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.


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.

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.


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. 



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.


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.

Perfectionism and Birthdays

I’ve started several blog posts in the last few weeks, yet I talked myself out of finishing every one of them. I told myself that writing blog posts about quotidian things is frivolous during this pandemic. If you are writing in these difficult times, you need to have something profound to say. The news is serious, life is serious, people need succour. But lately I have realized that our small everyday acts of creativity are far from frivolous—they nourish us and keep us sane. So bring on the poems and the sewing, the novels-in-progress, the drawings, the baking, the quilts and the aprons. The blog posts. And all of the mistakes we make as we create. All of it is keeping me going right now. 

Having a Hallowe’en birthday is special because birthdays are special. My mother acknowledged the Hallowe’en side of my day of birth by buying a pumpkin-shaped cake for my first birthday, and later on by decorating with orange and black streamers, putting a jack-o-lantern on the table, or letting us bob for apples. Later, when I became a mother, my own birthday was eclipsed by trick or treating, which was absolutely fine. 

I have been thinking a lot lately about perfectionism and birthdays, and how perfectionism has nothing to do with being perfect, and about how children’s birthdays can be a breeding ground for perfectionism, which is a soul-killing characteristic that I wish to banish in my life. 

For some reason, it was important to me—to my very identity as a mother—that I design fun, exciting, wonderful birthday parties for my kids. Decorate your own cupcake with five colours of icing and a dozen candy toppings. The year I made a cake from the pages of Women’s Day magazine featuring a swimming pool made of blue Jello and a path made of chocolate covered ladyfingers. We rented a Bouncy Castle twice—had it set up in the back yard for the August birthday one year and the front yard for the September birthday a few years later. We didn’t have lots of money, but I always figured out a way to pay for extras like that. We put on a teddy-bear tea party one year (bring your teddy-bear!) and  a trip to the reptile zoo another year (poor reptiles! What was I thinking?).

Oh yes, the year of the hockey card cake—I painstakingly cut the players from hockey cards then glued the cut-outs to popsicle sticks so they could skate across the white icing on a sheet cake. That was also the year we hired John Demers, a children’s musician (kind of a low-rent Raffi, but actually better than Raffi) to play his guitar and sing in our yard for the children. There was a magician one year. I’ll never forget the tears I cried over making the bright yellow Big Bird cake—I borrowed the cake tin from a friend and worked so hard to get the icing the right colour. All this effort for a one-year old child who didn’t know the difference! Who probably just wanted to lick the bowl, that would have been enough. There was the year Greg and I blew up something like a hundred balloons so the boys could fasten paper bags on their feet with rubber bands and play the “stomp the balloon game.” I’m sure my fancy birthdays drove Greg crazy! 

And then as the kids got older and grew into adults, I upped my cake game and kept trying to perfect the Butter Brickle Cake, the recipe from Dufflet’s Bakery in Toronto. Three layers of pecan meringue with caramel sauce and whipped cream. I experimented with baking the meringue so it wouldn’t stick to the foil. Spray it with Pam first? Maybe parchment paper instead of foil? Higher temperature? Lower temperature? Maybe bake them a bit longer?  Was the caramel sauce too runny?  

The famous Butter Brickle Cake (recipe below for all of the stalwart bakers who wish to try)

All of this work at making birthdays wonderful is fine and beautiful. A noble intention: I wanted my kids to feel special, happy, and loved. None of this is wrong. But what gets me is how I tried so hard. The anxious perfectionism driving my doing is what I’d like to eradicate. I think I took a neurotic pride in these exertions, looking down my nose a little at the families who ordered a pizza from Pizza Hut and an ice-cream cake from Dairy Queen and let the kids play in the yard for a couple of hours and called it a birthday party. But at the same time, I envied the relaxed looks on those parents’ faces—they were enjoying themselves, sitting in their deck chairs drinking beer and laughing while the kids made their own fun. No need for hired entertainers, fancy party bags, or even paper invitations. Just call a few friends and tell them to come on over. No need to try so hard.

The word perfection comes from the Latin noun perfectio and the adjective perfectus, both of which are derived from the verb perficere, “to complete.” So perfection is tantamount to wholeness, completeness, and—to use the Buddhist concept—suchness. Something is perfect simply because it is. It is perfect just as it is, mistakes and flaws included. (p. 29)

When I read this paragraph yesterday in Vanesa Zuisei Goddard’s book, Still Running: The Art of Meditation in Motion,  I felt a click of recognition. My therapist has been talking lately about Madeline at capacity. Being all of myself, allowing all of myself to be. To feel my suchness. That’s perfection. 

I wish now I’d been a bit more relaxed as a mother. Perhaps more “being” and less “doing.” More carefree. Welcome the mistakes. Don’t worry so much. Only make a fancy cake if I felt inspired to, not because I was driven by a Women’s Day image of what good mothers do.There’s no shame in buying a cake.

If I have an intention for the year ahead, it is to stop trying so hard, to relax deeper into my suchness. Instead of pushing myself into each new day with a list of “shoulds,” I plan to pause and see what emerges from my depths. What do I, in my perfection, want to experience today? 

Butter Brickle Cake 

This cake, by Dufflet Rosenberg, is a sensational combo of pecan meringue, rich caramel, and whipped cream filling.

Pecan Meringue

6 egg whites
1.5 c. white sugar
4.5 oz. toasted pecans, finely chopped (you can toast in a cast iron fry pan on top of stove, or in oven for a few minutes)

Caramel Filling

1 c. white sugar 
.5 c. buttermilk
.25 c. butter
1 tbsp. corn syrup
.5 tsp baking soda
few drops vanilla

Whipped cream filling

2.5 cups whipping cream 
.25 c. dark rum OR a tsp. of rum flavoring

Meringue: whip the egg whites in large bowl til soft peaks form. Add 2 tbsp of the sugar and beat until stiff peak forms. Fold in remaining sugar and pecans. Line baking sheets with parchment paper, and spread three 9-inch rounds on the paper. Bake in 200-degree oven until firm.  

Caramel filling: in small heavy saucepan combine all ingredients. Sir and cook over med. heat until sugar dissolves and mixture boils. Boil without stirring until mixture reaches soft-ball stage (236 degrees – if you’re not sure about what this is, look online or in Joy of Cooking).  Remove from heat and cool 2-3 minutes. Spread mixture evenly over meringue layers, reserving .25 cup for decoration. 

Whipped cream: whip cream until stiff, fold in rum or flavoring. Spread some cream on each layer and then pile the layers up. Cover top and sides with remaining cream. Decorate with butterscotch swirls and pecan halves. Refrigerate until serving. Makes about 12 servings. 

In February, the Waters of March

My father’s 92ndbirthday arrives next week. A fond memory keeps cycling around my mind, a memory of music and love. Once my father and I sat on a couch in a rented cottage in Parksville, a place where a ribbon of warm sand meets the calm water of the Strait of Georgia. It was a family reunion we held a few years ago: two of my sons came with their girlfriends; two sisters,  one niece, my father and stepmother rounded out the group. For two days we cooked and ate, talked, played Scrabble and Frisbee, and talked some more.

My father and I sat on the couch together, close, holding hands. We like doing that, holding hands when we sit. After an absence, it’s how we reconnect. He used to say to me on those occasions, all those times I came from Victoria to his Ontario farm, “Is there anything we need to talk about?” That was his invitation for me to tell him what was happening in my life: my troubles, my joys.


While we sat and talked, I liked to press my thumb down on the prominent veins that embellish the backs of his work-worn hands. His lean body has no fat those veins can sink into, so like swelling blue rivers, they crisscross his skin.

Again that day we sat together, holding hands, but this time we talked about music. I asked him, what song brings joy? Not unadulterated joy, but the kind that tastes bittersweet? What song wakes you up, yet makes you wistful? Makes you feel simultaneously fiercely alive and hip to life’s fleetingness, death’s certainty? Well I’m sure I didn’t use all of those words, but whatever I said, he knew right away what I meant because he answered without hesitation: “Águas de Março.”

I was familiar with Waters of March, the Brazilian song by Antonio Carlos Jobim, because my father had often played the version by Getz and Gilberto from the album, The Best of Two Worlds, recorded in 1976. I found a YouTube version on my laptop and we sat and listened to it together, my smaller hand finding his big warm one.

getz gilberto

Gilberto strums his guitar, then his voice starts to climb up and down those whittled Portuguese lines, like climbing up and down ladders in the rain.  Next comes the voice of his wife Miúcha, singing the English words.

A stick, a stone
It’s the end of the road
It’s the rest of a stump
It’s a little alone

It’s a sliver of glass
It is life, it’s the sun
It is night, it is death
It’s a trap, it’s a gun

The oak when it blooms
A fox in the brush
A knot in the wood
The song of a thrush

Her light coppery voice lilts and lists, catalogue of strange poetry, then his voice comes in again with the round custardy Portuguese vowels. The words swirl around, eddying like the rain coming down in a Brazilian town, descending, rippling, flowing into the vortex of 10,000 joys, 10,000 sorrows.

A stick, a stone
The end of the road
The rest of a stump
A lonesome road

A sliver of glass
A life, the sun
A knife, a death
The end of the run

And the riverbank talks
Of the waters of March
It’s the end of all strain
It’s the joy in your heart

What is it about that song? Husband and wife singing in two languages, listing and chanting, the dance of two voices, two worlds. That bossa nova rhythm, Getz’s swooping saxophone, the swishing percussion. Flotsam and jetsam of words caught in a whirlpool like little coloured scraps of our lives, moments in time, swirling, twirling. What is it about rain in March swelling rivers in a faraway country that made us both feel a catch in our throats, made us start to cry as we listened together?

After a time, my father asked me what my song was, and I told him June Hymn by the Decembrists. So we listened to that next. And then it was time for dinner.

aguas de marco

June hymn


Deep in pink snow

pinksnowLike walking on pink snow, I thought, as my feet padded over a bed of petals under a cluster of Kwanzan Flowering Cherry trees. Here in Victoria, we get more pink snow than white; from February until May these blossoms drift in eddies from their fruit tree homes and fall gently to the ground.  And then I remembered an old book from my childhood, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. Sally and her brother were clearing snow outside when the Cat in the Hat ambled by. Even though they remembered the havoc he created in the first book (The Cat in the Hat), they unwisely let him in the house to get out of the cold, where he ate cake in the bathtub, leaving a pink ring. When he tried to clean the bathtub ring, he made things worse: he transferred the pink stain to the mother’s white dress, the father’s shoes, the rug, and the bed. The big Cat asked for help from little cats A, B, and C (who live under his tall hat), but they spread the stain further, onto the white snow outside. You may have read this book, which culminates in “Voom,” an amazing magical cleaning agent under the hat of microscopic cat Z that wiped the snow pure white. But only after all the other 25 alphabet cats plus their leader had transformed the snow into a bubblegum-pink blanket across the yard.

I recalled the book and the image of pink snow not with pleasure, but with disquiet.  I realized that when I read that picture book, published the year of my birth, I used to feel not delight but worry. That huge anarchist cat was threatening, not fun or jolly: he initiated chaos. His swirl of pink filth grew unbidden, and I had no control over it. How scary to watch the malevolent pink stain spread like bacteria over everything inside and outside.  What a revelation to have bodily sensations—a clenched stomach and light fluttery heart—when I remembered the growing pink stain and my helplessness in the face of it. And then when the problem was solved—voila!—by Voom, again I had no control over that; it was simply something that happened out there in the world. It didn’t matter that order was restored as if the stain had never happened. What I remembered was feeling not relieved, but disturbed and powerless.

As children, we have no control over the big Cats out there—they do crazy stuff and all we can do is feel our fear and anxiety as we watch events unfold. I am reading a book, Call it Sleep (1934) by Henry Roth, that perfectly captures a child’s experience of being swung around like a leaf in a windstorm. As an immigrant Austrian Jew in the Lower East Side of New York City, David is manipulated by other children, criticized and beaten by his father, and abused and chastised by his rabbi, leaving him terrified and untrusting of the world. Only his mother Genya provides solace. Roth’s skill is in bringing us into David’s life so we feel the terror of events and his despairing existence. Once he wanders away from home and gets lost, ending up in the police station among Irish cops:

“He understood it now, understood it all, irrevocably, indelibly. Desolation had fused into a touchstone, a crystalline, bitter, burred reagent that would never be blunted, never dissolved. Trust nothing. Trust nothing. Trust nothing. Wherever you look, never believe. Whatever anything was or did or said, it pretended. Never believe. If you played hide’n’-go-seek, it wasn’t hide’n’-go-seek, it was something else, something sinister. If you played follow the leader, the world turned upside down and an evil face passed through it. Don’t play; never believe.”

Part 2

Recently I rediscovered How to be an Explorer of the World (2008) by Keri Smith on my bookshelf. Smith writes, “at any given moment, no matter where you are, there are hundreds of things around you that are interesting and worth documenting.”  I decided to do experiment #33, arrangements, with pink snow. I was interested in pink snow as a thing. There was the idea of pink snow from a children’s book, then there were the pink petals under my feet.

The next day I took my cloth bag to work and gathered handfuls of petals from the ground. They were soft, buttery, and damp. The petals were attached to bits of brown detritus and mixed with long pine needles from a nearby coniferous trees, so I scooped them up all up together. Smith suggests explorers do lots of things with the materials they gather: stretch them out in a long chain, use them to cover a book, freeze them in ice.  I did different things with my petals. I shaped them into a circle, a heart, and face. I placed some in a plastic zip-lock bag with purple ink and smooshed the mess onto paper. I placed a handful in a mason jar full of water and kept it for a couple of days.  I suspended a round crystal over the mound of petals on my floor. I’m not sure why. . . I was just playing.  I realize I have a strong belief in the goodness of play and creativity.  And I have a need to play creatively. I used to think that play had to be for something; now I know it doesn’t have to be purposeful. Just play. Just believe.

Now to clean up all the old petals.






Documenting human detritus: The shopping list

Last summer, I wanted to test a theory I had and blog about it: Female servers in ice-cream places are more likely than male servers to give that extra little bit when you order a single scoop (that is, a scoop and a half).  It seemed plausible, as it had happened to me a few times.  It was also a delicious summer diversion, although it could lead to weight gain. I thought I’d take pictures of the cones and construct a chart or graph to display my findings.  Quickly, the theory was discovered to be faulty as we encountered several women who gave parsimonious ONE scoop servings and a guy who gave two for one.  Not long after that, the summer went to shit and the project seemed frivolous indeed.

This summer I am onto another project. I am not offering any theories, only the prospect of documentation to satisfy a growing curiosity.  I see shopping lists all the time.  I find them discarded in grocery carts and on the floors of stores. I find my own shopping lists tucked here and there in the house and in various notebooks. I am curious about shopping lists, so I thought I would start to document the ones I find to see what they tell me about people.

I have three to start. I found the first list at the back of a notebook I was keeping in 1985. I have recently been going through old folders from storage, and one folder titled “Alcoholism” had notes from when I quit drinking 32 years ago as well as some photocopied research articles about the “alcoholism as a disease” debate.  In a green steno notebook, I wrote about how things went each day for the first three months of sobriety.  In one note, I said I’d gone to my doctor and told her about my drinking problem. She said “Well, you don’t look like an alcoholic.” I recorded my fury at her comment.

At the back of the steno book, there was a shopping list, and along with food items (and kitty litter) in my handwriting, there are notes penned by my (then) husband—names of baseball players that I surmise he was considering for his fantasy baseball league. Beside them are numbers—it’s a mystery to me what they mean. I wonder if that’s the bidding price.

The second list I found in the couch when I was vacuuming under the sofa cushions today. This one is in my husband’s printing.

The final one, also found today, was on the floor of Thrifty’s grocery store written on half of a torn envelope.  I picked it up. I am going to be picking up every grocery list I see for awhile, until this project seems frivolous.

What do shopping lists reveal about people? Their diets, I suppose, and their habits of consumption.  These three tell little tales. I bet I was making chilli when I wrote that old list (from 32 years ago). Why else kidney beans and tomato sauce? And I am trying to remember the cat we had then for whom I bought the litter.  Maybe it was Dashiell, named after Dashiell Hammett, a grey and white striped female.  The more recent list is sweet because it shows that we eat quite a healthy diet, which makes me happy.  I like the “veg X 2.” However, something mysterious is that we never eat fish steaks because I prefer filets. Perhaps it means salmon AND steak?  I think so. That’s what that little symbol is–an ampersand in shorthand.

The found list is interesting. I don’t think it needs much commentary. I am glad the person is eating fruit.



Elephant Man Comes Out


Another hot dream. I woke in a sweat. My chest felt sticky, my erection painful. Sal’s big body had crowded me all night. Sometimes her broad back against me felt like a dam pinning my pent-up life force. I got up quickly and had a shower, and when she got up, eye-smudged and groggy to get the baby, I was efficient, even curt as I passed her a cup of coffee.  She was fat and innocent and I felt like a shit.

I knew my son had a birthday party to go to that day—Saturday August 27, 11 to 1. Every time I went to open the fridge for the last two weeks, I’d seen that invitation emblazoned with bright balloons, stuck under an anti-bullying magnet. I realized then I’d been seeing 11 to 1 as a bit of an escape. I vaguely knew the boy, Liam, and the family. I met them once at a La Leche League picnic—a group of earnest people I feel no connection to, even though my wife is a leader.

She sat by the window breastfeeding the baby, one hand around a mug and the other cupping her enormous brown breast. Propped into the crevasse between her big belly and her thigh, the baby applied suction to the hidden nipple, and around that little mouth, working rhythmically, spread the puckered aureole of my wife’s breast, stippled with long black hairs like a dunce cap askew the vast mound of veined flesh.

“I’ll take Pete to the party, “ I said, looking away from her bare breast and out the window to the silent green park, dotted white with seagulls.

“Oh, okay. I was going to….” the baby gurgled and farted and with a little cry came off the breast. My wife fussed with her, repositioning the flannel-wrapped sausage back onto the long damp nipple.  “You can have some time to yourself with the baby” I said, watching one large seagull open his wings.

Pete was playing Lego in his bedroom. “Hey kiddo, I’m taking you to Liam’s party. We’re leaving in half an hour.”

Pete looked up at me, serious brown eyes in his pudgy face, a lollipop stick protruding from his dark lips.

“Where the fuck did you get a lollipop?”

“Lady at the grocery store,” he mumbled.

“Give it to me,” I opened my hand, “now.”

“No” said Pete, arching away. Little shit looked at me, defiant eyes, wild crinkly hair framing his fat face, a line of purple syrup dribbling from his mouth. He looked demented.  Sometimes I looked at that kid and thought “he’s mine?”

“Whatever,” I said turning my back. Losing battle. Genes. My wife was fat, my kid getting fat, even the baby had rolls of podge.  And today there would be more sugar—a cake and ice-cream, goody bags. Jesus.

Liam lived in a little stucco house a block away from an elementary school. The front steps and door were shabby, a stack of old newspapers moldering in the corner and a bag of garbage sitting atop the stack, like nobody had the energy to get this stuff into the bins down in the driveway.  Sometimes homeschoolers were like that. Home all day with their kids, yet can’t get it together to do simple chores.

The door opened. Lily, the mother, beamed her smile. Pete shoved his gift into Lily’s hand and darted around her, yelling “Liam, Liam! Where are you?”

“Sorry, he’s really excited,”

“Oh, no worries! Liam’s excited too.”

We stood there together at the door entry, her smile lessening a little at the corners as she jiggled a baby on her hip.

“I’m Lily, by the way.”

“Oh, yes, Nils.” As both of her small hands were occupied, we both looked at my outstretched hand and laughed.

“Well, are you just dropping him, then? Or do you want to stay?”  she asked.

I hesitated. “Well if you don’t mind.”

I hadn’t thought about what I would actually do from 11 to 1. For some reason a coffee at Starbucks with yesterday’s Globe spread before me seemed sad. Maybe I’ll stay and observe how the other half lives.

“Oh come in, come in,” she chimed, leading me into the living room, decorated with streamers. Scuffed, coloured boxes of toys lined one wall, bookshelves lined the other, and two big sagging sofas faced each other like old drunks.

“Coffee?” she called back to me as she started to fill a kettle.

“Sure, that would be nice.”

“My husband is just finishing up some balloon blowing in the rec room—it’s a secret game so don’t say anything to the kids. I’ll keep the game a secret from you, too! You’ll love it” she chuckled.

And then she did the most remarkable thing:  She shifted the grizzling baby from her hip into the crook of her arm, lifted her t-shirt to expose an alert pink nipple, slid the baby onto it, then cradled the egg head with her splayed hand—all in a series of expert moves.

I felt embarrassed then, to have watched her virtuosity with such curiosity, so I quickly turned away to look out the large windows wrapping the kitchen nook, onto the compost heap in the back, just in time to see a shiny rat running across the debris with an apple core in his mouth.

More kids started to arrive with their parents, but none of the other parents stayed. They seemed eager to be free of their children for a couple of hours. People hugged one another and handed off gifts in loud voices at the crowded doorway, as if insisting on how much they loved family life. Children, all boys, were running around the small house, yelling and laughing.  I sat safely in the kitchen nook where I had holed up, nursing a cup of coffee, watching, listening, feeling my gut loosen, my mind soften. The children’s shouts seemed far away.

Liam’s father emerged from the basement with another child—a toddler. So they had three kids?  Wow.

“Hello,” he approached me with a lopsided grin, hand outstretched.

“Oh hello, I’m Nils, Pete’s dad” I half rose from the nook to shake hands with this gangly man.

“I’m Liam’s dad, Miles. Just finished the one-hundredth balloon, and I’m knackered,” he laughed, blowing a raspberry from puckered lips in a demonstration of the work he’d been busy at below.

Pretty soon the birthday party started to take on a shape. Lily and Miles organized the kids in the living room and announced there would soon be a soccer game in the schoolyard, followed by lunch and cake and presents and finally a special game in the basement—a secret! Then goody bags and good-byes at 1 o’clock.  The kids swarmed and pushed each other and shook the wrapped gifts piled onto one of the couches.

I sat in the kitchen nook, feeling quite proprietorial by now.  I liked this corner. It felt safe.  The kitchen table was strewn with used coffee cups, a colouring book and crayons, a stack of library books in one corner. The other adults had things in hand—there was nothing to do. My son was taken care of. I liked the coffee made from beans from a local roastery. It was strong with real cream.  I liked the big panel of windows behind me. I could turn my head and see the narrow yard with a rusty play gym and the compost pile, home to happy rats. I could see the sagging homemade cake perched atop the fridge, the goody bags lined up on the top shelf in the Ikea-styled kitchen.  The sun had come out and I felt the warmth on my neck and a pleasant breeze from the open window beside me.  The kids’ voices seemed as if they were coming from a distant country in another language.  I liked the feel of the smooth cushion under my bare thighs.

Miles shepherded the kids out the door with a soccer ball in one hand and holding the hand of his toddler with the other. He managed everybody in his gentle tenor, punctuated by chuckles: “C’mon guys, it’s not far, just a block, but let’s all stay together now! Last one there is a green frog,” and then he hopped like a frog for a few meters while the boys shrieked at him.

Lily stood at the open door, watching them go, jiggling the baby, talking softly.

“Oooh look at Daddy going bye-byes and all the kids. See your brothers?”      Then she turned abruptly, flushed, “Oh I’m sorry, did you want to go with them? Go play soccer? I’m sure Miles could use the help. . . .” she trailed off.

“No, no, actually I’m really enjoying sitting here, if you don’t mind. I don’t often get to just sit. It’s very relaxing.”

“Oh, yes, of course,” she smiled. The baby’s eyes were closed and it leaned into her small breasts.

“I’m just going to put her down for a nap. Perfect timing, really,” she said, and padded down the hall to the dark nethers of the house, no doubt piled with cloth diapers, toys and more toys, precarious towers of books on attachment parenting  beside the messy bed.

I leaned back into the cushioned nook, my hands on my thighs, feeling peaceful after the roiling night, feeling my breath go in and out.  I pulled the stack of library books closer and—with a quiver—recognized the title on the spine of the bottom book. A Boys Own Story, by Edmund White.  What are the chances! I pulled it from the bottom, and looked at the cover, a beautiful bronzed teenage boy in a tank top, his sharp profile framed by dark messy locks. A book I had finished only a week ago. What are the chances of us both reading this somewhat obscure 1982 memoir by the same guy who wrote The Joy of Gay Sex? Or maybe Miles was the one who had taken it out of the library? That would be even weirder. Feels like a sign.

In the opening scene, White describes, in erotic detail, how he, 15, and a young visitor to his summer cottage, 13, fuck each other every night in a narrow cot, with the boy’s younger brother asleep in a cot beside them.  Some of the lines had kept coming back to me, stirring me, after I read it.

I opened the book and found the page.  “Now that he’d completely relaxed I could get deeper and deeper into him.”

I registered tingles in my groin area.

And then I skipped down to this:  “‘I’m getting close,’” White said to the other boy. “‘Want me to pull out?’

‘Go ahead,’” the boy said “‘Fill ‘er up.’”

Oh sweet Jesus. This kid welcomes the rush of ejaculate into his butt like a tank welcoming the flow of gas—my God that made me horny. As I re-read these lines, I felt my prick start to thicken. I closed the book, but continued to hold it in my hands, touching it almost tenderly now, recognizing again how much yearning it had stirred in me.

After a minute or two, Lily padded back down the hall, toward me, smiling.

“Out like a light.  I’ve got to get the lunch ready for the kids, but just sit there—it’s fine.”

I had made no move to get up to help her. I just smiled broadly, fully relaxed now, holding the book in my hands.  Was it something about this messy house, the coincidence of the book, her open smile, the drone of lawnmowers on nearby lawns, the caffeine buzz in my head, the arousal that made every pore a thirsty mouth?

Lily started to pull things out of the fridge – mustard and ketchup in plastic squeeze bottles and packages of wieners.

“I bought both meat hot dogs and tofu hot dogs because I happened to know some of the kids are vegetarian, including ours” she said brightly, with an inquiring look on her face as if to say “and what about you and yours?”

“Oh, we all eat meat,” I said. “But I’m not sure how much real meat is in those things,” I laughed.  And then lifted the book up to show the cover.
“Did you like White’s memoir?”

“Oh my god, so good!” she said, putting two pots of water to boil on the stove and fumbling around for scissors to cut open the plastic packages of wieners.  “Have you read it?” she looked over her shoulder at me.

“Yes, just recently. It seems such a coincidence that you have, too.”

“Oh, I belong to a book club, and we’re doing a year of memoirs, actually. It was my turn to pick, and I was at a loss. So my brother, who’s gay, was here for dinner and raved about it. So I figured—let’s give it a try!”

And here my voice took a leap out into the warm air.

“The opening chapter—that was brilliant. I read it more than once” I said, feeling a blush creep up my neck. “Every time, I got hard as a rock.” Nervous laughter. There was no turning back now. It was out there, hanging in the air, that boys having sex made me hard, this thing that had rolled around inside me, a lump deep in my gut, a greasy red coil that fueled my erections every morning.  I wondered if her back had stiffened a little, hearing it, or did I imagine that? Practice, I told myself. Practice this. Don’t expect approval, man. Don’t expect anything.

“Sorry, Lily. That was TMI, I know.”

She turned square, facing me, wiping her hands on her cut-offs.

“Not at all,” she laughed. “Do you know, I felt aroused by that scene too? Don’t you think we’re all polymorphously perverse? Freud was really onto something.”

That got me sitting up at attention. “But did you know Freud said that it is under the influence of seduction that children became polymorphously perverse, just like so-called bad women are swayed to perversion by seducers. He did not approve. To him polymorphously perverse was a distortion of sexuality.  You know he was a product of his time—a real prude.”

“Hmm,” she sat down across from me. “How do you know so much about him?”

“Oh, Freud has held some fascination for me over the years.”

She looked at me quizzically, then got up, went to the stove, and started to lift the pots to drain the dogs.  “I’ll put these to keep warm in the oven. Help me get the cake finished? I haven’t frosted it yet.”

“Okay, sure.”

“Tell me more about Freud, you dark horse,” she said.  “Or, actually, tell me more about getting hard from reading Edmund White.” She looked me in the eye. “Seriously, I don’t judge.  I don’t tell. I am an impartial listener. And I grew up with gay.” Then she laughed and started to lay tofu dogs on a cookie tray.

“I’ll take it,” and I joined her laughter.

* * *

When Miles and the kids returned from the soccer field, Lily and I were working side by side putting the hot dogs into buns, pouring juice into glasses.  “How did it go?” Lily called, and Miles, in response, came up behind her, sliding his arms around her.

“Fun, fun, fun. We’re hungry, baby.”

Pete rushed up and punched me in the leg.

“Why’re you here, Dad? You’re the only one. The only parent. You can go now” he said, his dark brow furrowed by the anxiety anything out of the ordinary produced in him.

“It’s okay, Pete, I’ve just been hanging out with Liam’s mom, helping her.” Pete seemed to accept this explanation, and soon there was just the blur of kids eating hot dogs, and then the singing of Happy Birthday, and cake, and Liam tearing gift wrap off of boxes of Lego, a book, some juggling pins, a sketch book. I had reclaimed my nook, and I watched the proceedings, all of it a bit surreal. I could not take back what was said, nor did I want to.

Lily was deep into being a mother. The baby was back on her hip, her other hand gestured and grappled with a lighter to light candles, squish balls of gift paper, and rescue bits of hot dog from between sofa cushions. Miles snapped pics with his iPhone, laughing frequently.

“Good gift for you Liam, a sketchbook – nice one – young artist.”

The kids were playing with the new toys—a dozen bodies moving rapidly and making noise in the small living room. I watched safely from my nook, sipping juice. Then Lily did a remarkable thing. She handed the baby to Miles, leaped onto the coffee table, and cried “Elephant stomp! Elephant stomp! Elephant stomp!”

Each time she said it, she punched the air with her little fists on the “stomp” and stamped her naked feet, making it into a war holler. In only a few seconds, the kids caught the idea and echoed “Elephant stomp! Elephant stomp!” Letting toys drop to the ground, they punched at the air with sticky fists.

“Okay guys, the game’s down in the basement, but first you have to put on your elephant feet.” Lily took a stack of brown paper bags she had placed at the end of the coffee table and started handing them out, two for each boy along with two rubber bands.

“I’ll show you what to do.”

But before she demonstrated how to make elephant feet, she strode over to me in my protected corner—“You too!” she said, smiling. “It’s fun!”

I hesitated, but then I took the bags and watched. Lil put one bag over each bare foot, securing them with rubber bands around her ankles.

“Now I have elephant feet,” she crowed, stomping them up and down, and causing the baby in Miles’s arms to startle and wail. She laughed and helped the kids on with their bags and rubber bands.  Soon they were all shuffling down the basement steps in elephant boots, following Lily, laughing and talking excitedly, except Miles, who stayed above, shushing the baby. I trailed behind, my paper boots making every step uncertain.

Lily opened the door of a large rec room strung everywhere with dozens of coloured Christmas lights glowing on a sea of softly bouncing balloons. The children stopped quietly for a moment, looking. One of them exhaled loudly, “Jeez Louise.” We all laughed at that.

The first kid in the line, my kid, yelled “Hey, let’s stomp ‘em” and soon all of the young bodies smashed into the softly lit space and were stomping on the balloons that burst with cracking noises, like guns in rapid fire.

Lily hadn’t needed to show them what to do. They knew. Then she grabbed my hand and pulled me in. “Let’s do the stomp, elephant man,” and she brought her right arm up against her face, pursed her lips, waved her arm up and down, pushed a loud stream of air from her tight lips. At the same time she lifted her knees and splayed them in an African dance. She was a mad she-elephant trumpeting, waving her trunk in the soft jungle light, bursting jungle balls in heavy-footed splendour.

Laughing, I made my arm into a trunk, trumpeted my own rich high-pitched sounds into the mix, bursting my own bubbles in the dim cave, protected by the dark.