Archive for the ‘aging’ Category

Jessie

February 22, 2012

Whistler phoned at four o’clock.

I looked at the call display and almost didn’t answer. I no longer picked up any out-of-province number, the latest political leadership race having inundated the social media – e-mail, twitter, Facebook, Linked-in and telephone, to name only the ones I am connected to. This one was a 250-200 number and, though there was something familiar about the last four digits the description which said, “unknown BC resident”, I was wary of another recorded laudatory tape from the nine candidates for party leader.

“Hello?” I said, with misgiving, waiting for the silence and the click over to recorded message.

“Hello000, Auntie? It’s your perpatetic nephew, Whistler.”

“Whistler!” I replied with joy. “Where are you?”

“I’m with Jessie, here in Delta.”

“Oohh! Is Jessie home?”

“Yup. And I’m here helping her.
“How is she?” I asked, greedy for news. “Let me speak with her when we’re done.”

“We’re going to do something different, Auntie, if you can find time for us. We’re both going to come out to visit you. We’ve got today or tomorrow. Lunch. Dinner. Just an hour or  two for coffee. Whatever you can do. You can catch up with Jessie then.”

At that moment,  Wednesday was looking impossible. I was trying to get into Vancouver for a number of different reasons.

“Come out for dinner tonight. I’ll get a reservation. How about six?”

“How about between six and six-thirty?”

“Alright. See you then.”

I rung off. Carol who was helping organize my study said, “Who was that?”

“My nephew, Whistler.He’s in town from up-country. Visiting Jessie who’s just back from Ireland. Europe, really. She’s been traveling around.They are friends.”

In the back of my mind, I was thinking, why doesn’t he marry her?, as I turned from our task at hand to make a reservation at a lovely Italian restaurant, fireplace, table linens and all.

It was moments later as I was lifting a box from the top shelf of the wall unit that my head began to spin.

“Sorry, Carol.” I wavered, “I just can’t do this. It’s foolish for me to be up on this ladder. I’m getting dizzy. Can you?”

As Carol handed me down the storage boxes we were marking for future retrieval, my head began to spin even more.

“I have to lie down for a minute,” I said, and Carol continued on with a different task , scanning the ancient photos into the computer. I wrapped up in the sofa blanket and covered my eyes with a face cloth to block out the light. A slight nausea defined itself. The headache I had denied at the doctor’s office at noon had found it’s way behind my left eyebrow.

“What is it?” Carol asked. “What’s wrong?” I’d been perfectly fine when she arrived. The onset of the vertigo had been sudden.

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s the antibiotic. I don’t take much medicine. My body sometimes reacts strongly to new medicines. It says to take after a meal. Maybe it didn’t recognize my afternoon snack as a meal and it didn’t buffer enough. Just give me a little time. I’ll be alright.”

But as I sat under the blanket gathering myself back into a state of wellness, my mind kept thinking what to do. It wasn’t too late to cancel but, by God, I so delighted in their company that I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. But the gnawing head and slight nausea had taken away  my appetite. It was no night for a glass of wine, table linens and an upscale dinner for me. Much better a small restaurant, or maybe even take-out. That decision could be made when they arrived.

Carol left at five thirty. I was up again and feeling tolerable.I went to change and was upstairs when the doorbell rang, wouldn’t you know.

“Hey, Auntie!” cried Whistler. “Hey, Kay,” added Jessie, their smiles from ear to ear. What I loved about these two was that they could be serious, but they always carried joy with them. Every sad recounting  was filled with jokes or rueful laughter, and the good times were filled with stories and happiness.

“Don’t bother taking your shoes off. We’re going to dinner. How’s Chinese? My car or yours. I know where I’m going.”

We took my car and parked just beside Tim Horton’s.  I’ve just discovered The Happy Kitchen this past two weeks. Their food is glorious Chinese cooking, with fresh vegetables cooked to perfection – just a little crunch to them. Nothing soggy.

“Well, how about the house?” I ask, eager for news.

Jessie is the co-executor for her mom’s estate, a thing we had in common. Her sister, the other “co”  was decidedly unhelpful, uncooperative. I didn’t dare express my feelings until I knew where she was going. It wasn’t my decision, but I hoped she would make the right one.

Jessie is one of those ebullient beings who talks constantly, always has a circuitous tale to tell. She had other things in mind besides answering my question directly. It all depended on a thousand detail which had to be brought to bear, before I could deserve the answer.

“When I got home, I knew everything would not be the same. But I had no idea,” she started. “Melanie drops everything wherever she last used it. Nothing had been put away for six months. Carlos is coming to visit for his holidays. He’s a bit of a neat freak. Even though I’ve warned him, I can’t let him see this.  He’d turn his back and run away! And you know I ask Melanie to clean up after herself, but she never does.”
“I know I’m part of the problem. I am trying my best not to do for her the things she is responsible for. Now instead of picking up and sorting out her things, I just dump them in her room and close the door. I’m concentrating on the common rooms. I was so proud of myself. I got one of those blue-green stains in the bathtub downstairs completely removed – you know, where the tap drips. I was so happy about that. It’s the guest bathroom and is hardly ever used, so it rarely got cleaned. It must have been twenty years since that blue stain has been there. When I showed it to her, Mel said, “Wow, it’s looking really clean. That’s great Jessie.  I guess I should go clean my room up!” She never even thought about helping me with the common areas. And you know, I’ve been away for six months. It’s all her mess in the common areas.”

As Jessie served herself more crispy noodles and green beans with cashews, I caught my chance to say a word. Whistler, by the way, says nothing. Chuckles when appropriate. Smiles, if amused. Shrugs his shoulders or nods his head from time to time. You can tell he is listening, but he’s not talking.

“So what does this mean, about the house? I don’t think Melanie is going to change, do you?”

It was twenty minutes later that she confessed that she didn’t think she could live with her sister. They would have to sell this inherited house, the family home she had grown up in. But where would she come back to if she didn’t have a house? How would she get into the housing market if she didn’t  already have one that would keep pace with the vagaries of Real Estate?

“Do you know where you are going to be working? Or staying?”

Jessie’s new boyfriend was Spanish. Working in Ireland – an IT engineer. Headhunted from Spain. He had everything laid out for him before he arrived – a visa of long duration, an apartment furnished in IKEA modern. But Jessie had outstayed her student work exchange visa, gone traveling, activated a tourist visa and then it too had run out. She had to depart before the last day or it would be impossible for her to get back in. She could stay with him, but she would have to leave again. She couldn’t speak Spanish, but she would have to learn. They hadn’t explored the possibility of Canada yet.”

“So what’s his last name? Where does he come from? What do his parents do? ” Kay asked, laughing. “I’m sounding like my mother. But who is he? ”

“Hah! You are just like my mother. Asking questions.”

“Someone has to do it. And I learned from my mother really well. I hated it. But now I know how to say, “Don’t they have a last name?” really well. Whistler joined in the laughter. My questions were serious, but our collective friendship was so open that we could make fun of the stifling traditions we came from and still dig down into the important things.  We didn’t hold back. She wasn’t offended, rather, she said, “Now that Mom’s gone, it’s really comforting to be able to hear you say what she would have asked me. It really helps me think things through.”

It reminded me of the first time Whistler had come to  live with his grandmother, my mom, while he was going to university. We were raking leaves in the back yard together and I explained some family dynamic to him in all it’s gory detail, along with my analysis of what the outcome would be. I heard back from my sister, his mom, shortly after. “He said to me, a bit incredulously,  “Y’know Mom, she talked to me like I was an adult! Just like I was another person, not just a young kid who couldn’t understand. Why doesn’t everyone do that?”

I had hated being “protected” from the evils of ours and everyone else’s dysfunctional families. I had seen things with my eyes, only to be lied to. It was the only way to describe it. Lied to. Covered up. Euphimized. Obscufated.  To the point where I questioned my sanity. Only to find out much later that I wasn’t wrong. Only, the neighbours, the work place, the world, should not know that these things had occurred or our family, or their families, would be shamed, shunned, talked about, scorned.

I had felt that honesty and clear vision was better. If you knew about a problem and shared it, how much experience could be brought to your assistance from others who had already been there, coped or not coped, learned valuable lessons. Besides, many of the problems were not that drastic. But if you kept them as subterraneous motifs in a family, problems worsened, created a certain madness that crept into daily decisions, actions. I never shied the truth with Whistler.

We were back at my home now, getting an after-dinner coffee.

Jessie continued:

“We  visited his parents at Christmas. They’re really nice. He makes things out of iron in a shop that has been there forever. All of his life and the generation before him.Decorative things. Useful things. He’s an artist, really. I guess that’s what he is. An artist. Beautiful things. You’d love it. And they are so nice. You wouldn’t believe. But it was so stressful. Carlos didn’t understand why it would be stressful, but it was, like, I was meeting his parents and that would have been stressful in itself, but I couldn’t speak to them. Everything was said in Spanish. They said they were too old to learn English.”

As she continued on in her stream of narrative, I had a second narrative coursing in the back of my mind.

Jessie could have been my child. I had been shocked, just after her mother’s death from a massive heart attack, that her mother was only sixty four. It was my age. How would I have brought up a child? I had none of my own. I had brought up my brother’s boys for a short period of time – five of the teenage years. I had succeeded with one and less-so with the other. I had spoken the truth from my viewpoint with them as well. No secrets. I remember saying to each one of them as they stepped out into an independent activity, a first-time adult activity, that they could always tell me anything. I’d been there. I had faced tough decisions myself. Failed at things and gotten back up on my feet and carried on. They couldn’t shock me. I had been a hippie. I’d done drugs and thankfully escaped the consequences. And don’t go there. The drugs are a million times worse now. I hadn’t touched them for more than thirty years. Not even the so-called soft ones. Had loved and lost in anguish. Had moved forward after  a lot of soul searching. I had loved deeply and lost. I’d lived through the pain and survived to the other side of it. I had had sex before marriage, believe it or not,  and they couldn’t shock me there either. If they had a problem, we could discuss it. I wasn’t going to go ballistic on them. Of course, I found out that the world has changed. They could shock me and they did. But it didn’t stop the plain speaking or the ability to discuss it with them.

And now here was a blessing for me, indeed. I had a friend of that same kind of openness that I desired; and she was thirty years younger, and still able to talk to me just like a friend. But she was the daughter I would have liked to have had. Fearless in greeting the world. Adventurous in her travels. Savvy after several years working outside Canada, vacationing in between in exotic places half way around the world. It’s not to say she hadn’t had sad moments or moments of reflection, but she carried joy with her.

“I couldn’t go back to Ireland. You can only have three months a year as a visitor. I’d had thoughts of going to China, but the Lonely Planet says a woman definitely shouldn’t go alone. She could be kidnapped. It wasn’t safe. So I went to Prague. I loved it. I stayed in a hostel and had a great time. I met wonderful people. I shouldn’t have been lonely, but I realized I had been moving around too much. It was time to come home.”  Jessie peppered this with recountings of people she had met. She lapsed into an Irish accent as she described a Trinity College student who insisted on walking her home after a night at the pub there in Prague.

“He had rings in his nose and studding his ears. He had punk boots and belt.’ She stopped a moment and fixed me in the eye. “Do you know how crazily difficult it is to get into Trinity?” I did.

“I looked at him,” she continued, laughing, “and said to him that he was the most unlikely looking young man for such chivalry.He replied to me that he couldn’t help it.His Mam had instilled manners into him and there was nothing for it. I accepted his offer, of course. He danced around me as we were walking to make sure he was always walking on the outer side of the side walk. Heavens! Men in Canada don’t even know they are supposed to do that; that it’s a time-honoured rule!”

“And so are you going to marry him?” I said, bringing her back to Carlos.

“He’s so nice,” she continued her peripatetic conversation, not willing to divulge the answer too quickly. “He’s so good for me. But we will have to wait and see. He still has to come here and see who I am on my own territory. I don’t know where I am going to work. We can’t live at long distance. Something has to be worked out. I could live in Northern Ireland because I have the right to a British long term visa as a daughter of an  Englishman. I could work there and travel down to Dublin on weekends, or he travel up to me.?

I could see everything was in flux. No point in adding my two cents. She was doing just fine at finding her way, making her decisions. Not foolishly jumping into an untenable situation. I was proud of her. I was thrilled really, to have her as my friend.

On parting, she promised to come out and visit me after Whistler had gone home. Whistler, in a rare moment of speech, said, “And what? Leave me out of all the details?”
“Oh Whistler, you get to know them from me when we talk by phone. You don’t miss anything. But I don’t see Jessie that often.”

“I know. I don’t say much . But I listen. There’s always something new that I find out in the retelling. I don’t want to miss anything. I’m like my father that way.” And it was true. He was.

Jessie looked at me sinking into the comfy chair in the living room as I faded. I had managed to keep up with their youthful energy for three hours but now I was hardly holding up and the big armchair was no longer making it possible.

“I think we should leave and give you some rest. To bed with you,” advises Jessie. I nodded. I hated to let them go, but I was no longer operative.

It took another half hour. More stories. Me with some apricot puree from the summer for them. The impossibly simple recipe. Her desire for children, and Carlos, but at her age, the biological clock ticking.

They went. I watched from the window in the front door and waved until the car turned out of the driveway. I could picture my mother doing the same. Glad to be able to sink into my very comfortable bed until the ills righted themselves; wistful at their departure; happy as can be at their visit and the news.

I’ve heard them  talk about why they wouldn’t marry, these two; so I’m very glad that they are such good friends. Lord bless them both, I hope they stay friends even if Jessie ends up living in Europe somewhere. She’s making good decisions. Her heart’s in the right place. And I hope they will always be a part of my life.

I

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Where are those keys?

April 14, 2010

My cousin writes a mass mailing to friends:
Hello All!
Once again I’ve put my keys down in a spot where I know I will find them and now I can’t locate them.  I cleaned out the van yesterday, making sure not to lock them in as I closed up.  I have checked the spot where they are to hang in the basement and the pockets of the pants I had on yesterday.  Those should be the only two spots where they should be living.
But voila, like magic they aren’t to be found this a.m.
So get out your spidy eyes…all eight…or is that legs…and watch out for them for me please.
Reward?!  Yes, a drive in the van if you’d like!

I’m miles and kilometers away. I’m not concerned by this loss of keys, but I’m very empathetic. I can have four pen on the desk and have them disappear, one after the other while I have not gone anywhere – not moved whatsoever – and still they are lost to me. Later in the day, I may find them in my jacket pocket.  It’s the desk imp who hides things for wicked fun. And so I reply to my cousin:

Dear Cuz,
Do you not remember the car-key imp? He comes and steals away things  so that you can’t find them when you need them, and then just after it’s too late, he places them before your eyes!
Frank was here for eight days while he did a lot of renos and repairs for me. You should see the outside of my house sparkle! He power washed all the siding!
I kept looking for a stud finder that he gave me – a very expensive one, he was keen to tell me – and I couldn’t find it, so that he could put up some secure hooks for my paintings in these plaster walls of mine.

He went home on Wednesday and then came back again this Sunday to put in some decent and operative taps in the main floor bathroom. I still couldn’t find the stud finder – never opened, still in it’s packaging, yellow and highly visible – even though I opened every drawer and work box where it might have been, even on an off chance.
Then yesterday, not twenty four hours after Frank had gone back home …
I was cleaning up the studio more since this guy is coming to photograph me in the studio and there, in the pile of things I was tidying up (that I had abandoned tidying because I was distracted by R’s many requests for this and that) was the stud finder. Like, five minutes more, staying at my own tasks, I would have had it and he could have pounded some nails into the walls to hold up my heavier paintings. There’s not a chance that he is coming back. He simply lives too far away.
Anyway, Dear Cuz,  I empathize. You know you had your keys at home. They can’t be far.  The car-key imp is playing a trick on you, so they will turn up. Do you have a spare?

Your ever-loving Cousin

K

Endings and beginnings

March 29, 2010

Hugh is  elated. He has been appointed as an Intern to an International Mission for Canada in Europe. It’s his first job in his own field.

Kay , bursting with excitement for him, has been pointing out potential pitfalls, handing out advice that rarely meets the mark because, really, Hugh is an intelligent guy and has it all in hand. He’s  good at planning what he needs and procuring it, mostly through the Internet. Over the three years of his studies, he has carefully fostered contacts, too, and he’s been briefed before departure by a number of professors, research gurus and friendly field service officers, all of them friends.

He is nervous, anxious and excited all at the same time.  Wouldn’t you know, though, he gets the flu a week before departure and it develops into a secondary infection. He’s out of commission for two days and then struggles to get his affairs in order – emptying his room to storage so someone else can rent it while he is gone; collecting his visa which is supposed to be ready at the Embassy (but isn’t); getting to the bank and arranging his financial facility; completing his taxes because he won’t be here at tax time; ordering two suits and a few good shirts so that he can present himself well; buying two pairs of dress shoes because he’s sure he will not be received well in either hiking boots or running shoes.

The comforting thing, he mollifies her, is that Skype exists now. The only difference to their twice weekly calls is that he’ ll be calling from his new posting and he’s another few thousand kilometers away.
He says, “It’s not like when you  stayed in Europe; and Skype is still for free.”

“No,” she agrees. “When I left, it would be ten months before I got back home.  Long distance phone calls were prohibitive. I wrote letters, but I wasn’t staying in one place.  I was moving around. There was no place for anyone to write me until I got an apartment just before I started school.  I felt dreadfully lonely. No one around me spoke my language except other back-packers like me. I struggled with French. I could barely speak it. My Lord! What ever got into me – going off for a year like that, all alone,  without even being able to speak the language!”

“It was six months before I found anyone to talk to, and those were a pair of Norwegian girls. I thought I would go starkers with loneliness!”

“Darned if I was going to give in, though. I started to take second-language lessons at the University and then things eased up.”

“Your aunt Lizbet was in school in Geneva that year, but there was no phone where she boarded. I couldn’t call her. She wasn’t much of a writer. She spoke the language, at least. She’d taken her Masters in the teaching of French. When finally she wrote, she too was feeling very lonely.  I suggested that she come visit me for her birthday in December and she said she would.”

“Then, in a panic, I didn’t know what to do.”

“She didn’t turn up at the train station at the appointed time when I went to meet her.  She just wasn’t there.  I turned up for every possible train and went back home after midnight, my head spinning. What had happened to her? Had she missed the train? Was the train delayed? Did I have the wrong day? Perhaps she had not been able to get a reservation for the day she said she was coming?”

“On Saturday, I went to the train station from morning to night for every possible connection just in case I had made a mistake and still she was not there; and then I knew that she was not coming.”
“Should I tell the police? Or had I gotten something wrong? She had said Friday, but what if she meant the next Friday. Had she had an accident on the way? Had she been abducted? We had both been warned about the white slave-trade .”

“I waited, each day my stomach churning and my head filled with tragic possibilities. Should I call our parents? But what could they do from there? And what if it were nothing and they came all the way from Canada to find everything was alright? The expense of travel was prohibitive. I decided to wait.”

“A good ten days later, I got a letter. Her classmates had for the very first time invited her to join them for dinner and it turned out to be a surprise birthday celebration for her. She had stayed. But she had no way of getting in touch with me.  She rationalized that I would understand; that I would get her letter of explanation in a day or two and everything would be alright.”

“It was. But I had felt ever so vulnerable, ever so sick about it, all of that time that I didn’t know.”

“Auntie, Auntie,” interrupted Hugh, ” It won’t be like that. I will have a work place. I have a rooming house already, thanks to Cousin Barb. We have Skype and if need be, the telephone. I’ll call you twice a week – maybe more because I won’t know anyone there in the first month or so; and you can always just e-mail me.”

When Kay and Hugh finished their phone call, Kay returned to her chores in the basement where she was sorting out boxes of books to keep or not to keep – boxes that had been stored for two and a half years now as she settled into the new-to-her house. While she was mechanically opening boxes, chucking books into the keeper box or the other, her mind began to dial back to that earlier time.

How thoughtless she had been. Perhaps it wasn’t so much thoughtless as ego-centric. She had never thought how her mother might have felt, her rebellious and rather naive daughter winging off to France for a year without a place to stay nor a relative to depend on, with nothing but her clothing on her back, whatever she could stuff into a backpack and a wad of American Express cheques.

It’s the way of the world for the young to leave the nest, to try their own wings.  A generation later, it was Kay herself who told her nephews that it was their time to find their own paths, to find out who they were and what they wanted from life; that they didn’t have to ask permission to go or have a fight about it. All they had to say was, “I’d like to go live on my own now.” And here was Hugh, doing it.

Not to say that he hadn’t been fending for himself all these years of University; but it was his first job in his own field; and he would be living abroad.

As Kay’s heart twinged at  his leaving, she thought back to her mother. She had been the same age or just-about as Kay was now. And then Kay remembered the last of the three summers she had come back to work to allow herself to return to France to finish her Diplome.

“I’ve met a man,” she said to her mother,” and I’m going to meet his mother this fall.”

“You can’t go with that ragged coat,” Mother had replied, eyeing Kay from head to foot. ‘I’ll buy you a new one. If you are going into a new family, you will need to show you come from a good family.”

So they went shopping and Kay selected a brown and white herring-bone coat that reached to her ankles. It had a rust-coloured leather collar and buttons to match.  With her leather boots and three inch heels, her long blond hippie hair flowing down her back, she looked like a tall, slender Russian poet.

Kay admired her figure in the mirror. She would turn heads, she thought, with smug satisfaction.

Had she said thank you, thought Kay? Not just the words, but a proper thank you? Or had she just thought it was her due – parents buy their offspring clothing – or had Kay had any idea of the the reconciliation that this gesture had been from a mother to her headstrong daughter? It had been such a concession on her mother’s part.  She was letting go, for once, without making a fuss and showed for once, a certain trust in Kay’s judgment.

Kay sighed.

It was odd how life brought these bits of wisdom to her too late. It wasn’t a regret, exactly. Mother had come from a different era. One didn’t express one’s emotions. All her longings and vicarious wishes for Kay lay under the surface, bottled, capped, bundled and wrapped in a tight explosive corner of her heart. Kay’s too, thought Kay.

Kay was grateful that time had taught her to say what she felt. Kay had not wanted to make the same mistakes she felt she had grown up with. She was determined to let the boys, these nephews of hers, know that she loved them and encouraged them.  It had worked with one but not the other. Hugh was close, but not Ron.

Kay felt especially grateful about Hugh. She would not lose him for years at a time as she had been estranged from her mother. Hugh had become a friend – a deep and lasting friend. She would have the pleasure of sharing his adventures, she knew, and wished, far too late for it ever to happen, that she had been able to do the same with her Mom.

How different the world had become in thirty years! How much smaller the world had become because of all these electronic gadgets! And how much more open had become the ways of speaking one’s emotions to the people we loved.

Bah Humbug!

December 23, 2009

Rant # 358.

Did I count that right? Is that ‘t’was the night before Christmas”? aka Christmas Eve?

I know that is tomorrow, but I will be busy cooking and preparing tomorrow.

I’ve turned down several requests to go Caroling. I refuse to go into the malls. That’s plural because I’m living in Mall City.  In a very short space, in a very small community there must be at least 15 malls. We are the outpost of bedroom communities. Slightly closer to the big city, we adjoin another bedroom community  and they are just about as bad, but they’ve got the Super Malls with the Super Stores; and one step closer in to Hub City, there is the Big Box mall where I do my food shopping. Arghh!

They’ve ruined my pleasure in Christmas Carols completely. One can’t go anywhere without being invaded by soppily orchestrated Carols. They jingle in elevators. They pervade every corner of the big department stores and big supermarket grocery chains. They are piped in beside charitable fund raising boxes attended by benumbed “elves”.

I know they are elves because the newspaper had an advertisement for them in November, looking for people who would ring their bells and chant the name of the organization collecting your dimes, pennies, nickles, loonies and more hopefully, two-nies. Argh! There is again! Tune-ies!

Silent Night, a beautifully felt, sentimental thought in sync with what we are supposed to think is the Christmas Spirit, has been so overplayed that I hate to hear it, especially jazzed and upbeat or mockingly translated into blues – or conversely when it is sung in tempo for a dirge.

Here comes Santa Claus, Dashing through the snow with Jingle Bells ringing.  The little drummer boy, It came upon a midnight clear, Frosty the Snowman. They’ve been done to death.  I can’t listen to them anymore. I can’t sing them. They’ve been ruined, for me, by their mindless repetition.

Maybe I’m just an old crone with memories of when it was different.

We were allowed to listen to the radio one hour after school. There was no television yet. We listened to theatre including The Lone Ranger and The Shadow and we listened intently, because if you missed something, there were no replays, no possibilities of recording it to tape or CD or DVD. It was played through, often live, and then it was gone. Now even your telephone ring can be set to a Christmas melody.

At Christmas, we gathered around the old piano and sang. Mother had learned the tunes and some simple chording. Every year, she bought one more piece of sheet music. Every year, we added one more tune to our repertoire.

We sang lustily and laughed together, all gathered in the living room for this festive day.

If I need to listen to a Christmas Carol now, let it be Christmas in Killarney (with all of the boys at home). This song somehow escaped the muzac elevator tapes and is never thought of for Caroling in old folks homes. Not that I’m in one, you understand, but I suffered the daily afternnon onslaught of them with  Mother while she was a resident. Cloying. Sentimental. Repetitive.  I blessed the one and only day when a group of musicians came from the nearby music school and played a real concert of Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff and Elgar quartets. Now that was a treat! And none of them were the overdone favorites – each was fresh and crystal clear.

What is it that brings us to repeat simple songs that were written two hundred years ago? Did creativity die in 1816? *

And now when I turn on the local radio, almost to the last one, there is nothing but watered down, transposed, redecorated, arranged, up-beaten, over-written, undermined songs of Christmas, and all they seem to mean is “It’s time you went shopping at the mall.”

Bah Humbug!

Please give me a Silent night. No, not the song.

Just a pure, clear meditative silence!

A free ride and a free lunch.

December 8, 2009

Mrs. Patrick waited at the stop sign as several cars passed by from either direction. As a large construction pick-up truck barreled towards her from the North,  she suddenly hit the accelerator and lurched out, turning left in front of it, narrowly missing being T-boned.

All within the same time frame, Kay whipped her arms up across her eyes waiting for the crash that never came. Mrs. P  had just made it by without so  much as a whistling wind passing to spare between the two vehicles.

With the calm and assurance of a grandmother who had seen many risky ventures of children and grandchildren play out safely, she said, “He’ll see me and slow down.”

She shouldn’t be driving!” Kay murmured to herself in shock. But how could she say anything? The ride was for free.

Kay was visiting with her sister in the small coastal town on the Sechelt Peninsula. Heather had her medical reasons for no longer driving, and anyway, her husband always had their one vehicle  which had graduated from car to van to truck over the years. Heather had lost her assurance to drive it and therefore, had become dependent on him or her friends to drive her to all her activities – swimming and exercise classes, the weaving club, choir and church events and various other things that might come her way.

Today was the day for the Christmas lunch for women of their church and Mrs. Patrick had agreed to take not only Heather and Kay but Mrs. Boop who was sitting in the front seat of the flashy new Buick. Dear Mrs. Boop  was rapidly losing her eyesight, thought Kay, or she should have equally sent her arms up to protect her face from the oncoming monster truck, but she  turned and looked calmly at Heather and inquired after her most recent trip to Nelson to see Lizbet, Kay’s other sister. No one but Kay was having this anxiety attack.  Kay admonished herself to be calm.

Mrs. Patrick then made an announcement. “I’m not going to park in the parking lot today. You will have to climb the stairs from Hudson Street. Last time I did so, Stella Smith smashed my front headlight; and I had parked there expressly to avoid the traffic on the street.”

“So I won’t park there again, ” she restated and continued: “I felt so sorry for Stella, but it was her fault, so she just paid me for it. I checked with someone else who saw it all, and they agreed it was Stella.”

“It cost her five hundred dollars because they had to take the bumper off to get at the headlight!”  Mrs. Patrick exclaimed. “It’s so very expensive now to get cars fixed. The least little thing… and now you will just have to climb the stairs and walk.”

Kay groaned. Not that she cared about climbing the stairs. It just seemed that perhaps Mrs. Patrick’s car was a giant shiny magnet for other cars and that her nonchalant attitude was too devil-may-care.  In Mrs. P’s books, others could look out for her. Kay was not at all reassured and wondered if they would actually make it to church and then home again.

At the church, Kay thanked her foresight for having eaten a sturdy breakfast of two boiled eggs and coffee. Long folding tables were set up for about eighty women.  Each table had four places set on each side and two on either end.  On each table were two large chargers filled with baked goods – date squares, Nanaimo bars, coconut creams, cherry berry thimbles, speculas, cranberry slices, nut squares, some pink moussy confections  and other Christmas sweets.

Kay marvelled at the variety and the quantity. There was a lot of sugar represented on those fancy plates, enough to keep a Cuban sugar plantation busy for a year. She looked at her waistline and prayed fervently for something more healthy, more substantial than sugar for lunch.

Having chosen a place to sit, with Heather to her right and Mrs. Patrick and Mrs. Boop across the furthermost table from the front, Kay took the time to survey the company. With a swift glance, she estimated there were four potential candidates for the under sixty club and with a sigh of come-uppance she realized that she, too, was no longer eligible for that group. Way more than half of the others were over eighty and the telling features were the colours of their hair.

Mrs. Patrick had a lovely even golden-brown colour, tastefully maintained and curled tightly in a cap, trimmed smartly at her neck. Mrs. Boop’s short, wavy hair was salt coloured with a good dose of pepper and coiffed a little looser. Across the room Kay saw three or four absolutely white heads gleaming. One of them was decorated with a pair of red felt antlers that jutted out a foot above her head and had little brown ears. She looked quite charming.

Beside her, an ash blond woman wore a jester’s cap of felt in red and green; and another to her left, was wearing a red Santa Claus toque with white rabbit’s fur.  A few ladies had tinges of pink and blue in their hair. Most had been recently coiffed for this event at the hair dresser and the tightly curled hair-dos wafted the scent of salon spray throughout the room.

One table was reserved for the ladies choir, not the church’s, but a local glee club. Each lady sported a white blouse, a necktie with a predominantly red plaid tie around the neck and a poinsetta corsage backed by a red foil doily pinned to the right bosom.

At twelve o’clock precisely, the congregation of women was called to order. An agenda was read and an apology was made that the luncheon would have to be followed by a church women’s meeting because there were cheques to be written for which the group’s approval had to be given.

Next the choir of plaid throated women sang in reedy voices. The choir-mistress introduced and welcomed their new choristers as if, in this mid-sized town, everyone should have remembered the names of the others from the previous year. There was only one young singer in the group.

The choir mistress proceeded to say that since everyone must be hungry, she would keep the regular concert  short, though we listened to Christmas hymn-classics for the next twenty minutes.  There was a solo number by the youngest member which was quite lovely. She had a trained voice and sang with a rich, clear voice.

A devotional story  followed, read by a lady standing at the back and then Grace for the food that still was not in sight was given by the Minister of the church who was the only man present. He grinned from ear to ear. Never were the odds so good for this retired and greying preacher. Eighty to one!

An hour had passed before four ladies began to bring out chargers of delicate sandwiches cut in four small triangles, two chargers per table of ten. There were egg salad and ham salad sandwiches and tuna. It was now twelve thirty and the ladies were hungry.

Mrs. P. took two quarters and announced it loudly, then passed them along. Everyone followed suit, then refilled their plates as the sandwiches were consumed.  In less than a minute the plates were empty. The ladies serving them brought more plates of sandwiches. Mrs. Boop mumbled something about having taken seven quarter sandwiches and someone else rudely muttered, “but who is counting?”.

There was no wait between  sandwiches and sweets. Heather, who was fond of chocolate, joked that all the chocolate ones were for her. This suited Kay who could not eat chocolate without getting a migraine.  Nobody  spoke to each other as the food was consumed. It was serious business.

After most of the sweets were gone, the women began to catch up on news, to introduce themselves to new attendees and to discuss the weather. The voices rose clamorously. A woman stood and called the group to order, but the ladies were absorbed in their discussions  and the noise drowned out her voice.  Kay took pity and tapped her tea cup with a spoon loudly. The voices subsided reluctantly.

“You all know Stuart McLean of CBC,” she announced. “I am sure you have heard this before, but no matter how often it it is played, it retains it’s humor. There is always something new to hear in it. It never gets old. We are going to listen to one of his best Christmas stories.”

She had before her an ancient boom box with a tape in it. She flicked the switch and Stuart began in his unmistakable voice the story of Dave having to cook turkey for Christmas dinner. There was a hush and then silence. It was true, everyone loved this story. There was not a disturbing interruption for the entire tale; and when it finished, the silence remained in the room until the hostess again rose and invited the treasurer of the group to open her fund-approving meeting.

When expenditures for Christmas hampers for the poor, a Christmas supplement for the Minister and his family, and contributions to the Haiti project had been approved with formal motions, seconding and the raising of hands to vote, the  meeting was adjourned. It was time for the singalong.

The hostess now invited the ladies to open the newsprint Christmas song books on their tables and join in a sing-along.

The choir’s accompanist scuttled to the piano and introduced some chords to  Jingle Bells. The first verse was terrible but as the crowd warmed to the singing, the fervor developed and a decent chorus rang throughout the church hall.

Jingle Bells was followed by Go tell it on the mountain and Christmas in Killarney, What child is this, King Wenceslas and God Rest you Merry Gentlemen, three rousing verses of each.  Finally the accompanist announced the last carol, We wish you a Merry Christmas.

It was almost over.The hostess reminded all that the Junior High students of the congregation had fostered four children in Haiti. Without  everyone’s help, that work could not continue. A collection basket would be coming around. Would everyone please be generous?  An osier basket topped with a wooden carved duck’s head came from table to table for offerings and each lady pulled out some paper money out of their purses to place it soundlessly into the basket.  Tacitly, the luncheon was finished now.

Ladies got up, chairs scraping the linoleum floor, and discreetly tried their limbs,  stiff  from too long of sitting, arthritis and other ancient aches and pains.  The women regrouped to greet friends they had not sat with.  Mrs. P began to herd her car-load towards the door and stood beside Mrs. Boop with visible Christian patience as Mrs. Boop caught up on a friend’s family doings.

It was a quarter of an hour later that Mrs P, Mrs Boop, Heather and Kay exited by the side door towards the steps and down to the waiting car.

When they were all buckled safely in with their seat belts, Mrs. P drove around the block to get back to the main road. They had not gone far before Mrs. Boop cried out, “Mrs. P! Where are you going? You are supposed to be taking Heather home.”

Nonchalantly, Mrs. P answered, “The car knows its way to my home. It just took the road to the left by itself.”  She continued on up the road several blocks when she should have been going back down to the main road and turning right towards the sea in the direction of Heather’s place.

Not to worry, Kay consoled herself. At least she isn’t driving on the road most traveled.  That would mean less chance of destructive car magnetism occurring. Worst come to the worst, Kay and Heather could walk home from where they now were.

But Mrs. P soon took a road descending towards Maple Street and at Heather’s house, thanks for the ride were given and Heather and Kay went inside. Jason, Heather’s husband, was waiting to welcome them home.

(To be continued)

Hanging out at the gym

November 12, 2009

Yesterday was a busy day and by the time I got writing down a few details, I was pretty traumatized. It took a mere 2000 words to craft the previous post. In doing so, I sloughed over the incident at the gym which I am now going to share with you. I have to go back a little in time, though.

Last year this time, I was doing a very hearty three-times-a-week workout at the gym. I rarely missed; and when I didn’t go to the gym on the days between, if the day was dry, I would go walking out into nature. I had built up a good endurance and created muscle where none had gone before. The little I had developed in my aging career of non-participation were beefed up. I slimmed down, Hallelulia. I was more fit than I ever had been.

Early in May, I went to Santa Fe and Taos with my sister. The two weeks preceding, I was too busy to get to the gym, but the weather was fine and I got out walking.  In Taos where we stayed, there was a gym in the hotel but when I tried the equipment, there was not much that suited my abilities. We had been walking all day in our tourist activities and a treadmill was out of the question. The kind of cycling machine they had was not good for my damaged knees;  and the other equipment which I don’t remember at this point, did not engage me either. Another two weeks went by and I had not been to the gym.

When I got back, it was sunny and warm. We had a wonderful summer of sunshine. I upped the walking content of my exercise program and let the gym go. Why would I want to be in a gym on such lovely days?

Fast forward till last week. Our weather has been horribly rainy. Walking on the dikes has been out of the question. For the first time since April, I went to the gym for a half hour on Tuesday.  I was not inspired. I was out of shape and knew it.

This  and last week have been very busy with meetings, preparing for a sale of art from my house, and preparing for an interview with a gallery, so I didn’t make the time to go again until yesterday.

My muscles complained over the first three minutes of the reclining bike but learned to shut up after they realized that I wasn’t going to quit. I cycled those fifteen minutes (down ten from last May, at 25) thinking about Gershwin and his impossibly difficult passages where the right hand (in piano pieces) play thirteen notes in the same time as the left hand is supposed to be playing seven. Or he might have nine against fifteen. both passages are supposed to be played evenly and together, but nothing matches up. I’m positive that Gershwin was able to rub his tummy, pat his head and play drum with his feet all at the same time.

I got to thinking that he might have spent a lot of time in a gym. He came from Brooklyn.   Boxing and European martial arts were de rigeur if a young man were to defend himself and there must have been lots of gyms, too, for them to work out in. But would he have risked his million dollar hands?

Did they have treadmills? Or are treadmills an invention of our affluent and electrical ages.

Did he spend time training to box? Would he have picked up his impossible  rhythms from someone skipping rope or from someone rapidly aiming his fists at a punching bag? Would he have concurrently been listening to them both at the same time and saying, “Wow, Ain’t that sweet, … ”

I was listening to two joggers, one going fast and one going slower, both running with their own distinct rhythms, neither rhythm matching up ever with the other’s. These thoughts kept me from leaping off my own stationary vehicle in sheer boredom.

When my time was up, I did my circuit of exercise. The gym was not very busy. My neighbour, Mr. Stepford had remarked earlier this week that a public gym was the last place he would go. Just think of the H1N1 spreading possibilities it would provide.

In fact, the gym was very aware of the potential for virus proliferation. Patrons were asked to wipe down the machines before and after using them. There was lots of disinfectant available and clean paper towels.  I resolved my dilemma about cleaning the machines – I who never do housework if I can help it.   I soaked two paper towels with the disinfectant spray and then used these to grasp the handles of each machine, the layer of towel acting so that I never touched the machines at all and therefore never had to clean them.

At the end of my work out, I spoke to the nice young lady gym attendant.  There was an in-house advertisement for the Christmas tree challenge.

“Just what is that?” I asked.

“It’s a promotional effort to get everyone to challenge themselves a little bit,” she explained.

I’m curious, so I ask “How does it work?”

She opened up a black binder containing sheets with green triangle trees on them covered with red doughnut shaped “ornaments” . There was a star at the top in yellow and little ribbon ornaments on every row of red doughnuts.

‘Here’s the star at the top. You need to pass this challenge before you can sign up. You need to do ten push-ups before you can get one of these cards. In other words, you need to be able to pick up your own body weight. ”

I let that sink in a minute before answering, “Well, I guess I wouldn’t be able to join in then,” and I started to go.

“No! No!” she said.” This is not meant to be exclusive. It’s meant to be inclusive. We can modify this if we need to. Perhaps you could do this from a standing position and do the push-ups against the wall.”

She demonstrated against the mirrored wall behind the desk making her body shape form an M then a V with her reflection for five very easy looking repetitions. I still looked doubtful though. She couldn’t have weighed more than 130 pounds. I was a different story.

She asked me to wait until the supervisor came by and she could check if I could participate doing some other modification of this exercise. In the meantime, she showed me the rest of the challenge.

Every  red doughnut shape represented a regular work out. After two work-outs, there was a red ribbon with either a one or a two marked on it. The participant would draw a slip of paper from a box, much like a fortune cookie, and would have to accomplish the exercise designated thereon. There were easy exercises (number one) and more difficult ones (number two).  The attendant drew a slip of paper out of the box.

Balancing ball upper torso twist” it said.

“Is that something I could do?” I asked in disbelief. “I don’t even know what it is.”  It sounded torturous.

“Oh yes,  we would show you. In any case, you would have to prove you could do it before you could go on to the next thing. Do you want to try?”

“The torso twist?” My voice was getting high pitched and defensive.

“No, I mean The Christmas Challenge,” she replied.

“I don’t think I could do that first thing. I don’t think so.”

“Look, ” she replies, “I’ll help you. After all, you’ve already got today’s work out to mark off and the first challenge is not so hard. You would already have two things ticked off on the tree.”

“But I’ve never used that machine before. I don’t even know if I can get onto it with my game knees.”

“Come, ” beckoned the Siren. I felt at once challenged and willing to meet it and at the same time foolish and ready to run.

There are pedals about two feet off the ground covered in black rubber with tread, much like that used for car tires.  I was to place my feet on these.  I did so and the pedals came down hydraulically almost to floor level.

Next I was to take hold of the handles that were eight feet above.  I had to lessen the weight on the pedals by holding the sturdy white horizontal bars at midway on the apparatus.  The attendant helped and somehow (because I cant remember this part very clearly, being more totally engaged in doing rather than in observing) I grasped the handles and hung on. Now I no longer could reach the pedals unless I could pull myself up, my whole body weight worth, with my muscular (not!) arms.

Try as much as I could, I could not move an inch in this endeavor. I pulled my knees up to my chest and the pedals rose accordingly.  In fact, I never pulled up my body with my arms at all. I hung there like a piece of game – an elk carcass, an entire bison, a bear maybe)  curing in a freezer. My arms were outstretched and my shoulder sockets were screaming at me. “This is a mistake! this is a mistake! Get us down off of here!”

The attendant was encouraging as I pulled my knees to my chest. My arms had not pulled a thing except a tendon or two.

“See! You are doing it! That’s one. That’s two. That’s three. You can do five! Six! Seven! You’re almost there. Nine! Ten! Wonderful! You have met the first hurdle of the Christmas Challenge!

“Help!” I whispered in panic. “Help me down!”
I was still holding all my weight by my wrists, unable to reach the pedals because I had lifted my knees to my chest, not at all the motion that was required.

I suppose the attendant was used to athletic guys jumping off the machine and getting themselves away from it without the least assistance. It took her at least two excruciating more seconds to realize that she had to help.  My next movements were awkward and fumbling. I managed to get a hold of that white steel bar and then slide in an ungainly manner until my feet to the floor.

“Congratulations!” she crowed. “That was wonderful. See how it is when you just do a little bit more?”

She signed me up. She ticked off the star and the first red doughnut. Her supervisor happened by.  The attendant recounted how courageous and wonderful I was and reported that they now had one more person in the contest. (There are prizes for anyone who finishes, I understand).

I left feeling quite knocked out. Dazed.

It was only later that I took time to reflect on how foolish I had been. I knew my limits and had allowed myself to get into a situation of risk where there was no possibility of achieving my goal, despite the attendant’s blandishments.

Only a year ago, I was delicately building up strained muscles on both of my shoulders by adding a pound at a time to my exercise routine.  On those machines where I pulled down weights,  I could at maximum pull sixty pounds. By multiplying that weight to muscle demand, I could easily have undone all the work I had striven to achieve so far.  And if I had fallen, in descending from the rack?

If I had lost hold and fallen in amongst all those hard surfaces of white enameled steel  and pulled a knee or hip tendon in doing so? It’s only a month since I’ve overcome the summer troubles.

I’ll be back to the gym. This hasn’t stopped my resolve to work out there. But I am going to be wiser in what I ask this aging body to perform. Those Vs and Ms at the mirror look safer. And, when it comes to the upper body torso twist. I’ll have to make an evaluation before I leap in there to do it.

I may still be hanging out at the gym, but before you will find me hanging like a meat carcass, I’ll be out of there.

Fire!

July 20, 2009

The day started quite unprofitably when I agreed to keep Mrs. Stepford and one other friend of hers company during her garage sale. If I was going to sit  four four hours there, I was also going to bring a few things to the fray.  Since it was just next door, it was relatively easy to trot out a few pieces of furniture and the old solid fir door. I brought two ancient and very heavy wooden ladders, the kind one would no longer use because they are deemed much less safe than the new aluminum ones, but they are apparently valuable for garden decor now, or polished up and revarnished for decorative use in front halls with plants hanging from each rung.

I brought three liquor store boxes of books and a wheel barrow full of Irises recently planted in six inch pots. I had a box of bric-a-brac, a kettle and captain’s chair.

I’m getting smart in my middle age:  I like to break up tasks into smaller parts so that I can do these things myself.  I took the ladders and the door across the way on Friday night, then on Saturday, the big things would already be  there. I could just bring the boxes and plants. Nothing would spoil by being out overnight. The day was forecast to be brutally sunny, and so it turned out to be.

We were supposed to start at ten but Mrs. Stepford had advertised it in the newspaper and the dealers were there at eight-thirty before we had really put things out properly.

It was a disinterested parade of potential buyers that came by. Who knows why,  but few stopped to inspect our glorious collection of overly used items. In the first hour, I bought a very kitchy jewel box from Mrs. Stepford and from her friend, I found six interesting books I hadn’t read.  I was now minus ten dollars in my attempt to make a fortune. But I was not intending to tell you so much about the garage sale. I have other more important items to get to.

During our five hour vigil over our desirable, distressed junk, two buyers bought six of my books. In total I had three dollars in my pocket on the profit side and when I compared that to the debit side, I was sadly out of pocket by seven. I contributed three lowly loonies as a share of the advertising and my debit side was back up to ten.  With much grumbling and weariness, I packed the whole lot back home. I got it to the back basement door and left it there to be brought in later.

Once done, I found I was ravenously hungry. There was nothing prepared and I had to invent something. I had no intention of cooking on a day as hot as this.

I rummaged in the  refrigerator and found salad things – a lettuce, some tomato, carrots and onions. It wasn’t appealing, so I rummaged in the freezer, hoping to find a quick meal and found just the thing. At the very back of the freezer, of course. Ice cream. On a hot day, it was perfect.

The cavity was efficiently packed. The only way to get to the ice cream pail out was to efficiently unpack it all off the top shelf, serve myself and pack everything back up again.

While ice cream has a real come-hither taste and the advantage of being very cool and refreshing, it does not have great texture.  I’ve discovered a delightful way to rectify this lack. I ate it with a handful of crispy  Kashi whole grain breakfast cereal, lining the bowl with it, adding in the  ice cream and garnishing it with some pecans and a fistful of fresh blueberries.

Then I succumbed to a fit of exhaustion. The heat, the carrying of heavy objects back and forth in the beating sun and an ice cream sugar slump combined to put me flat out, in seconds.  I slept on the couch for a few hours. This unprofitable mercantile venture had simply done me in.

I awoke with a phone call a few hours later, then spent the evening sorting out a horrible accumulation or office papers whilst watching TV. There were some over due bills, applications if varying states of completion for galleries, offers of all kinds of merchandise  and appeals from charities.

At about eleven, I was getting my last coffee of the day and pilfering a few more candy-like Kashi clusters. I went to the fridge to get some milk and just as I was opening the fridge door, a plastic margarine container started to fall off the top of the freezer compartment. It was full of meat balls in tomato sauce  left from one of the social gatherings I had hosted.

What to do?

Everyone knows that ground meat is dangerous if left in luke warm conditions for any length of time. I’m not exactly a starving artist, but I have been from time to time. I loath throwing good food out. It riles me beyond measure. But was this good food? Had I brought it out two hours earlier after the phone call when I rummaged for some dinner or six hours earlier when I ate the ice cream? It had been frozen solid which was in my favour, but it wasn’t now. How long had it been thawed?

I decided to heat the whole lot, steam it for half an hour. After all, it was a spaghetti and meat balls sauce and could tolerate hours and hours of cooking.

I added a modicum of water so it wouldn’t stick on the bottom and set it to heat on the gas stove. I would have to stay up another half hour at least to watch the pot boil.

I began to tidy away the detritus of the day. I emptied the dishwasher of clean dishes and loaded it back up with the utensils from lunch and dinner. I took some papers from my early-evening sortings into the office and shredded them; I put another small pile into the green recycle bag.  I noticed a light in the basement and went to turn it off.

Down in the basement, I discovered baskets and book boxes from the garage sale that had not been put away. I stacked them in a pile then suddenly remembered I had left a few things outside that still had to come in.

Might as well do this properly, I thought. Lets get rid of some of this volume, and I shifted three book boxes into the back store room and started packing the loose pieces – a few old plates, a vase with long-necked white farm ducks all around the top, a small delftware vase in blue and white, some old – really really old – pant hangers from the ’20s.

All of a sudden the smoke alarms were both going off. I raced up the stairs and into the kitchen. I had forgotten all about the meat balls.  Smoke was pouring from the edges of the lidded pot.  I whipped the pot off the element and shut off the gas. I turned on the hood fan over the stove – after all, there was no fire, just a lot of smoke and an ear splitting alarm.

Everything was safe, and I then leapt up the stairs to de-activate the alarm, then to the hallway to downstairs to deactivate a second one that had just begun to add to the chorus. My adreniline was on fire.

Good Lord! Could I not remember that I had things cooking on the stove? Soon I would be burning the place down, or someone would decide I had to be packed off to a residential care unit because of my forgetfulness!

I opened both front and back door and turned the upright fan on full force. I took a towel and waved the smoke down from the ceiling and out the front door.  Now I would have to stay up another hour while the house aired out.

When the visible smoke was gone, I sat at the piano and played a Bach Prelude and Fugue to calm myself. I  sat and puzzled out a Sudoku. I turned on the television and watched the end of Inspector Morse in a play where women priests of the Anglican persuasion were banding together to elect a woman as headmaster of an Oxford College of Theology.  I polished some silverware. I worried about the recent news of a home invasion not six blocks from where I lived – and here I had both front and back door open, welcoming moths of the night, mosquitoes and fresh air into my my main floor. Why not home invaders too?

What would I say to one?  “Oh, thank goodness you are here. I’ve been expecting you. I’m just waiting for the fire department. I thought I had a fire. ”

“I had a bit of a catastrophe  here with a pot of spaghetti sauce and meat balls. It’s only burned on the bottom.  I tasted them and they are even more delicious than before I burnt them.  Would you like to try them?”

Do you think that would confound a home invader? Make him back out as fast as possible if the fire department might actually be coming? Or would he be a poor soul, so happy to have a meal, even a burnt one, that he would gobble them up, and in gratitude just leave me and my poor possessions alone?

I know. I know. I have an over active imagination. All of a sudden, I felt tired. I locked the front and back doors.  Had I locked the basement door?

This time, I checked the stove before I went down. It was off. All was in order. I checked the basement door. It was locked.  I turned off all the lights but the one that lit the passage to upstairs and went to bed.

By the way, if I don’t post in the next few days or forever more, you can tell the coroner that it most likely was the meatballs.

Yes, I tasted them, and they are so-oooooo good.

Clafouti

July 9, 2009

zz 657

Rose, when she came to visit the other day, arrived with a basket full of ripe cherries fresh picked from her mother’s Bing tree. They are a red deeper than claret, deeper than burgundy. Almost black, but throbbing with a juicy light red heart on the inside. And they are sweet.

I’ve eaten plenty of them throughout the day while fixing breakfast or warming a cup of coffee. I ate some while preparing lunch. And when Janet arrived on short notice, we had cherries and Peak Frean digestives with our tea.

It’s simple fare of a prosperous farming area.

That was yesterday. This is today. One of the cherries had a soft spot and I rued the passing of time and the ripe, luscious crispness of the fruit. They were already beginning to pass.

Late in the afternoon, I had a nap, and while I was dreaming of railroads and pioneering and mining  in Stewart, in British Columbia as a result of leaving the Knowledge Network television programming on as I dozed, the thought of cherries must have mixed along in there. I remembered Frank and his bakery skills. He had a passion for cherries and bought them in pounds-ful at a time.

Long and lean, never gaining a pound from the day he was eighteen until now, he could eat all these luscious things he thought to make – good French peasant fare.

At cherry time, he cooked one clafouti after another. Oh, they were good!

He mixed up a batter for crepes, greased the bottom of a frying pan with butter and then filled the batter until there was hardly any in relation to the cherries he put in, pits and all.  He fried that up just as if it were a pancake and half way through the cooking, he could flip that cumbersome cherry pancake over and cook the other side. It took about a half hour for everything to cook right through.

I’ve forgotten the recipe for crepes, but a recipe for pancakes ought to do. The only difference is the leavening agent, really.  So I dug into my faithful tattered green copy of  the New Basic Cook Book published in 1936 and updated in 1956.

In the index it said, for Pancakes, see Griddle cakes, page 131.

I’m too lazy to read all the directions. I sifted the more-or-less measured flour, the salt and the baking powder in one bowl by whipping it all around with a fork. I wasn’t going to have to wash a sifter in addition to the bowl. I mixed the egg and milk, generally speaking, until it was consistent then tossed the dry stuff and the wet stuff together.  The mixture was already rising at an alarming rate so I hastened to add the cherries and get it into a baking dish that I could put in the oven. There’s no way I was going to try to flip the clafouti. It would land on the floor!

I put the dish in the oven, guessing at fifteen minutes to cook it, since it would cook both bottom and top at the same time.

There’s no evil twist to the tale, sorry folks. It came out of the oven, light and fluffy,the cooked cherries having lost their deep ruby colour and had gone somewhat pale, but the immediately surrounding cake had taken on a rubescence. The rest was a golden crisp griddle cake.

There is a recommendation in the book for variations with pecans or apples or bacon. All sound delicious.  So I go back, now that the  ‘cake is baked and highly successful and read the preamble. How times have changed.

It says:

Since griddle cakes should be eaten immediately after cooking, they are not adapted ideally to the servantless household unless they can be baked at the table on an electric griddle.

Serventless household?
I don’t remember many servantless households in the ‘Fifties. I don’t remember any, come to think of it. It was post war. People were more prosperous than during the Depression or the war years, but there was barely a family that had servants. Unless….

I don’t remember Mother sitting at the breakfast table on the days that we had pancakes. Only when everyone else had had their greedy fill of these delicious ‘cakes done always in the fry pan and garnished with raisins or blueberries did she have time to sit and enjoy some for herself.

How little we appreciate when we are young. How little we realize. I think we may have had a servant after all. Bless you Mom!

Wing nuts

July 2, 2009

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I had trouble focusing the camera on the wing nut. Most likely I had the camera set on the  wrong focusing mode or the wrong light setting. But I rather liked the first fuzzy pictures, above. There are delicate colours in it. No matter that it is not sharp.  You can still tell it is a wing nut.

The remainder of the pictures were fun for me as compositional exercises.

Formality

June 26, 2009

When Mrs. Beeton lived, new industrialists were buying up houses from impoverished aristocrats. The parvenues were looked down upon by the lofty elite because they didn’t know how to behave in the world to which they aspired. They didn’t know how to manage their servants; they didn’t know what fork to use at the dinner table; they didn’t know what wines went with which dishes at the dinner table. Simply put, they didn’t know the aristocratic rules and regulations.

Mrs. Beeton to the rescue!

When the Industrialist Ecks Whyzed married the eighth daughter of the Earl of Whatnot, the rich esquire needed serious polishing. He was not alone. While the aristocracy declined, the upper  middle class arose. They could buy their way into country houses but they couldn’t buy their way into becoming blue blooded. Marrying into the upper crust didn’t help these new barons of industry integrate, but their progeny were quick to learn; and they coulc more easily mix and mingle.

Recognizing that this emerging class needed to be told what to do in order to fit in, Mrs. Beeton wrote a hugely successful tome called The Book of Household Management Comprising information for the Mistress which spelled out the various functions in a large household – the housekeeper, cook, kitchen maid, butler, and dozens of other household positions.  (see Wikipedia). The book is a collectors’ item now, and if ever you get the chance to read through it, it will tickle your funny bone. Some of the directions seem hilarious in our current day mode of informality.

Similarly, when North America was populated with Europe’s almost-starving masses in the huge waves of migration that took place in the mid-1800’s and the early 1900’s, a common desire of these people was to rise out of poverty through education.

The first generation of immigration was bound to work in conditions that we would find intolerable now. Many of the immigrants had no idea what conditions they were coming to. They expected that they would find accommodations when they came, but instead, they found there was practically nothing.  The land had to be cleared. Houses had to be built. Farms had to be fenced and fields created then planted. Many on the prairies began their North American life in sod houses dug down into the ground, or in tents in cruel weather conditions.

Nevertheless, the immigrants could own land – something most of them could never aspire to in the Old Country, which ever one they came from. They were free, but they had so little that it hurt. In the first generation, acquiring a stability of home and occupation had to be the first goal. In the second, the immigrants were able to educate their children and education was a way out of poverty and subsistence living.

My grandfather on my mother’s side came to Canada with nothing but his youth and enthusiasm when he was seventeen, a younger son of a large family. He profited from the offer of free land and homesteaded in Plumas, Manitoba. The details are fuzzy. Did he sell his land and buy another or homestead another? There is no one left to ask. In any case, the homestead from Plumas was traded up for one in Gladstone, Manitoba. Then eventually, he was able to buy a piece of land in Winnipeg and build a house on it.

By the time he was thirty, he had bought two more pieces of land in Winnipeg and farmland outside the city limits that he rented to a farmer. It was planted with potatoes. He went home to England and proposed to Grandmother.

She arrived in 1900 to a small house on the largest of his properties.  Envisaging a large family, he built a two story house with prosperous amenities – gas light, indoor plumbing and telephone.He had come up in the world by dint of his frugality and hard labour, his entreprenerial spirit and his guiding vision. He wanted an education for his children and a much better life than that which he had come from fifteen years before.

During the Depression of the ‘Thirties, he was able to rent out the two houses he built on his properties. They paid for the taxes on all his properties. The living was not rich; but a certain stability and ease had been acquired.

(Get to the point! I can hear you all thinking)

My Aunt became a teacher at the age of nineteen. My mother was too young when she finished high school to go out teaching. She was the last child, brilliant, and having skipped two years of school, she was barely sixteen when she graduated. Grandfather found a way of sending her to University and she had her first degree by the time she was twenty. Then she taught school until she married.

My father similarly came from very modest beginnings, grandfather having also immigrated and homesteaded. His father, too, was adamant that the children acquire as much education as they could afford. Father became a Civil Engineer  and when he got his first long term job, he asked for Mother’s hand in marriage and got it. Soon he was teaching at the University of Toronto.

In one generation, both families had moved from the labouring class to the educated class.  This is not so remarkable, in many ways, because our family was not the only one with these aspirations and these success stories. Many of those pioneering families went on to produce architects, doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, scientists, et cetera, et cetera – in a word – professionals.

Akin to the Industrial Revolution, the Educational Revolution had people moving out of their sphere of comfort in the social world.

Emily Post to the rescue!

Like Mrs. Beeton, Emily Post wrote in magazines of the day – and in books – about how one should behave in polite society.  My mother live by Emily Post’s rules.

One never telephoned before ten o’clock nor after eight at night. When setting a table, the knife blade is always turned inwards. The handle ends of the cutlery should be placed one inch from the edge of the table. If you are having a multi-course meal (soup, dinner, salad, dessert for example) then your cutlery is arranged from the outside inwards in the order that you eat your meal. Forks on the left, knives and spoons on the right.

So that means, starting from the far right, soup spoon, dinner knife, plate; and from the left, dinner fork, salad fork and dessert fork.

Ladies remained seated when a man came into the room; men rose and waited until a woman, coming into the room, was seated. Men always took their hats off then they came inside. Women wore their hats at luncheons. The rules were legion. If you wanted to succeed, you learned them. If you didn’t, nobody but Emily Post would tell you and you might easily be ostracized for a slip of the tongue or an incorrect deference to some aspiring-to-be notable person.

My generation never lived through all the aspiring. It’s that third generational thing about fortunes. When we were young, we never understood the passion that lay beneath the desire to succeed to high places. All we saw were the formalities that were like ligatures on one’s freedom of activity.

“It’s just not done!” my mother would admonish me. “What will people think?”

I saw her write and rewrite  her replies to invitations, to tea, to weddings, to showers, to convocations. They had to be flawlessly spaced, flawlessly written, flawlessly composed in her flawless, Maclean’s handwriting.

I rebelled.I went Hippie. I swore (Bon Dieu! What would people think!”). When I lived on my own, all the niceties of table setting and invitation making went out the window – and I wasn’t alone. I’d taken my gloves off. I no longer had a hat. Peace, love and liberty.

The third generation has children. I wasn’t alone in rejecting so many formalities of the ‘Fifties and the  “Sixties. From my loft age, now, I look upon the upcoming youth and am often appalled at their language. How can we blame them? Almost every television program uses the language that a sailor would have been unable to say in decent society.  The formality has gone almost totally from our lives.

Mrs. Stepford, my next door neighbour, and I are the same age. We both still like to set a good table. We still go to theatre and concerts, but we no longer dress up. The only hats we will wear are for going out in the sun, and that’s more likely to be a straw one. Gloves are to keep the hands warm, not a de rigeur part of evening dress or luncheon garb.

“Do you want a cup of tea?” says Mrs. S when I come to visit. It comes in a mug with a shared spoon for sugar. We sit at a table strewn with the detritus of our daily occupations – the newspaper, a book of telephone numbers, bills and letters, advertising to be scanned and chucked, this morning’s dishes, if there hasn’t been time or inclination to get to them. I do the same.

And so, last Sunday, I went to see some of Mother’s aged friends – young in spirit; friends who were faithful visitors and supports of my dear Mom as she lay dying. These same friends living by that generation’s style and code of behaviour, invited me to tea.

As I sat at their maple dining table covered with a lace cloth, I had spread before me two plates of cheeses cut and arranged beautifully on the plate; another plate of Turkish Kisses, small drop cookies with dates and coconut; a long bread plate with two kinds of crackers; and a plate with pecan tarts. All the china matched. It was Royal Albert’s Old Country Roses.

“Would you care for a cup of tea?” she asked so naturally, so politely in her soft, gracious way. It came to her as if she were born with the formalities and had lived them all her life. I was born to them and had struggled against them all my life.

“Please, help yourself to some cheese. Take some crackers. ” She poured the tea holding the lid with one hand, the other tipping the pot towards my cup and saucer. Each one of us had a little spoon for sugar and a little knife for spreading the cheese. I smiled.

Here was a way of life dying out. Or maybe, just dying out in my sphere, and I missed them. I momentarily thought of my mother and her pernicious attention to details.  (Oh no! Not those serviettes! They’re the wrong size! the wrong colour! They’re too frivolous for the occasion. Kay! Just what could you be thinking!)

I thought of her life-long passion for the formality that allowed her to become a matron of academic society. I had absorbed the upbringing and could function within the same spheres, but for myself, I had let go so much of the time intensive formalities and was glad, because I had been able to forge a different life, a life in art and creativity. I had been able to pass through many doors, both high and low, and manage.

After our little tea, Mr. White said, “Will you play the piano for us?”

I’ve never liked playing for others. I always have this sense that mother is standing two feet behind me criticising my mistakes.  But Mrs. White added her plea to his.

“It doesn’t matter what you play. Don’t worry. We just had the piano tuned and we’d like to hear someone use it. Pam (their daughter) comes by every weekend, but she doesn’t usually have time to play.”

So I sat on the adjustable piano stool – one of those ones with a turned post that you can twirl up and down for a change in height. I played one of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, probably the only piece that I know by heart. They made appropriate ooh’s and ah’s. and asked for more. I played another and got stuck in the middle somehow going round and round because I had no music to go by. I played Bumble Boogie until I got lost in it somewhere on the fourth page. I tried another Fugue and started the Raindrop Etude by Chopin but couldn’t get past the first page.

I finished the last bit with something I made up since I’d lost my place and couldn’t do otherwise. I turned on the stool. They were sitting side by side on their French Provincial settee, leaning forward to hear every note, holding hands so sweetly. I could have cried.

It was time to go and I did. They stood at the door  waiting till I got to the car. I got in and they waved me off as I drove away, thinking of the value of formality.