be an easy one, travelling always to cities where one has no friends, where the hotel is as cold and unwelcoming as the last one in the last city); always being reviewed by critics, always having to be on show. But Kay loved her music and played the piano almost every day That had been a huge gift in her life.

Kay had been shocked when Heather had owned up that Mother’s dream life for Kay was Wife of a University President.  As Kay swabbed her cloth back and forth, rinsing from time to time,  wringing out the cloth and recommencing, Kay’s thoughts turned to how that possibility might be.

Instead of swiping this slightly grey floor, she might be sitting at an urn, pouring tea for Faculty Women, warm in a luxurious room with fine china and polished silver.  If there were no Tea in progress, perhaps she would be in tennis whites, swinging away at a ball in practice, or chatting up some academic wife, lobbing balls across the net. No, Kay thought. She had no regrets. She had led an interesting life.  Not an easy life, but interesting.

Mozart’s violins sang sweetly with a little waltz rhythm. Kay found herself swiping the floor in time with the tune. At least it was her own floor, she opined. She wasn’t earning her living scrubbing someone else’s floors on her knees.

The only way to get a floor really clean was to get up close and personal with it. Kay had no faith in the new mop technologies nor the old. The sponges fell apart far to fast and didn’t get into the corners well. When they needed rinsing, there were awkward motions and drips of accumulated grime that spilled on the floor. The new, well advertised Spiffies promised an easier task and a cleaner floor, but they were also a disposable technology which went against the grain of Kay’s environmental sympathies. One floor cleaning and throw away the offending dirt on a handy-dandy cloth, right into the garbage bin – if only one cloth per floor was the dosage. Kay had her doubts.

Floor cleaning is not mind-engaging work and her mind continued a conversation with her mother.

“I know you wanted the best for me,” she said in an acceding gesture of atonement, ” but had you no thought that I wanted something else for my?  After all, I told you clearly enough that I wanted to be an artist.”

That hadn’t been an acceptable occupation for a young upcoming woman. The family approved choices were clear. Get a degree. Marry a professional with ambition. Raise children to an even higher level of Academia. Shoot for the stars. Support his career until he became president. Run interference with any who might aspire to the same. Promote him in all his work. Hold teas. Do charitable work. Schmooze with faculty staff and wives. Play tennis and bridge.

It has been a terrible shock for Mother when Kay had gone Hippie. A shock to find her, run away from home,  living in an industrial district while finishing University. It was a shock when she had confessed to both smoking and inhaling. And when Kay had chosen her husband, well! That was the last straw.

Kay admitted that it hadn’t been a wise choice.  The marriage had not lasted long. But Kay did not like to dwell on those early days of independence.

What she could tot up on the good side of her experience was the teaching that eventually placed her in a prestigious Art school. She would never regret the years she had spent abroad studying in Europe nor the interesting things she had done thereafter.  She had come home fluently speaking another language.  When finally she had settled down, mid-life, to a continuous job, she had risen in the ranks and taken on responsibility, for which, finally, her mother had been proud.

Now here she was, retired and on creaky knees, swabbing the decks. By this time, Kay had reached the other door of the kitchen, all the floor looking uniformly the same colour.  Perhaps it’s only uniformly grey, she mused.

She backed out on all fours, found the nearby stairs to help her rise again, reflecting on this accomplishment too. It was only July when she had been unable to walk again, from back and knee injuries; so these knees, performing – maybe not to her will, exactly , but none the less performing – form and function, were something of a success as well.

It was a good life and it wasn’t over yet. Maybe, just someday maybe, Kay would get someone to come clean her floors and she could spend that afternoon going out to tea.

Day hijacking

October 26, 2009

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I had promised myself a time for drawing in the morning, and in fact, picked up my tray of most recently used chalk pastels from last spring, six months back at least, to draw something. Anything, really. Just something to get going with. I’m have been going through such an artist’s block that it’s no longer funny. I need to do something to get myself in gear.

I chose a cream coloured piece of Ingres paper to start with and since I didn’t have any expectations of a fine drawing in the end, I chose some scraps of chalk pastel to work with. I had lots of splinters and crumbles and short pieces of various reds.

I pressed these into the paper making incoherent marks, not knowing really where this was going, just looking for some inspiration, just wanting to exercise my experimental side of drawing.

Soon I had some flow. I overlaid the bits of red marks with charcoal, still trying to work freely. I hadn’t had breakfast yet and was getting hungry. I hadn’t even had my first cup of coffee, but I knew if I didn’t keep at it, I would abort and abandon the work.

Soon I was forming the charcoal layer into a heart shape. It’s one of my themes but I feared for this one because it was not being formed from some inner feeling; it was just starting as an exercise and perhaps would not achieve the substance that the other ones had done.

I didn’t like the white background and started to fill the outer edges with more dense reds.  Finally I got to a stopping point determined by my realization that if I continued on I would spoil what I had done which wasn’t too bad.  I’d have to look at it a while before I could either take another step towards another layer of chalk marks or decide that it was done and spray it with fixative. I left it up on the easel.

While I was preparing my first coffee, Mrs. Stepford’s doorbell rang. You might remember that Mr. Stepford, annoyed by my door knocker, decided to give me an electronic door bell for Christmas last year. He even installed it for me. The only glitch in the system is that their frequency is the same as mine, so when their doorbell rings, so does mine.  It might not have been important, except that in the time it takes someone to walk from their place to mine, mine rang.

I can tell the difference because, when their’s rings, it rings once. Mine rings twice.

I was fearing the worst – religious persuaders, newspaper promotions, some cocky sales agent of fixed energy payment equalization (this has been a nation wide scam since utilities deregulation). All I could see was a tall dark man’s shape through the machine lace of the front door curtain. I wished that I had gotten into the habit of at least putting the latch on the screen door.

I could see that he was wearing a tee shirt and a none too clean one, too; that ruled out the other people I was loath to see, since they usually came in inexpensive ill fitting black suits and carried clip boards or brief cases.

My fears were laid to rest when I opened the door. It was Daniel, our lawn maintenance man, all grubby from his hard labour, his open face smiling broadly.

“I’m back from Prince Edward Island,” he said. “Do you want your lawn cut?”

I looked out at my mossy green front yard. There was hardly any grass to cut. If you remember, I discovered a ninety percent ratio of moss to grass as I was pulling out dandelions by hand this summer. The moss was thriving now in this cooler wet weather. It had rained overnight and everything was still damp.

“You know, Dan, I’d rather have you prune the apple tree out front. Could you do that today instead?”

Dan started visibly calculating behind his serious blue eyes.

“Yeah. I could do that.  I guess I could. Mrs. Stepford is not home so I don’t know if she want’s hers done. I was planning on lawns. But no, I could do the apple tree. ” As a non sequitur, he added, “I brought you and Mrs. Stepford a gift from Prince Edward Island. It’s been frozen all this time. You don’t need to worry about that. I brought home thirty pounds of buffalo meat all packed up by a regular butcher. I don’t know what you do with it, cook it slow, I think. ”

“How sweet of you to think of us,” I said and he blushed, a little shy at my effusive thanks.

As he turned to go down the stairs to his truck, I mentally groaned that I had given away my drawing day. I might not return to it again today and then, who knows when?

For good or for ill, help or hindrance, I always work with Daniel when he comes for a tree trimming project. These are projects I can’t manage by myself – I’m not knowledgeable  about chain saws and I’ve been warned I’m klutz enough that I shouldn’t insist on learning. “You wouldn’t want to be missing a few fingers or toes, would you?” Frank had said.

Thus it was that my drawing day was hijacked; but when I got outside to point out what I wanted done, I was not one bit sorry. It was likely the last mild day of autumn.

The sun was working hard to reverse the effects of rain and some northern cold fronts that had  spent time in our corner of the world. The grass was still filled with dew even though it was near noon. Light filtered throught the red and orange leaves of the Japanese maple; the magnolia leaves were bright yellow gamboge.

Gamboge, Wikipedia tells me, ” is most often extracted by tapping resin from various species of evergreen trees of the family Guttiferae.  The trees must be at least ten years old before they extract the resin by making spiral incisions in the bark and by breaking off  leaves and shoots and letting the milky yellow resinous gum drip out. The first recorded use of gamboge as a color name in English was in 1634. ” It’s also one of my favorite yellow pigments in watercolour with its robust yellow tending to orange.

The magnolia leaves lay like a skirt below the lightly clad tree as if it were only dressed now in a flimsy petticoat.  The colours all about were magnificent. I started to pick up beautiful leaves, not only from the maple and the magnolia, but from the Dogwood and the various nut trees deposited from neighboring homes. I soon had to stop that, or I would have carried a bushel of them into my house to paint – the painting of which I was foregoing for this beautiful day of garden work outside. On the south side of the property, I could see into Mrs. Stepford’s yard. Her sumac was one solid block of vermillion. Against the brilliant grass green, the colours just popped!

Daniel, by this time, was sawing off low branches and water-shoots on the apple tree.  That didn’t take long. It was quite surprising how much he could clear out of the tree while still standing on the ground; but there was still a lot to be brought down. Agile like a twenty-year-old, he propped his chainsaw between lower branches, grabbed two sturdy limbs and climbed up in amongst them. He grabbed his saw with one hand and continued to climb until he was in the top of this overgrown tree. He proceeded to saw away unwanted growth, then to pull these free of the branch tangles and throw them down to the lawn.

I realized it was the first time years that I had seen someone climb a tree. I searched back. My first boyfriend and I used to climb the cherry tree in his back yard to collect fruit for his mom. That was the last that I climbed a tree. Before that, we had climbed the dogwood in the back yard on 36th Avenue before I was ten and had earned a ferocious scolding from mother who was fearful of us falling. When Jason had cut back the Bing cherry in my yard,  he had used a ladder.  There had been none of this balancing between branches nor the acrobatic extensions to reach out and saw.

Daniel stayed aloft while, from the ground,  I tried to guide him to cut the right branches at the right length so that in the end, we would have a nicely shaped tree. In the end, he had taken a good six feet of height from the tree and cleared out the crossing branches.

The long part of this project is loading up the branches for the yard-waste dump.  I began dragging the smaller branches to his pick-up truck and soon had if filled with  them. He brought the bigger ones.

Undaunted by his full truck, he continued to pile on more and more, occasionally leaping up into the mess of tangled  limbs and crushing them down with his feet until he had almost all the branches in the back. Such was the entanglement that they all held together when he drove off.

He left me to watch over his tools – the saw, a leaf blower, a rake, two large orange fuel containers looking much like pumpkins in this autumn landscape, and a large green garbage bin with a plastic lid that he used to pick up smaller debris.

I couldn’t make progress on the tree while he was gone, I couldn’t leave the yard and his worldly wealth of gardening equipment, so I took the secateurs and headed for my hapless vegetable garden. There I cut the little crown cabbage heads off  the top of each stem which, by doing so, supposedly promotes the growth of the Brussel sprouts  that are  burgeoning out of the stem at the point where each leaf starts. I picked the one lone bean still growing on the vine. I pulled out the blackened tomato plants that had succumbed to the last overnight frost as had the butternut squash that had flowered but never fruited.

I heaped up some soil around the fennel which apparently likes this cool weather, although, novice that I am in the vegetable gardening business, I don’t know when enough is enough.  In other words, I busied myself with little garden tasks until he returned.

We finished packing the truck, raked the leaves and rotten apples that had fallen in the process, cut back main trunks from two of the flowering shrubs and he loaded my six large bags of yard waste into the truck. I added the woody stems of fireweed from the garden beside the front door since they won’t rot easily and while I was there, cut a few glorious hydrangea heads all purples and pale blues for cut flowers in the house.

It was four o’clock when I came in from our labours. He had headed down to the yard-waste dump again. He was back in an hour for his pay cheque to which I added a frozen container of apple sauce made from that very same tree that we had trimmed.

I was happy to have had some split pea soup with ham already made up. I wasn’t about to cook myself dinner after all that work. I felt invigorated but tired too. All that fresh air. All that lovely autumn colour and sensation. It was worth having the drawing hijacked… There would be another day.


October 22, 2009

Everything was silent but for the indistinct dribble of water outside.

When the power had gone out, Kay had made an important discovery. She was just reaching into the refrigerator to find a bowl of soup that she had planned for lunch. The little light bulb flashed as if it had burnt out, but on consideration, all the lights were out and the time display on the microwave and the stove had gone blank. The whole house was out.

At the last outage, she had gone to Mrs. Stepford’s and they had waited out the return to light in a kitchen full of candles, chatting about neighbourhood friends then engaged in discussions into the meaning of art.

But Kay was hungry. If she couldn’t have her hot soup, what was there in the refrigerator? Nothing appealed. It was a cold day and only hot food would take the edge off of her feeling of chill. So Kay decided to try the stove. She depressed the knob and turned it. Gas began to hiss and  smell but the electrically activated lighter did not come on. In haste, she turned it off again.

She fumbled in the darkened cupboard and found the jar of matches, lit one and turned the knob again. A blue flame leapt up and licked at the little black ring from which it came. So! Now she could heat her soup and a cup of coffee. That was something to treasure.

In the distance, a phone rang. It was an old fashioned kind of ring. A trill. A chirping of an out-moded bird. But no! It truly was a phone.

In a second, Kay computed. It couldn’t be one of the new phones. They all needed electricity. The sound seemed to be coming from upstairs and she raced for it, counting the rings. At six rings, it still hadn’t kicked into the answering machine.  Iris was on the other end reminding her of a meeting.

“Will you be able to come?”

“I think so. The power is out here. I can’t check my calendar but I’ll call you back when the lights are back on and let you know. It’s amazing how we have come to depend entirely on our computers and technology now. ”

Kay told her about the gas stove and the phone.  “Thank goodness I’ve kept a bit of obsolete technology around.  These are powerful things to have in times of darkness.”  She reflected that, during the day, there was lots of light in the house, even thought the electricity was out and that was a blessing.

Kay returned to the kitchen to prepare her lunch.  She stood with the hot bowl of asparagus soup as she watched out the window.  Beads were forming on the clothes line and travelling down it slowly towards the house in big round droplets. Every once in a while, two crystal clear droplets would merge and fall to the grass below.

“An assembly line,” thought Kay. “An assembly line of rain drops. ”

The rain fell wouthout a slant. There was no wind. The lines of rain caught the little bit of light that traversed the cloud so that the yard appeared to have long  straight lines of uncooked spaghetti aiming towards the ground.

In the next yard, leaves still hung tenaciously to their branches. Few had turned yellow, but in the corner of her own yard, a sodden white hydrangea kowtowed to the earth in obeisance to the god of storm. The shrub had turned pink from the recent cold snap. Kay found it rather beautiful.

Two yards away, Kay could see her neighbour Tony standing, waiting in the doorway of his workshop, an independent little house that reminded Kay of a doll’s house. Did he think that the storm would abate in mere minutes? The rain drove into the lawn with a steady  force.

“Old bird,” Kay said out loud, “It’s good you kept that old phone.”

She finished her soup and went back to her chores, humming a tune in her head and admonishing herself, “you must get batteries for the radios; You must get batteries for the radios. You must. You must. You must.”

And then, there was nothing left to do. While there was natural light, there wasn’t sufficient to amuse herself with a puzzle or a book.  With the computer lacking power, she couldn’t work on that either.

If she were lucky, the stores would be in a different grid. She packed the car with bottles to return and headed out to the mall for a coffee with a book to read and then to the Art Gallery and then to Rose’s for a cup of tea.

It was five o’clock when the lights suddenly came back on and Kay was relieved that there was light for the long autumn night.

Another day in Paradise

October 12, 2009

I was walking in paradise again this week after a long absence from the Alouette Dike, partly because I was away on summer holiday and then in Vancouver looking after cats.

Birds are flocking prior to their migration south. It’s getting colder. Up by the big oak tree, I could see black birds arriving like dive bombers with a tic. They would flap their wings furiously for a half second then bring their wings close to their body and propel forward like a bullet. When the momentum failed the wings would start again flapping furiously.

With wings outstretched, a cape of scarlet red spread wide across the shoulders. In bullet form hurtling through space, the red could no longer be seen. So these flashes of scarlet kept coming on towards me and the tree, but of course, they were going so fast there was no hope of a photo.

These are red-winged blackbirds and we seldom see so many at one time. There are ones that live here all year long; but there are some that have summered up north and will winter down south. They stop by here to see their more (relatively) sedentary cousins, then go forth. It seemed like there were hundreds of them in that one tree plus the ones coming from afar to catch up with their local kin.

There is an excellent Wikipedia description of this bird and their habits, if you care to go looking. Just Google red winged black bird.

Our days have been sunny, but the temperature is dropping dramatically. It was 3 degrees above, Celcius, last night and tonight it may hit zero. There was hard frost in Burnaby but none here.  While the afternoon was pleasant at about 14 degrees, the evening became crisp and cold.  Knowing this would be so, I have brought in all my tomatoes from the garden with the exception of the “cherry” tomatoes that are hard and bright green, no trace of yellow.  They look like marbles that kids would play with.

In the back yard when I went out to the compost pile (which by the way is a haven for compost denizens these days with all the fruit peelings I’ve been contributing – nectarines, peaches, pears, quetches and the like) I heard a clamor in the trees that was unusual.

I don’t think I ever had seen so many robins flocking together at once. They are stocking up on food for the long flight south. All our fruiting trees were plentifully adorned this year and there is lots left to glean. Both in the cherry tree and in the mountain ash, there are fruits that have gone to alcohol. The dear little robins are a little cocky. They don’t fly away when I get closer to them. Some are a little less steady on the branch. Some are greedy, with little bunches of red berries hanging from their beaks as they ponder how they can have them and eat them too.

I savor these moments.

I remember mama when she could no longer hear the birds, and so I am always thankful for my still good hearing and my still good sight.

It is, over and above, the Canadian weekend for celebrating Thanksgiving. I went with a friend to Dorothy’s new-to-her house for dinner this evening. It was scrumptious and wonderful – ham, fennel in garlic and parsley butter, scalloped potatoes and Concord grape pie with ice cream for dessert. Dorothy had invited one of her friends too, so we had some riotous conversation that had us laughing merrily.

I’m especially thankful for friends and for family – Hugh, Ron,Lizbet, Heather and her husband. Here’s wishing that you, too, recognize the Paradise that we live in, whatever that may be for you, and enjoy it while it is here.

Happy Thanksgiving, to all.

Joys and Frustrations

October 2, 2009

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In late August, I went up to Shuswap Lake with Lizbet, Heather and my brother-in-law. It was a joyful time being with family, connecting, spending time together, painting, being in nature, but it was also a frustrating time.  I had many things to do at home which I had to drop. At the lake, I had nothing to do.

I had pulled a muscle or a tendon at the back of my knee and one at the front and I could not go on the lovely forest walks that I had trained all year to be able to enjoy.  I was walking with a cane.There were no flat places to walk except the beach and that was only sandy and walkable for the length of the property. After that, it became rocky and hard to traverse.

It forced me into finding amusement elsewhere as my siblings went swimming, boating, canoeing…

One of the things that I found most satisfactory was cooking. The other thing was painting down by the beach.

Both sisters dislike making meals and I rather enjoy it.  They volunteered me to make all meals and I accepted gladly. In fact, if they wanted me to make some meals, I insisted on making them all. Mine is a one-woman kitchen. When it’s not, I get easily frustrated because something I was counting on for dinner has disappeared as an afternoon snack, or used in the lunch offerings.  Okay, I admit.  I’m a Kitchen control freak.

Mrs. Stepford who was back home keeping an eye on my abandoned house from next door, had given me a great zucchini from her garden just as we were leaving.  By the by, it’s October and I’ve had one cucumber from my cucumber plant – all the other squash and gourd plants that I grew have produced nothing; but Mrs. Stepford has had a glorious harvest with vegetables of magnificent proportions – so much so that she has been giving her produce away.

I thought I might just share this recipe with you, especially because I found it visually delightful to make it.

I sliced the zucchini lengthwise in half and hollowed out the soft flesh where the seeds were forming. I had to use an 18 inch Pyrex pan because the zucchini was that long; and I placed the two halves hollow side up. A good tip is to use parchment paper on the bottom of the pan. It sure makes clean up a cinch.

I had two pounds of Roma tomatoes from the farmer’s market in Scotch Creek and diced them up along with some green pepper because if contrasts so nicely. Next I added some onions, also diced. Anything that was left over from this mixture would make a good start on a Greek salad.

I cooked up about as much lean ground hamburger as one would use to make a thick hamburger patty, separating it out as if to make a hash.   This was spiced with salt, pepper, parsley and basil while it was cooking.

In the hollow of the zucchini, I put the tomato, green pepper and onion mix until it filled the hollow to level. I loosened the ground beef mix from the frying pan with a bit of water just to make sure the brownings on the bottom came loose and were added into the mix. That’s what gives the mixture such good taste. This was spread evenly over the zucchini surface. (See the picture up above.)

On top of everything, I put a generous layer of grated Canadian old cheddar cheese, then popped it into the oven and let it cook for a half hour at 350 degrees Fahrenheit or until the Zucchini flesh was tender. If the cheese starts to brown too much, then a bit of tin foil will protect it from burning.

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I don’t think there was anything left when we finished dinner.  Mmmm. Good!