Grief’s flat feet

My dad, 1927-2021, looking over his land soon after they bought the farm.

We walked slowly Thursday morning because overnight, recycling boxes and bags heaped with cans, bottles, cardboard, and newspaper had appeared at the curb. Blue splashes up and down the street that Marvin had to investigate, and so our walk slowed to a shuffle. He snuffled like a pig rooting for truffles, straining at the leash to lick the pizza box, to reach the Friskies can with a smidgen of catfood left on the rim. The night before, during his last walk of the day, he’d let out a volley of piercing barks at a pile of recycling across the street. Perhaps to his eyes, in the dark, the mound of stuff piled high above the blue box was a threatening mammal.

Early September’s morning chill, high scudding clouds above, and a Northern Flicker playing hide and seek in a hawthorn tree, his red head popping in and out of sight. The street is quiet—just the distant thunder of the McKenzie interchange as a blur of cars crosses into town. I am grateful to work at home, no need to commute. Instead, I love these 7 a.m. walks. Something in a recycling box caught my eye. Neatly folded on top of a pile of newspapers was a section of Saturday’s Globe and Mail, folded to the crossword puzzle. Every clue solved; every box filled with a neatly penciled block letter. Perfection. Did my puzzle-solving compatriot struggle over it as much as I had? 

I felt connected to that person—their careful block letters different from my scribbled slanty ones, but we both finished the thing. Did they do it quickly, or did they stretch out the experience into Sunday or even farther down the week, relishing it? Did they approach the task methodically or fill in random clues? Did they ask for help or go it alone? Dictionary or no dictionary? Google or purely old school?  

Marvin ate half of my pencil.

Think of all of us across the nation who turn to the crossword first thing on Saturday. Sharp number 2 pencil. Or maybe a mechanical one. Do some confident people use pens? Fresh white eraser by Mars. Or a pink Dixon, perhaps? We sit in armchairs, on couches, sprawled on deck chairs, scrunched on buses and subways, drinking lattes in coffee shops. All of us, together in the challenge.

My mother did crosswords daily for the last 22 years of her life. They helped fill blocks of morning time after her mandatory retirement from her job as a lecturer in art history at Ryerson Polytechnic in Toronto. I found a letter from her dated February 1997. She had just received a package I’d sent intended to cheer her up: 

“I didn’t realize my depression was so obvious. It isn’t a deep depression. It is simply that I no longer have an audience and no longer get paid for doing something I enjoy. The awful thing is that as soon as a person retires, he/she loses status. I notice it when I talk to people at Ryerson . . . They seem extra kind and sort of smile at me and ask me what I’m doing, etc. I smile back and try to talk glowingly of having time to read, etc. pretending that it’s absolutely great. And I know, as I’m doing it, that they know I’m putting on an act. . . So, I’m trying to develop a new lifestyle as a person with time to do those things I really enjoy. The difficulty is to distinguish what it is that I enjoy doing! Meanwhile, I do crossword puzzles, which is new for me and I’m getting pretty good at it (usually at breakfast), and it’s very nice to have the leisure not to have to rush.”

I started doing the Saturday crossword soon after my mother died in 2019. I thought they were too hard at first, and so I’d abandon them quickly. I have a healthy vocabulary, and I love language, but the crosswords seemed like something else. They’re filled with puns and tricks, and it seemed you had to be part of the in-crowd to get them: both hip to idiomatic English across the decades and savvy about current cultural trends. I’m just too literal, I thought, and what I know fills such a narrow groove. But then the challenge started to intrigue me. Now I look forward to the Saturday paper. After reading the headlines and the obituaries, I find the crossword, fold it into a nice rectangle, and begin.

All of this is a preface to say, I’ve had no will to write. Nothing seems worth writing about, these days. Life has a flat, fallow quality. Nothing’s important enough. Although there’s plenty of big bad news—pandemic, systemic racism, climate change—I don’t feel equipped to talk about any of it. 

So, I push myself to finish this rather silly piece, a blog post about something as quotidian as the crossword puzzle. I stop and pause often to ask, “Why bother?” Why bother indeed. But it’s just that writing something, anything, seems as if it might be the antidote to the flat way I feel. 

My thoughts return to my mother, sitting on the loveseat in her high-ceilinged living room, wrapped in a thick robe, blinds down, doing the crossword. Filling the hours. Her sleek black cat, Cicero, is curled up beside her. She is deep into it, puzzle dictionary next to her on the small rococo marble-topped table, Schubert’s Trout Quintet playing softly on the CD player. Missing the old nicotine rush, the sweet suck of smoke into her lungs, she holds the pencil like a cigarette for a moment. I miss her. In that old letter from ’97, she wrote, 

“I’m probably exaggerating, but I have been in their situation [those Ryerson people who acted extra kind toward her] when a colleague retired and made her appearance at the annual fashion show. She smiled too much and talked of having time to sew and do the things she enjoyed. I remember trying to avoid her because I think I was embarrassed and felt sorry for her because she was no longer part of those of us who were still doing important things—not just passing time.” 

Mama and me, back in the day.

Doing important things v. Just passing time. . . I flinch at my mother’s binary of “important” paid work and “just passing time.” But something in what she wrote resonates with me. I work part time as a self-employed editor, but lately, I often feel as if I’m just “passing time.”

Maybe this is just the flatness of grief. Flat-footed grief walks over me. After many losses, I am a fallow field—nothing growing here.  

I have been reading memoirs about aging parents. . . Elizabeth Berg writes in hers, “I think as long as a parent is alive, it’s easier to feel young.” After my father died at the end of June, I’ve felt old, flat, fat, tired, sad. Nothing feels important. Especially not the weekly crossword. And yet, musing over the word problems gets my brain churning slowly, raking over clues like a pitchfork turning organic matter in the compost heap. I feel connected to crossword puzzlers across Canada. I imagine, for example, an old guy in Mahone Bay—let’s say he’s 82, goes by Ernest Nickerson and sits in the kitchen nook with morning coffee, chewing the end of the pencil as he tries to remember what a 10-sided shape is (79 across, 7 letters). 

From our 2012 honeymoon in NYC

Remember geometry class in tenth grade? That’s where Ernest first noticed the girl who would be his wife, in geometry class at Mahone Bay School. As he digs deep for the name of a ten-sided shape, another thought is unearthed from that compost heap: Darlene’s thick red hair, held back with tortoiseshell barrettes. He couldn’t take his eyes off those red wings in front of him during class, couldn’t stop imagine pulling his fingers through that rough, dark crimson hair. He unclicks the delicate barrettes to let those wings loose to fly. If Darlene were alive now, Ernest thinks, she’d lean into my ear, her coarse grey hair tickling my nose, skinny shank up against mine, and whisper, “Decagon, Ernest. You knew that, honey.” 

I write to get momentum, to feel connected to people, to create worlds. To feel connected to you, and Ernest, and Darlene. So, if you are a maker, a creative person, (we all are, each in our own way) remember: The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made by you. Even if it doesn’t seem important. Believe me, it’s important. It connects you to life. The fallow field regenerates.

Memoirs about aging and dying parents that I recommend:

  • Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
  • Philip Roth, Patrimony: A True Story
  • Elizabeth Hay, All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir
  • Elizabeth Berg, I’ll Be Seeing You.
From a later trip to NYC, March 2019, after my mother died. Sugar skulls in a restaurant display.

My last phone call with my father

In the last few weeks of my father’s life, my stepsister Sandra held the phone near his ear when one of us called. He lay in a bed set up in the living room, slipping in and out of consciousness. We’d given up on FaceTime; he could no longer see us. But perhaps he could hear my voice. You never know.

That day, perhaps two weeks before he died—I don’t remember—I felt desperate. I was frenzied in my wish to connect, to penetrate the veil, to make him hear me. But I had nothing to say other than I love you, you were a good father. He’d heard it all before. 

So I sang. First, Summertime, from Porgy and Bess, my voice catching and scratching like an old record. Then, I pushed on with the next song that entered my head: Mac the Knife. I scrambled around the world wide web until I found the lyrics. Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear / And it shows them pearly white. Somehow, I thought he’d remember that song, but I don’t really know the melody beyond the first two lines. I faked it, trying too hard, straining, improvising, hoping. Hoping for what? For his sweet voice to say, “Madeline, that was wonderful”? Nothing.

So, then, a poem. I’ll read a poem. Robert Frost is a good safe bet. 

I wanted to find Nothing Gold can Stay, a poem about impermanence. But my memory failed me. I couldn’t recall the title, so I accepted instead the first poem that popped up when I searched for Frost: Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I pressed on, putting as much feeling into my voice as I could, wishing I’d chosen a more dramatic poem, a poem I could really emote. Instead, just the simplicity of an Alex Colville painting. A man and his horse on the darkest evening of the year, stopping.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

When I finished the last lines, my stepsister’s voice entered. She’d been there all along, holding the phone. She said kindly that she could listen to me all day, my voice was lovely. But Dad was asleep; he’d been asleep the whole time. She thought perhaps he could still hear me. Did he move an eyebrow? 

But really, I know she didn’t have the heart to interrupt me. We said good-bye. A week later, I used the voice memo app on my iPhone to record myself singing “Blackbird” by the Beatles, Dad’s favourite song, and I texted it to Sandra, with a note, can I talk to Dad on Wednesday? But Tuesday was his last day here. 

A frantic energy inhabited me during those final one-sided calls. Helpless, I worked overtime to get through, to make a mark. Hey you, this is your daughter. Papa! You there? Remember me? Your youngest daughter? Remember how you and I used to joke about you being King Lear, and I was your Cordelia? Sir, do you know me? Surely you do. Just give me a sign. 

Father

In this wine-dark place
a tiny voice
a whisper:
hush, little baby, don’t you cry

From long ago
from far away
a thread
of red travels along
my bloodline

when that shark bites with his teeth, 
babe
scarlet billows start to spread

and meets a tributary.
I know your voice. 
You are mine.

I want you close
daughter,
but this trip
is made alone.

The woods in here
are dark and deep

I want to sleep, 
dear, but
a worry burns:

Tell me, do I have 
promises still to keep?

No, I hear you say, 
no more promises to keep.

Spread your wings,
I hear you whisper

Take to the sky papa,
Take to the 
red-blood sky.


A sense of belonging

“Human beings are creatures of belonging, though they may come to that sense of belonging only through long periods of exile and loneliness.” 

David Whyte, The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship

Ever since I was small, I have felt I don’t belong. As I grow older, I see how this sense of not belonging is linked to black and white thinking: I am excluded either because I am not good enough or because I am superior (“arrogant worm,” as they say in AA). This strain of thought is endemic for alcoholics. To break the spell, it’s crucial to look for similarities not differences when you attend twelve step meetings or, indeed, whenever you feel the sharp edges of polarity creating a sense of distance. 

For me and perhaps for you, the isolation resulting from the pandemic has exacerbated loneliness and a sense of exile. Last month I was feeling particularly alone in the sadness that can arise from being a parent. Only in recognizing that many other parents across the world share in this pain did I not feel so alone. Facebook groups and other modes of connecting across space and time are wonderful to bring a sense of “I’m not the only one.” But also useful has been the Buddhist practice of Tonglen, breathing in the thick suffering of others in your predicament and breathing out coolness and healing. This practice connects me with others, but more than that, it dissolves the sense of specialness and exclusion I am prone to. We’re all in this together.   

There is another simple practice I have started. I review small events from the perspective of community. This week, for example, I went to an acupuncturist for the first time. She is a gentle young woman named Demi with a river of brown curls running down her back. She made me feel so comfortable and safe as she stuck a dozen needles into my legs, hands, and back. As I laid face down on the warm table in a quiet room, I felt joined with all of the other people suffering sciatica or other pain in their bodies, and I also felt part of a group of people who get acupuncture. I could picture hundreds of us lying on surfaces—floors, grassy fields, dusty streets, tables, beds—and kind practitioners breathing slowly and rhythmically, putting us at ease, as they insert the slim sharp points. I imagine a collective release of endorphins through bodies old and young, fat and slim, smooth and rough. I imagine our relief. 

The next day, I suffered from self-doubt about my new editing business—will I get clients? Will people I’ve done work for get back in touch with me? And imposter syndrome: Am I really an editor or just pretending? Perhaps I don’t belong.

Drawing a tarot card, I asked, “What do I need to know right now?” I pulled the Six of Wands, then consulted Joan Bunning’s Learning the Tarot. She writes that “the Six of Wands appears when you have been working hard toward a goal, and success is finally within reach. . . . If you do not feel close to victory now, know that it is on its way provided you are doing all you can to make it happen.” I felt encouraged. 

Amazingly, later that day, I received two emails from former clients who wanted me to do work for them. The next day, a new client gave me an update on work that is planned for this summer. And a referral from a colleague I thought would come to nothing yielded another email today asking for my services.

I feel not only encouraged by all of this positive activity, but connected to a community of editors. Yes, I belong. Amazed by the rightness of the card, I feel connected to all those people everywhere who use tarot to help them make sense of life.  I can see the decks being shuffled and cut by hands everywhere—brown hands, gnarled hands, arthritic hands, young hands, a hand with a missing finger. . . . We shuffle and cut and draw and learn about ourselves and others, about our Fool’s journey on this Earth.

On Friday, I felt down again, and as I sat in the backyard with my next-door neighbour and we watched the puppies play, I shared a little of my current grief. She popped out of her lawn chair, “I’m going to get my Animal Spirit cards. They’ll help you to feel better.” She came back with the deck and I shuffled and drew. I tried to pull just one, but two cards were stuck together—Elephant and Otter. She read aloud the description of each animal, and a tear rolled down my cheek. 

The descriptions felt resonant—the qualities of the unstoppable, gentle, noble elephant and the giddy and joyful otter were combined inside of me. I felt connected to my neighbour then, linked to her through her kindness to me and her willingness to explore beyond the rational self. I feel connected to everybody everywhere who is suffering and uses tools to understand themselves and bring solace: tarot, mandala-making, building sand-castles, creating songs and singing them, writing novels and poems, reading palms, tea-leaf interpretation, or casting the I Ching. 

Then on Saturday, I was washing dishes and noticed movement in our back neighbour’s yard. Raccoons? I fetched my binoculars and trained them on a raccoon couple mating—the male straddling the female and biting her neck. Their black bandit masks and long striated fur were crystal clear through the binocs. I was awed. I am part of a community of animals—our bodies are drawn to one another, we mate. I am connected not only to a world of animal lovers, but to a world of lovers of animals. We train our binoculars on birds and lovely beasts of all kinds; we are curious about the natural life we are part of. 

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote that “what is essential is invisible to the eye,” and that has been my experience. An (invisible) sense of community is essential to me now more than ever. This week I call forth community in many ways. I call it forth through my pain and suffering. I call it through being a patient of acupuncture. I call it through using tarot and other mystical tools. I call it through imagining myself as a member of overlapping groups: editors, parents, and neighbours. And I call it through membership in a society of homo sapiens and other animals. An invisible sense of belonging keeps me going. I may not be able to touch you but I feel you.

Jellyfish

A short story by Madeline Walker

For four weeks, Brian Butler taught my husband how to play guitar on Zoom. I don’t know how my husband found Brian Butler, but when I came home one day from grocery shopping, Stan was enthusiastically tuning his old Checkmate guitar. He has dragged that guitar around all of our married life, yet it’s rarely been out of the case. It was good to see him plucking at the strings. Especially as I’ve been down lately. What with Covid and all. Since I met my husband in 1974, learning how to play guitar has been on his to-do list. Whenever we’re packing to move house—six times in 46 years—he takes the guitar out of the case, noodles around on it, lays it on the sofa or leans it up against the wall for a few days, even gets out some chord charts. Then as the packing boxes start to pile up, he quietly puts it back in its battered case and it gets moved to the next apartment or house.  

I washed my hands after I unloaded all the groceries and threw away the disposable mask.  After I shut off the water, I could hear him picking out a tune, faltering. Going into the living room, I asked him what’s up? and he said I found this great guy on the internet, name is Brian Butler. And? Well he’s going to teach me how to play, finally, on Zoom. We had just signed up for a Zoom account and my husband was eager to use it as often as possible to make the twenty bucks a month worthwhile. Okay, when do you start? Tonight at seven. But we always watch the Good Wife at 7. Well, can’t it wait a night? The Florricks aren’t going anywhere. 

As 7 o’clock got close, I was curious about how the guitar lesson would go, but I knew my husband would be shy about it. He went into the basement with his laptop and the guitar, just before 7. I watched a cooking show instead of the Good Wife—Bobby Flay gloated over beating somebody at making waffles. 

I assumed music lessons were half an hour. So I was surprised when 7:30 came and went. So then I watched a real estate show Love it or List it, where some terrible asbestos problem blew the budget. I’ve gotten the formula down pat now. Everything is going well with the reno’s then, Bam! There’s a crack in the foundation, asbestos in the kitchen, a dead rat behind the wall.

When my husband’s head bobbed up the basement stairs just after 8, I looked over and could see he was animated. He practically danced into the living room. How did it go? He’s great! Just great! This guy is fantastic! He had me playing a bunch of chords at the end of an hour. And he has some great ideas about life too. 

I think my husband felt sheepish because he went into his study then and shut the door for a while. After about five minutes I called through the door, wanna catch a Good Wife? Just one episode? We have time before bed. Okay. And he came out and we didn’t discuss guitar lessons for the rest of the evening. For that matter, we never mentioned it the rest of the week. 

I’ve been depressed lately. What is there to be cheerful about? I force myself to go to the grocery store so I will see another living person other than my husband. It’s hard to get out of bed. The birds who come to the feeders give me some pleasure, especially the Northern Flicker who has been making the rounds. That and coffee, snacks, television, and wine keep me going.

During the second lesson, I was nosy enough to go down and stand outside the closed door at the mid-way point. I could hear laughter and some guitar playing and then more laughter. I hadn’t laughed with my husband for weeks. No wonder he wanted to learn how to play guitar from Brian Butler. Brian Butler sounded fun. I went back upstairs and made microwave popcorn, poured a water glass full of red wine and watched the rest of Love it or List It.  

The next week, my daughter called me to see how I was doing. She deals cards in Vegas, and she’s been calling me once a week since the Covid to see how I’m holding up. 

            “Mom, I found this dance therapy called Gaga, and I think you’d like it. There are classes online. You just move your body around, and it’s very liberating. I wish you’d try it—I see lots of older people doing it. I’ve been doing it myself, and I feel great.”

         “Gaga, as in Lady Gaga?” I was proud of myself for knowing who that person is. 

            “No, it’s some Israeli guy that named the dance method after his first word when he was a baby.” She laughed. “That’s probably everybody’s first word. Either gaga or googoo. Was it mine?”

            “No, yours was blackjack.” That was my attempt at a joke because from a very young age, my daughter said she wanted to be a card dealer in Vegas. But the joke fell flat. She kept on about the Gaga dance until I agreed to go get my iPad and look it up, try the streaming classes. 

            “Please try it out this week. It’ll cheer you up, Mama.” She called me Mama when she was feeling concerned about me. So I agreed to give it a try. 

I didn’t actually have an intention to try anything new, but when my husband started to get ready for his lesson Tuesday after dinner, taking out the guitar and noodling around, I remembered the Gaga class. I didn’t tell him, but when he went down to do his lesson with Brian Butler, I opened my iPad and found the class, paid with PayPal, and got a glass of wine. Nobody could see me, I had my camera off and Stan wasn’t there. I could do what I wanted. So I see a bunch of people moving in strange ways, and the leader calls out to them, “Okay, be a feather, I want to see your feathers.” 

Do you know what? I love being a feather. I could see myself loosening from the Northern Flicker’s wing and floating, twirling on a pillow of air, my downy bits fluffing in the wind. I shut my eyes and my quill lowered to the carpeted floor as I listened to the deep voice of the teacher encouraging me to be something other.

The week after that, Tuesday night, I got ready. I found the old djellaba I bought in 1977, folded in plastic and set on a high shelf in the closet. We both bought djellabas in the night market on that trip to Marrakesh—Stan’s is purple and mine is yellow. I rarely wear it, but it reminds me of a canary feather, so that night I poured a glass of wine, took off all my clothes and pulled the djellaba over my bare skin. I had bookmarked the class on my iPad so I got there quickly, paid my $12.50 drop-in fee, and soon I was dancing like a feather. Nobody could see me, but I could see a grid of young women, light on their feet, prancing about in their living rooms, shaking their manes. And one very old couple being frail feathers together. 

The teacher was calling out instructions “let everything drop away….shake out your legs and your arms. . . what’s left? Just the core of you. Let your core lead you,” he called in a deep voice. “Follow your limbs. . .  follow your fingertips…” I forgot about my wine, I was so busy following my fingertips around the house, then I followed them back to the iPad propped on the coffee table. Next, we were clouds floating and changing shape, and after that we turned into hollow seed pods, skipping along, carried by the changing wind. I was so busy being not myself that I didn’t hear Stan come up from the basement. He stood at the top of the basement stairs—I don’t know for how long—watching me. When I saw him from the corner of my eye, I got flustered and shut everything down. 

You’re early tonight, I said, and he agreed. It was the last class and they finished a bit early. So I went quickly down the hall to our bedroom and changed out of the djellaba and put on my sweat pants and sweat shirt and we watched an episode of Good Wife. It’s funny, but we didn’t talk about what I’d been doing. He didn’t ask and I didn’t tell. I felt vaguely ashamed, as if I’d been doing something forbidden, ashamed of the way I’d followed every instruction of the Gaga teacher as if he were Franz Mesmer himself. Ashamed at how I had enjoyed my bare breasts and thighs rubbing against the old Moroccan cloth as I moved through the house, not even remembering that I had a self. It felt good, but bad. 

That brings me to last night. After dinner, I loaded the dishwasher, and I was wiping down the counters when Stan called up to me from downstairs. Hey, Darlene, will you do me a favour? Put on your djellaba? And come down here? I have something I want to show you. A strange request, I thought, but I shrugged my shoulders and yelled down the stairs okay, Stan. After the other night, I’d draped the yellow djellaba over the chair in our room and it was still there. I let my clothes drop around me in a heap, and I slid the long garment over my body. I liked how my naked skin felt next to the cool, rough cotton. 

I picked my way down the stairs, my bare feet caressed by the textured carpet. I stopped and really ground my feet into the nubbiness of that carpet, like I was scratching a deep itch on my soles. The swivel chair was positioned away from me, so I couldn’t see Stan’s face. When he turned around, I saw he was wearing his purple djellaba and he held his old Checkmate in his hands, poised, ready to play. I laughed out loud to see my husband in his djellaba. Beside him on the desk was his open MacBook and a man’s face was looking at me from the screen. This is Brian, Stan said, gesturing at the face, and the man, who had drooping moustaches and a sad face, waved at me. I could see now that he had a guitar in his hands, too, and he tapped the wood on his instrument, one, two three, then both Brian and Stan started to strum chords and sing.  

“Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes / Travelling the train through clear Moroccan skies. . . . ”  So this was what Stan had been practicing all these weeks, behind closed doors! Our song from long ago. I started to sway and dance as I had for the last two Tuesday evenings, as if nobody was watching. My spine turned into seaweed, and I was floating in the North Atlantic Sea while Stan sang the old song in his cracked voice and Brian’s deeper, suppler voice came from the computer’s speaker as he watched me. I wasn’t ashamed anymore. I moved my arms and legs and my torso, following my body every which way it wanted to go to the music. “Wundtja know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express / Wundtja know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express/ They’re taking me to Marrakesh. . . .” I started to sing with them, “All on board, that train, All on board that train…” 

My husband got out of his chair and put his guitar down on the floor and then it was just Brian playing and singing as Stan followed my lead. We waved our arms and danced. We twirled around the basement room. Soon we were turning into seaweed under the ocean. Jellyfish spun around us, salty ballerinas, translucent yellowy orange with long fronds and frills. Then we became the jellyfish. When I moved my body, Stan mirrored me, and our fronds waved and sparked with electricity. I looked down at his pale slender feet gliding across the pocked tile, purple cloth draping his bony shins. We moved together, jellyfish mates under the long fluorescent light tubes, sinuous in our coloured dresses. The song was over, and we heard rustling coming from Stan’s computer, but we didn’t look over to see what Brian was doing. Now it was just the buzz of the tubes above us as we rocked in the deep. My husband’s crooked grin lit up the greenish underwater world.   

Photos by Michael Carpenter

A fifty-five year old Valentine

This week, I moved my office to the basement—a desk, a rug, a chair, lamps, a bookshelf full of  books about writing and editing, my computer and my big monitor. I like working down here – I feel more efficient and less distracted than when my office was upstairs. I am getting ready for self-employment as an editor.  Part of my moving process included going through some old papers. I came across a bag of letters from the 1960s from my adopted grandmother. Phyllis took my mother, who felt neglected by her biological mother, under her wing in the 1950s. She cherished “Ginger” and paid for her psychotherapy for years. When my sisters and I were born, we always called her Grandma, and she showered us with love, attention, and gifts. 

In August 1965, when I was six, our family moved from Berkeley, California to Toronto. For several years after that, my grandmother and I wrote frequently—we missed each other. Her letters were many pages long: typed, double-spaced in Courier with cross outs here and there. She typed on thin paper, then folded the pages into sixths so they would fit into small envelopes. Much of what she wrote was about her several cats. She usually had three or four cats at a time, mostly strays she found or who found her. She never tired of describing their behaviour, their looks, their sweet antics. Today, I slipped my hand in the bag and pulled out a letter dated February 12, 1966. 

Mercury retrograde has been disrupting communication since the end of January, and I’ve felt those disruptions—messages gone astray or misinterpreted. But the serendipitous reach into a bag and the pulling out, like a rabbit from a hat, a message from fifty-five years ago to the day—feels special indeed. The magic lingers today. She wrote,   

                                                                                                     February 12, 1966

Dearest Madeline:

You make me feel very lucky to have such a good little letter-writer for a granddaughter. I have two  letters to answer, just as I did the last time I wrote to you. That means you are twice as faithful in your correspondence as I am. 

            You wrote to me on January 20th, “I don’t think I can think of much to say”, but don’t every worry about not having anything to say. If you only say “Dear Grandma, I was thinking of you and wanted to say hello. With love from Madeline.” I will be thrilled to get your letter. Just to know that you were thinking of me and just to see the envelop in the mailbox with your writing on it gives me such a big happiness when I come home from work. I get lonesome for all of you, even though I am kept busy. 

            I got some pictures of all of the family with my valentines, and I can see you have lost a tooth. You didn’t give that news, and anyway I suppose it didn’t seem like much news to you. But everything that happens to each of you is news to me, because I try to keep track of you in my mind and think about how you look. You may be surprised that in just the six months you have been in Ontario when the pictures were taken, you have all changed a little. You have probably grown taller too. All this is happening a long way from me, so I have to depend on your news about yourself to fill in the picture of you in my mind’s eye. 

            I have just re-read your two letters to see if there is anything in them I should reply to at this time. (I ought to know them by heart, I read them over enough times. The first reading is more like a mental gulp, and then I read them over and imaging you writing them, and it makes you seem closer than five thousand miles.)

            Well, right off, your letter of January 20th gives me a subject to write about. In it you said that you didn’t think you would ever draw like Kathy—and this is true, I hope; because only Kathy will every really draw like Kathy. Anyone else who drew like Kathy would only be imitating here, and you know that an imitation is never as good as the original thing. You will draw like Madeline, and I think each of you are pretty wonderful, and each of you has a definite quality in your drawings that speaks for you—it is the beginning of a “style”, as it is called in the artistic world. . . . 

            It was in the pencil portraits of Ginger and Kenneth that the “you” in your drawings was particularly effective. . . . the pencil drawings were quite remarkable, I thought, not because they were as expertly drawn as you might have thought they should be—but because they were as they were genuine portraits in the fullest meaning of the word, not only a physical resemblance, but you caught something of the total character of your mother and father. Not only would I recognize them immediately if you hadn’t labeled the drawings, but they were well proportioned and had had an inexplicable quality I can only call “aliveness”. This means that you are both perceptive and have control over your pencil—two  qualities a great many grown-up artists which wish they had.

 I hope you learn all you can about the techniques of drawing and painting, but I hope even more that you hold onto the precious quality of being able to draw what you see without self-consciousness. I hope I don’t bore you with all this talk about your drawings but I just took at the envelope and looked at all of the paintings and drawings over again and I feel just as delighted with each of them as I did the first time I got them.

I was struck by how loving and lively her voice is. It reaches to me over decades, skipping over death. Her affection touches me afresh, like fingers brushing against my cheek. Her words demonstrate a lively interest in me as a person, a lovable girl with talents and potential, and her enthusiasm, her vigorous voice, still warms me as anew, even though her hands folded these pages more than half a century ago.

The letter goes on, the next four pages all about her cats: Thumbelina, Pinky, Batu, and the newest addition, Duckling. She describes driving to the mail box , and getting out of the car to mail a letter, when a small black cat comes up and mews at her. She asks the neighbourhood children walking to school whom the kitty belongs to and none of them know. She tries to shoo the cat away, but when Grandma opens the car door, the cat slides in beside her, “settling herself into a comfortable little bundle and starting to purr.” Then she writes, “What could I do? I turned the car around and took her home.” 

Grandma writes she is “altogether the most unprepossessing little black kitty—and that is how I started calling her a little ‘Ugly Duckling,’ which has now been shortened to ‘Duckling’.” On page 5, after descriptions of Duckling’s warrior stance with the other cats, Phyllis writes, “She adores the sheepskin rug, standing ankle deep in the fur, purring and making biscuits with a trancelike expression on her little face.” I can see that little black cat kneading even now, deep in her pleasure, having found a refuge.

Grandma ends the letter at the end of page 6 with rhetorical flourish, “Now I come to your lovely valentine…Thank you, darling. It is one of the most original valentines I ever saw, and I dearly love what you wrote on the back. Many kisses to you for making it and sending it. …

Goodbye little sweetheart. This is almost like reading a book, isn’t it? Tell me if you get tired reading long letters and I’ll try not to be so long-winded, or divide my letters into three separate epistles.” And in pen, “Lovingly, Grandma Phyllis,” with many x’s and o’s across the bottom of the brittle paper. 

Tears clumped in my throat when I read the last paragraph. “Goodbye little sweetheart.” I’d forgotten her affection for me; I’d forgotten what it’s like to be a child treasured by an adult. I’d forgotten the warm articulate voice that spoke to me in Courier typeface, that set me firmly in her pink spotlight, never talking down to me, using language so beautifully and naturally, telling me her stories. Perhaps reading her long letters planted the seed for my love of reading and writing, my love for stories, my affection for the long dash. I’d forgotten what it’s like to have an adult consider you—a small child—valuable and important, your burgeoning talents of great interest and worth remarking on. 

In the universal way of impermanence, the relationship slackened over the years, which was not surprising, given our distance from one another and my encroaching adolescence. But that little magic pocket of emotion inside of me has been lit up, rosy pink, these last 24 hours. A lamp-like glow that bathes me from the inside out. I feel loved. 

Happy Valentine’s Day to all of you. Thank you for reading.

Kitchen memories

Guest post by Judith Walker, aka Jude, my sister and a wonderful cook

Retro, old fashioned, nostalgic, comforting. These words will have different meanings for all of us, depending on our age and our interests. For me, the feelings of nostalgia, craving and comfort come from memories of meals and gatherings from my childhood in the 60s and 70s and also from early adulthood in the 80s, when I experimented with food and first cooked professionally.

When I was a kid we lived in California. Our mom wasn’t a confident cook, she was a late starter and as a young wife and mother struggled to fill her role as the family chef. Some of her meals included simple seasonal items that sound exotic but were quite ordinary for the time and place. Whole artichokes steamed with lemon and served with a bowl of mayo that we shared for dipping. After a lot of peeling and sucking on the tough leaves we were rewarded with the succulent heart. No mayo required, an amazing flavour burst that would linger on my palate for hours. Possibly my first sensuous experience. And the tacos. So basic and so good. We would all help prepare this meal, bowls of fried ground beef, chopped iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes, onions, grated cheese, mashed avocado, and sour cream. And hot sauce for Dad. It must have been the tortillas that made this such a memorable meal. In Berkeley, we had many Hispanic neighbours. I think my mom was able to find fresh tortillas in the local grocery store. I know that my first bite of a fresh corn tortilla in Mexico many years later flooded me with nostalgia.

Another go-to dish for special occasions was ceviche. Mom made one with scallops, shrimp, and onion chopped up and marinated in fresh lime juice.  This was an easy dish she could prepare ahead of time and was elegant and delicious. I don’t recall what she served it with, I just ate it by the spoonful.

And then we moved to cold, Anglo-centric Toronto. No more avocados, scallops or tortillas. It was the 60s after all. So, overdone roast beef, watery spaghetti sauce and tuna casserole came into our lives. Our mother tried to teach us to cook when she went back to school. Cooking pasta (we called it noodles), chopping an onion, peeling veg, measuring, making rice and washing dishes were things we learned. I don’t think the results were great, but I am grateful for the lessons. My fave dish from those days was tuna casserole. I am serious. There is something about that combo of the salty tuna, the creamy blandness of the mushroom soup, slippery noodles and crispy edges that is the epitome of comfort food. I’m pretty sure I made this more than once on a hungover Sunday in my twenties. Better than Kraft dinner!

cook 2 cups of broad egg noodles according to instructions
-open and drain one can of chunk white tuna
 -open a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup
-drain the noodles and mix all the ingredients together in the noodle pot along with a nob of butter.
-pour into a greased 9×9” pyrex dish. If you are feeling fancy sprinkle crushed saltine crackers on top.           
-bake at 350 till bubbling and crispy.

 ( I just checked the Joy of Cooking recipe, and they recommend seasoning the soup with dry sherry! Hilarious!)

Another recipe that was easy for us kids to make and that we actually ate was hotdogs in cornbread:

 -put 6 hot dogs in a 9×9” pyrex dish
-place in a hot oven and roast till a bit brown and blistered
-mix one recipe of cornbread from the Joy of Cooking
 -pour it over the hot dogs and cook according to instructions
-serve with butter and yellow mustard on the side

I sometimes crave this meal, but know if I made it I would eat the whole thing and quickly descend down the spiral of shame.

 My mom tried, she just didn’t have much to work with and not much inspiration in those busy days. We never had Kraft slices, Wonder bread, pop or ketchup in the house. I didn’t know what pizza or french fries were till I was in junior high. I remember visiting my grade 7 friend in her wealthy parents’ fancy penthouse apartment. Their live-in cook would make us toasted Wonder bread topped with bacon and  melted processed cheese. Served with ketchup. I loved it. However, I am grateful that our mother raised us on real food and set us on the path to healthy eating.

Things started looking up in the 80’s. Mediterranean, Asian and Indian food were starting to trend. My mother was travelling a lot then and brought back recipes and fresh ideas. We thumbed through Gourmet magazine and cookbooks looking for our next dinner adventure. The more complicated the better. We would make forays to Kensington market, Chinatown and little India seeking exotic ingredients. And then spend hours in the kitchen, often at Mom’s, gathered around the butcher block on our periodic Friday night family dinners, with mixed results. It was fun and challenging and I learned much that has stayed with me. Pasta from scratch, fresh herbs, toasting and grinding spices, rehydrating dried mushrooms and peppers, fresh cheeses…risotto! So much to discover.

In the mid-80s, knowing nothing about running a business or professional cooking, I started a catering company with a couple of friends called “The Feed Bag.” It was hard work, fun, funny and pretty much a failure financially, but there were some great parties! We made hundreds of spring rolls, massive sushi platters, a ridiculous number of meat, cheese, veggie and fruit trays, with little money to show for it. One of our go-to cookbooks then was The Silver Palate. The quintessential 80s cooking guide. Every recipe has more fat then I would eat in a week now. Decadent. I recently pulled out my battered copy because of a challah recipe request from my sister. I looked back at the most raggedy pages and found one of our old tried and true recipes, chicken dijonaisse. So simple, so good. And easy. I made it recently with a few additions, some shallots, grated parmesan and fresh parsley, and ate it with egg noodles. Delish. Anything served over egg noodles is comfort food for me.

I also made a pineapple upside down cake a while ago, another childhood favourite. Honestly it wasn’t as great as I remember, I think I skimped on the butter in the caramel sauce. I did create an elevated version of this when I worked in fine dining. Individual servings baked in a ramekin with half of a ripe red plum on the bottom. It was beautiful when inverted on a plate surrounded with a creme anglaise or boozy sabayon.

I am not sure why food has been such a focus in my life. I am not academically inclined and hated school, so I managed to make a decent living and support my travels by working in kitchens. But it is more than that. Food was a conduit to my mother, a shared past, our phone conversations in her later years pretty much revolved around what we were cooking that day. And our cats, but that is a whole other story.  It was one of my favourite parts of travelling and a wonderful way to connect to local communities and their customs and everyday life. You can learn so much about any part of our world by learning about the food the locals grow and eat and the history and traditions around them.

 Researching, designing, cooking, sharing and eating food has sustained me on many levels for much of my life.

 This was the menu request for my birthday dinner when I was a kid fifty-five years ago.

 Baked chicken
 Potato salad
 Corn on the cob
 Watermelon
 Chocolate cake

I would grill the chicken now, but other than that I stand by this as my favourite summer meal.

Good food is good food.

The End

Note: I would like to give credit to Judy Gorton for the logo she created for “The Feedbag,” my first business and only adventure in catering. She has been a friend for almost 40 years and is a wonderful artist. I still remember part of the menu from the dinner party we catered for her as payment for the design:

  • Cornish game hen stuffed with basil couscous
  • Carrot sformato (an Italian savoury soufflé, my mom’s recipe)

How very 80s!!

Look back, look ahead

I know it was a horrible year, and yet it was somehow a good year for creativity. The work wanted to be made.

Writing

I finished the first draft of my first novel—as yet untitled. I have been living my own dictum. You only learn to write by writing, I tell the students I teach and tutor in academic writing. The more you write, the more you experiment, the more you learn how to write.

James Hillman said that “truth is revealed. It cannot ever be told. It has to appear inside the telling or through the telling.” Never have I found this more resonant than in writing fiction. I started out with a vague idea for a story, but it has only been inside the telling that truth has been revealed, an exciting and serendipitous—perhaps even magical—process.

I was privileged to have the first six months of the year off work and the second half working at home. This flexibility allowed me to establish a regular writing time in the mornings, so most days I wrote at least a paragraph and sometimes several pages. The novel is about 300 pages long. I will leave it to rest for a few weeks before I go back with an eye to editing. My small but loyal writing group helped me stay motivated, and I am grateful to them. I loved hearing other writers in the group read their work.

I published 18 blogposts in 2020. Long ago Michael helped me to be content with “3 plus me” (it’s written with a wineglass writer on my mirror). That just means if I like it and three other people like it (Michael is inevitably one of the three), then I am happy.

One of the posts this year was a beautiful guest blog by my sister.  And we collaborated on a second one. I love collaborating on blog posts and I welcome any of you to get in touch with  me if you want to write together.

Editing

This year I was accepted into Simon Fraser University’s Editing Certificate program and I have completed 3 of the 12 courses. I aim to finish in 2021, and intend to start my own freelance editing and writing coach business. I have done this kind of work as a side gig for years, but now I am ready to formalize my training and freelance in a serious way. Editing is a profoundly creative act. All of those decisions to be made about word choices and paragraphs, sytnax, architecture, punctuation. . . .

In my reading about editing, I came across Susan Bell’s, The artful edit, an interesting book about how to edit your own prose and hone your understanding of other people’s. I loved the way she takes the reader through the masterful editing of The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald and his editor, Maxwell Perkins. She has provided me with so many ideas both in editing my own work and as I apply my skills to my clients’ writing.

Sewing

I sewed in fits and starts this year, but as I look back I realize I was productive, though it often didn’t feel that way. I finished the textile art piece Eight Worldy Winds early in the year. The piece now hangs on my office wall to remind me of the transitoriness of feelings, fortunes, and life itself. Then the pandemic shifted me into giving mode—I wanted to make small gifts for people. So I started with potholders I had promised to friends a long time ago, then I delved deep in my scrap supply to make one-of-a-kind bags for other friends. After that, I sewed masks. I have to admit, that was a duty more than a joy. Then I started making aprons for people I love. By the final apron, I felt I’d perfected the pattern. I almost forgot about the blue cape I made (my courage cape) out of an old wool blanket. So much fun!

I went back to a bigger project with the Rhapsody in Blue quilt. It’s one of those weird quilts that actually look awful close up, with the mishmash of colours and patterns. But the total effect is pleasing. I started machine quilting of the top today, after pinning the whole quilt with safety pins. It’s the first time I’ve tried using curved safety pins to sandwich a quilt, and I like it. In the past, I’ve used the spray adhesive between layers, but I find it is not secure over time, and sometimes it takes me a while to finish a quilt top (now, especially, with a puppy).

There is something incredibly liberating in free motion quilting. And it’s a physical act; my whole torso sways and moves as I push the material under the needle, forming loop de loops. 

Puppy raising

Raising a puppy is a creative act. Just as raising children calls for creativity every day, so does having a puppy in the house. I used to make up games and stories, craft activities, and innovative ways to distract and delight my children. Now I am doing the same kind of thing with Marvin.

Going forward

I put sewing and writing on hold during our first few weeks with Marvin because it was an immersive experience—all of my energy was need to do my paid job and engage with and train the puppy. Those few weeks taught me an important lesson. I felt drained and bereft without my creative outlets. It is not just a luxury to take time to write and sew. Creativity is my lifeblood; creativity gives me momentum to keep on going; creativity feeds me. Especially in this year of the pandemic, I have leaned heavily on creativity, and I am so grateful to have the time to pursue my creative acts.

This year I let go of some things—drawing and my aspiration to learn to play the ukulele to accompany my singing. I just can’t do everything. So I focused on writing and sewing. I’m not sure what I’ll focus on in 2021. Some contemplation is in order.

Remember, creativity is your birthright. It’s not granted to just some people—we are all born with innate creativity. As children it seems more accessible and we rarely question it, but then its force seems to fade for some people. I encourage you to spark your creativity if it’s dormant. Write a poem, cook something new, learn a song, write a song, draw a comic, sew something. Make a birthday card for a friend. You never know. . . . 

All my best to all of you. Thank you for reading. 

 

Eyes fresh for this yard

img_1361a boy wearing his white
coat zooms peppery
figure eights

while like a tree, I stand
at the center 
of infinity.

scales drop away
as I look from eyes fresh
for this yard:

wet jade carpet strewn
with bay leaves, 
pine cones,

a yellow leaf falls from a 
raspberry cane, one fat
winter rosehip.

I listen to the 
wind while chickadee familiars
hop the fence, 

grey squirrel makes his
everyday leap into the
holly bush,

and figs grow plump
in December, auspicious
winter harvest.

A crux in our towering
fir is bed to the
racoon family 

and one night, a lone
owl perches there to blow
her song.

standing in the yard,
I wait for her next
breathy note,

voice from an
other world,
alto yearning

then notice a shape
across the fence,
waiting too.

crushing the last light from
the day, dark sky presses
down at four

and Marvin’s orange 
leash traces symbols 
of infinity.

still like a tree, I
marvel: my eyes fresh 
for this yard. 

Meet me in the kitchen

By Madeline and Jude

On Monday, our provincial health officer extended social gathering restrictions until January 8, 2021. You could almost feel British Columbians deflate: a long sad sigh. At first we were distraught. We must forgo visits with our families and friends for Christmas. My sister Jude had been planning to come visit, to meet the new puppy, Marvin, and hang out and cook together as we usually do. Distress softened to disappointment. Then acceptance. Instead of connecting in person, we would connect by writing together about kitchens and food.

A kitchen is the beating heart of a home, the place where people gather, where alchemy takes place. As well as providing us with nourishment every day, cooking is our creative outlet. It can be a calling. I believe it is my sister’s calling.  Jude is an intuitive, skilled cook who seems happiest in her kitchen, cats nearby, CBC on the radio. I love sitting at her wooden table, watching her work or standing beside her, chopping on the big scarred board that’s been in our family for decades. Lately, my sister’s been musing about the well-loved tools that comprise her essential kitchen.  And I’ve been appreciating Socca, a flatbread originating in Southern France.

Jude and Mad (2009) in the kitchen of All Mex’d Up, a taco shop Jude started and ran for 10 years in Port Alberni.

Jude:

My essential kitchen tools have been collected over many years of home cooking. I have deep affection for many of my well used pots, pans and various items. As much affection as one can have for an inanimate object. Which for me, is a lot. Most of these things have been with me for years, or in some cases decades. They have survived in my kitchen because they are dependable, hard-working, and often beautiful.

The cooking vessels that get the most use in my kitchen are simple. I have a two cast iron pans, a 10” and a 6”. I believe I bought both in thrift shops. They are heavy and solid with great heat distribution and if you treat them right they are non-stick.  I also have a wok that has been with me for over 30 years. I bought it in China town in Toronto and it travelled across the country with me, it has served me often and well. It is great for stir frying, deep frying and all types of  Asian noodle recipes. I think my favourite vessel is a dark red enamel coated cast iron Dutch oven that I use almost daily in the winter months. It sears, simmers, braises, and is perfect for my slow cooking life. And it is beautiful.

I have a thing for wooden spoons. I have them in all sizes and shapes and from many corners of the world. They are a perfect prize to pick up while travelling, light and easy to carry . They are also lovely to handle and practical. They don’t scratch pans, they don’t get hot and burn your hand, and they age beautifully. 

Cutting boards are another essential tool. I have a few, mostly wood. My favourite is a 2” thick riveted board that was a wedding gift to my mother. So it has always been part of my life. I remember  using it as a Ouija board when we were teenagers, there are still some marks we made on one side. My kind of heirloom.

And now for knives. These tools are my best friends and my foe. I am admittedly bad at sharpening. I just can’t seem to get the angle right and often end up with a blade worse than when I  started. So I get mine professionally sharpened when I can. My long-time favourite is a 8” Henkel with a riveted handle my mother gave to me many years ago when she could afford it and I couldn’t. It is a good weight for my hand and when it is sharp it performs marvelously. I also love my wooden handled wide tooth serrated knife, another gift from my mother, it slices through a crusty loaf or a ripe tomato with ease. I always have 3 or 4 paring knives around, just the cheap ones. Very handy. 

A fairly recent addition to my kitchen is my mortar and pestle. It is large and very heavy, solid granite with a smooth salt and pepper exterior and rough interior bowl. At first I was a little shy and didn’t have good results. After watching some of my favourite tv chefs I figured out that you really have to have some patience and put your back into it. I now use it all the time. I compose my Caesar salad dressing in it, make pastes for curries, and my electric spice grinder hasn’t been out of the cupboard for a while. The end results are very rewarding.

 Until I worked in a commercial kitchen I didn’t appreciate the relevance of tongs. Tongs become an extension of your hand, and next to knives are the most guarded tool of a chef in a busy kitchen.

So, along with a set of stainless steel measuring cups and spoons, a whisk, a rubber spatula and a fancy digital scale, these are my essential kitchen tools. 

 

Madeline:

Socca. What a revelation—I can have “bread” in 45 minutes!  When Michael and I started reducing carbohydrates in our diet, I discovered this traditional grain-free flatbread from Provence. Socca’s few ingredients are chick pea flour, water, olive oil, salt, and pepper. You’ll need a good frying pan—I use our 12-inch All-Clad, but seasoned cast iron works well. You can use a 10-inch pan for a creamier, thicker bread, but I prefer thin bread with a crusty edge.  

Place the pan on the middle rack of your oven and preheat to 450 degrees F.

While the oven is preheating, add the following to a bowl:  1 cup of chick pea flour (we use Millstream variety, local to BC), a cup of lukewarm water, a couple of tablespoons of good olive oil, about 1 tsp. of salt and several grinds of pepper. Mix it and let it sit. It should be the consistency of pancake batter.When the oven is preheated, carefully remove the pan with good oven mitts, pour olive oil to coat the bottom, then pour the batter into the hot pan. Return the pan to the oven and bake for 20 minutes. When you remove the pan from the oven, use kitchen tongs to pull the flatbread out of the pan and onto a rack. The edge will be lacy and crunchy, the inside of the bread velvety. Socca is delicious on its own, as a side to soup or curry, in a grilled cheese sandwich, or topped with almond butter.

Mark Bittman (New York Times) adds onions and herbs, fried lightly in the oil before the batter is poured into the pan. David Lebovitz adds cumin. These additions are delicious. But when the bread craving comes upon me, I make it fast, plain, and simple.

Thrifty

I haven’t had the energy to write blog posts lately because I am writing a novel, so I was very happy when my sister sent me a piece she wrote this week, inspired by reading Elizabeth Hay’s wonderful memoir, All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir. The thrifty mother in that book made Jude think of our Mom, so she wrote this story called, simply, “Thrifty.” Thank you Jude, for being the guest blogger today and for memories of our mother.

by Judith Walker

 My fridge is in a sad state. My previous fridge was original to the over twenty year old mobile home I live in. It tucked in nicely between the dishwasher, the overhead cabinets, and a wall. Replacing it was not easy. Fridges these days are huge, shiny double doored affairs, enough space to store food for a village. I do not want or need one of these, and I do not have the space. I was happy to finally find a fit, but my joy did not last long. Almost immediately the door shelf broke and had to be fixed with packing tape. Next, the precariously balanced glass shelves gave away. So now I have a cold cavern with one shelf and a couple of bins in my attempt to keep it organized. It is noisy and annoying but it does its job of keeping food at a safe temperature, so I will keep it until it dies. I dread that day. Things are piled high in there, multiple recycled containers with this and that, bags of cheese, squashed plates of leftovers, at least the veggie drawers are still intact. I have had a tiny dish of cranberry sauce buried in the pile since Thanksgiving dinner over a month ago. I refuse to get rid of it. I have some local turkey cutlets in the freezer that I will cook eventually, so I may use it…why buy a whole can for that? And as far as I’m concerned turkey needs cranberries.

 I hate waste, the older I get the more I grieve our planet that is drowning in garbage. I am disgusted by our consumer culture, the cheap throwaway products, the over packaging, the careless greed. I am thrifty, but not obsessive (yet). I am my mother’s daughter.

 Mom was born in 1929, the eve of the depression. She grew up in hand-me-downs and shoes that didn’t fit. Her parents were immigrant farmers, there was always enough food but it was a hardscrabble life and being the sixth of seven children and a girl she was made to feel a burden and not an asset. She was picking grapes on the farm by age seven and her dad taught her to drive when she was twelve so she could “take Mama to town.” The only book in their house was the Bible, something she loved to tell us while reclining amongst her overstuffed bookcases. Some of her few joys as a child were once- weekly piano lessons and a pony she shared with her much favoured older sister. She did not attend school till grade five, I’m not sure why, I think her parents did not let her go to school barefoot and needed her on the farm. Against all odds she became a respected professional in the academic world. Her thirst for knowledge and a chance meeting with a woman who would become her mentor and best friend propelled her towards a path of self-respect and achievement.

 When Mom became a wife and young mother times were hard. Dad worked at menial jobs while pursuing a degree. Mom was at home raising her girls and trying to make ends meet. One of her oft told stories was when she shared her accomplishment with a friend after making a stew from a lamb neck. Her friend replied, “Virginia, you are making a virtue of a necessity.” Later in life she told that with pride.

 In those early years Mom revelled in her maternal role. She made us dolls, doll clothes, tiny furniture from popsicle sticks, perfect for our cardboard box tiny houses. She set up an easel in our back yard and we had unending recycled paper from old bill boards. She baked bread and let us help turn the leftover dough into cinnamon buns. Mom let us express our wild side. She encouraged curiosity and exposed us to as much art, music and books as she could. She also cut our hair and sewed our clothes. Mom was not a lover a fashion at this point in her life, clothes were utilitarian and needed to be functional, and cheap. She took apart her old dresses and somehow made them into shifts for us, to be worn over a turtle neck and tights and passed down the from sister to sister. I don’t remember ever feeling deprived. When we moved from funky California to an upper middle class neighbourhood in white Toronto my friends and peers were kids of doctors and lawyers. They had school clothes and “party clothes,” dresses in pastels with poofy arms and white shoes. My best clothes were a kilt, a turtle neck, knee socks. And my little cowgirl boots. That is what I wore to parties with my rich friends. I remember being gently mocked, I didn’t really care. I knew and they knew that I was  a cool kid.

 As my mother’s career advanced so did her income. She bought a shitty house in a great neighbourhood and made it into a beautiful home. I remember her, in her fifties, in a bikini on a hot summer day pulling up tiles in the back. She loved that house, that home. She lived there for over forty years. Almost half of her life. She never stopped her thrifty ways. She bought the best, but always on sale, she never paid full price. She was an ardent recycler until her last years when she told me “I just don’t give a shit any more.”  Can’t blame her.

When I visited her a few months before she died we talked about what would happen to her things when she died. At one point she opened a drawer in her kitchen, the junk drawer. There was a nest of hundreds of elastic bands in the corner. She looked at it and looked at me, and in a plaintive voice she said “I just wish I could find somebody to give these to!”

 Oh mom. I told her nobody wants your old rubber bands. Look mom, they have lost all of their elastic! How long have been there? Decades? Oh mom. Poverty mentality.

 I am sorry I was so dismissive. I honour my mother in many ways.  I will never stop missing her voice. I  have a beautiful sock doll she made for me. And some of the tiny furniture. And a drawer filled with twist ties, well used baggies, and rubber bands.