Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Food Adventuring

When it comes to trying new food, I've always leaned to the cautious side – a trait I inherited from my father. He was a traditionalist. He believed that cooking was best left to the women. Except for breakfast, which he made for himself each morning. He put a small pot on the stove, measured in milk and oatmeal, and left it to simmer while he read the newspaper. When it was ready – and if it hadn't yet burned – he plopped the “pup” as we called it, into a bowl, added a generous heaping of sugar, and washed everything down with Maxwell House instant coffee, sweetened with three spoonfuls of sugar.

My mother's love for food might have kindled an adventuresome spirit, had it not been for the hard years of raising seven children while trying to make ends meet. Dinner was something to made quickly at the end of a long, tiring day. Quantity was more important than quality. And it had to be cheap to feed a family of nine on my parents' squeezed income. After driving hours around the countryside as a visiting nurse, my mother arrived home hungry and tired only to face husband and various children slouched in the living room, waiting for her to get dinner started. No wonder her mood turned sour, and her tongue sharpened. Could one of us at least get up and peel some potatoes? Pot lids were banged, frying pans were slapped on the stove, someone was yelled at to set the table.

Our typical weekday dinner consisted of a large thin steak from a cow that my father had butchered. My mother fried it in margarine, the meat's fatty edges curling up. Seared on high heat to cook faster, the steak always ended up tough. My father sliced it thinly, then forked two or three slices onto each of our plates. We did away with ceremony, putting the cooking pots directly on the grey arborite table. Boiled white potatoes, boiled peas, beans or corn drawn from the store of frozen vegetables harvested from the garden, and without fail, a large orange Melmac bowl of applesauce. According to Dad, applesauce was an essential food group. In the summer, a green salad brightened the table, along with asparagus, broccoli and cauliflower fresh from the garden. Dessert, or “tuitje” as we called it, might be a slice of purchased pound cake, or a few slices of canned peaches or pears over a scoop of neapolitan ice cream.

Sundays called for a slightly more elaborate meal. Sometimes we ate pork chops with red cabbage flavoured with cloves; or a rabbit stew with mashed potatoes and a can of creamed corn. The rabbit, like all our other food, was home-grown – a couple of cages in the garage held floppy-eared black and white bunnies munching on the lettuce my father refused to eat, calling all salad greens “rabbit food.” Sometimes my mother would make old-fashioned Dutch comfort food, like Stampot, which for some reason we called “hutsput.” Imagine a mash of onions, carrots and potatoes, boiled together with a large curl of Kolbasa sausage. Our neighbours probably considered hutsput and some of our other meals adventuresome: boiled heart, boiled tongue, and fried liver and onions. Ordering out or dining out was a rare adventure. Occasionally, on a summer Saturday night, my father would let us pick up a bucket or two of Kentucky Fried Chicken. We dug into those greasy chicken thighs and truly believed they were “finger lickin' good.” Once a year we were treated to supper at the Pineview Family Kitchen on Highway 9 where we feasted on hamburgers and fries, or hot beef sandwiches – a thin slice of beef layered between two pieces of Weston's white bread and covered with thick gooey canned gravy, with mashed potatoes and peas on the side.

If anticipation can be called a part of adventure, then birthdays were the ultimate adventure. As the birthday person, you could ask for anything you wanted for the evening meal. But no matter whose birthday it was, the request never varied: my mother's french fries. A couple of we older children helped Mum peel an entire 10-pound bag of potatoes. We cut each potato into long thin strips, and then Mum took over, dunking a metal sieve filled with potato strips into a deep pot simmering with hot fat. There were two dunkings: the first one, about eight minutes long, cooked the rawness out of the potatoes. 
The second one took just a few minutes and finished off the job, turning the strips golden brown. The end product could have won awards: crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside – even when plastered with ketchup. But it took hours at the stove to transform a bag of potatoes into enough fries to feed the hungry hordes. The birthday celebrant also had his or her choice of dessert: chocolate eclairs; a marbled white and chocolate cake; or a tart lemon meringue pie.

After leaving home, I remember one of my first forays into unknown food territory. I was newly married. My first husband David and I lived in an upstairs apartment in downtown Toronto. One afternoon, my friend Martine sat cross-legged on the red and cream patterned carpet in our living room. Light streamed through the red and green patchwork squares of my home-made curtains. Martine peeled a furry brown fruit about the size of a large egg. It drab exterior belied a shocking interior: spokes of fluourescent green radiated from a creamy white centre surrounded by flecks of tiny black seeds.

Want a piece?” Martine held out a plate, coins of the green fruit arranged in a circle.

What is it?” I asked, tentatively.

A kiwi,” she replied. Then, seeing my face, “You've never had one before?”

I shook my head. I wasn't confident about ingesting a fruit that looked so bold, so exotic.

C'mon, it's delicious,” Martine urged. I reluctantly picked up a piece and slid it into my mouth. Tart and sweet burst upon my tongue, the smooth pulp dissolving into tingling aftershocks of flavour. I took the plate from Martine.

This is...” I mouthed a second, and then a third slice, “wonderful!” Martine laughed.

Not all new food adventures were so wonderful. I remember my first Thanksgiving at David's family home. His parents were third-generation Scottish farmers who lived in an old stone home near Perth, Ontario. On this holiday, we were coming to the end of our early afternoon dinner. The turkey and stuffing, the gravy and cranberry sauce, the butternut squash, and the mashed potatoes had been cleared from the table, making way for the pièce de résistance – Mrs. Poole's famous pumpkin pie. I had never before eaten pumpkin pie. Mrs. Poole believed I was in for a treat, and handed me an inordinately large piece of pie on a blue Wedgwood plate. A surreptitious examination revealed a texture and colour that reminded me unpleasantly of the contents of countless diapers of my siblings when they were babies. But everyone around the table was digging in, so I maneuvered a small corner of the pie onto my fork and popped it into my mouth. I nearly gagged. A sharp taste of cinnamon and nutmeg fought with the cloying flavour of pureed pumpkin. Meanwhile, my father-in-law was passing around a bowl of whipped cream as garnish to the pie. I heaved an overly generous mound of cream onto my plate. With infinite care, small bits of pie drowned in whipped cream made it down my gullet. I was the last to finish.

Another piece?” asked Mrs. Poole.

No thanks, I'm full to bursting,” I lied, “but it was delicious.”

These days I leave the food adventuring to husband John. “Shall I surprise you?” he asks. “Sure,” I reply. Over the years, the reluctance in my voice has almost completely faded. John bounces up the stairs to find a recipe on the Internet. An hour later I sit down to something delicious: from the best spaghetti sauce I've ever tried, to spicy eggplant in a black bean sauce over Udon noodles, to a smooth chicken curry flavoured with coconut milk. John has proved to be a fine cook, and his adventures happily please my taste buds.

Left to myself, I'm my father's daughter, updated for the times. My daily breakfast? Oatmeal – made with water, not milk, but simmered for the same 20 minutes required of my father's pup. A handful of defrosted raspberries as topping and everything washed down with a frothy cappuccino. No sugar.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Amo Catullus

Catullus, courtesy The Daily Omnivore

I come from the generation that still studied Latin in high school. If you were in the Arts stream, you had to take Latin in grades 9 and 10; after that, you could choose between Latin or typing.

Miss Kipfer was our Latin teacher. During that first class in grade 9, I looked her over and judged her poorly. She was short and stocky. Rosy cheeks in a plain face. Short dark brown hair with a slight wave, thick black eyebrows framing small brown eyes. She wore knee-length navy wool skirts and loose polyester floral print blouses, sensible brown or black oxfords on her feet.

Fresh out of university, this was Miss Kipfer's first posting. She made it very clear to us that she would brook no insolence, and kept us on a tight leash. No whispering as we squirmed on the uncomfortable gray plastic chair desks. All homework neatly completed and handed in. Mandatory participation in declension and conjugation drills. Vita, vitae, vitae, vitam, vita, vita -- nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative, vocative cases of the noun Life. Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant -- forms of the verb “to love”. We hated Miss Kipfer.

One dreary afternoon, as we bored our way through yet another declension, someone whispered something crude and everyone tittered. Miss Kipfer had been writing on the blackboard, her thick back to us. She swung around, glaring. “What was that?” she demanded. We fell silent. “Who spoke?” she continued. Nothing. “I want to know who spoke and what was said,” she repeated. Silence. Miss Kipfer put down the piece of white chalk, crossed her arms, and planted herself squarely in front of us. Her stern mouth tightened.

Close your books,” she ordered, in a voice cold as ice. “We will stay here until you tell me what was said and who said it.” We did as we were told, shutting our books and our mouths. No-one spoke. Neither did Miss Kipfer. Like a brewing storm, a sharp-edged tension filled the room. Long moments passed. We held our breaths.

After an eternity, Miss Kipfer let out an impatient snort and stomped toward the door. “I am going down the hall,” she said. “Don't dare let me hear one peep while I'm gone.” She opened the door and left it wide open. Normally we would have made faces and started whispering, but we knew that she had the ears of a bat. We all sat frozen as statues. Several minutes passed, and then the double click of heels on the terrazzo floor announced Miss Kipfer's return with our principal, Mr. Carleton. He was as short as Miss Kipfer, and slightly stockier in his rumpled blue suit and red-striped tie. His daughter Anne was in our class. He ignored her.

It would make things a lot easier for everyone if the person who spoke out before would speak up now,” sighed Mr. Carleton. He paced up and down the aisles, stopping beside each person, including his daughter, before moving on. “Were you the one who spoke?” he asked each student. Our code of silence held. One by one, we shook our heads. Miss Kipfer stood behind her desk, arms re-crossed, and grimly watched the proceedings. Finally, after receiving one final shake of the head from the last person, Mr. Carleton walked to the door and turned to face us. “I'm very disappointed in this class,” he said. “You will all receive a detention of 30 minutes during your lunch hours for the next three days.” And with that he left.

I can't remember if we resumed our lesson, or finished the period in silence. But one thing was clear: Kipfer was boss. She never suffered the slightest discipline problems after that. But how we detested her, and often griped about how we couldn't wait to quit Latin after grade 10.

When Grade 11 came along, many did leave Latin for good. But a few of us decided that Latin was the lesser of two evils: declensions and conjugations were slightly more interesting than banging out endless repetitions of “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” on the old black Underwood typewriters in the classroom down the hall. There were fewer of us – only 12 students instead of the 25 from the previous years. In grade 12, the class shrunk to 10, and then in grade 13, only seven remained.

By some miracle, things had changed. We had noticed a slight softening of the Kipfer armour in Grade 11 – on some days, we caught a glimpse of a smile. Perhaps it was because we had chosen to stay. Then in Grade 12, as we moved beyond the structure of nouns and verbs, we began translating Latin literature – Horace, Marcus Aurelius, Ovid, Caesar. This led to conversations – in English -- about what we wanted out of life, and then, to our surprise, about going to university, growing up, dating, and love. Miss Kipfer became human to us, and we became, I think, endearing to her. By Grade 13, our band of seven loved those classes. We often spent a good 30 minutes out of a 50-minute class period in deep conversation, triggered by our homework translation of some Latin text. Then Miss Kipfer would glance at the clock and exclaim, “My goodness! We'd better do some Latin.”

One day, we were plodding through a section of Caesar's memoirs. Miss Kipfer watched our eyelids droop as we surveyed yet another battlefield from the ramparts and considered various bellicose strategies. “Caesar was a military genius,” Miss Kipfer prompted, and we rolled our eyes at her. Instead of becoming offended, she laughed. “It's pretty boring, isn't it.” All seven heads nodded in unison.

She placed her hands behind her back, paced back and forth in front of us, and then came to a stop. She turned and faced us resolutely.

All right, class. Tomorrow, we're going to read something a lot more interesting. Poetry. Specifically, the poetry of Catullus. But there's one condition.” She paused and her face became stern. “You must never – and I mean it – never, ever tell your mothers.”

We looked at her in amazement. What was so dangerous about Catullus?

The next day we found out. Miss Kipfer handed us about a dozen poems from the series called Carmen, or “Song”. Together, we took Carmen 2 and began translating. Passer, deliciae, meae puellae: “Sparrow, favourite of my girl...” The poem was about love and desire. In fact, all the poems were about love and desire: Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus: " Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love...” Not only that, but very few of these poems were what one would call chaste. As we stumbled through our translations, we discovered a world of gay love, prostitution, passion, and above all, love in all its delights and sorrows. No wonder we were not to tell our mothers.

The following day, Miss Kipfer announced a special project. A Latin poetry translation contest was underway: did we want to participate? We did. We each chose a poem – one of the less racy ones, Miss Kipfer advised – and spent several classes translating and reading both Latin and English versions aloud to one another. This was so much more exciting than boring old Caesar, not to mention declensions and conjugations!

I selected Carmen 13, in which Catullus begs his friend Fabullus to treat him to dinner (and wine, women and song) in return for a perfume unlike any other in the world. I was captivated by the poem's earthy sensuality and especially the last lines, ...I will give you perfume..../ which when you smell it, you will ask the gods,/ Fabullus, to make all of you one great nose. I was such an innocent that the details of the erotic suggestion never hit home. I like to believe Miss Kipfer didn't have a clue either.

When we deemed our translations ready, Miss Kipfer bundled them together and sent them off to the jury. Several weeks later, she distributed a booklet containing the winning entries. Much to my surprise, my translation had earned an award of merit. I received a charming blue-black tile depicting the goddess Athena – although I did wonder why her name was inscribed in Greek and not Latin.

At the end of that year, I left high school and Latin behind. I don't know what became of Miss Kipfer, although someone told me that she happily married Mr. Heffernan, the shop teacher. She remains one of the bright spots in my education, someone whom I learned to love and admire, someone whose beauty revealed itself slowly over time.

Translation Anonymous, courtesy Rudy.Negenborn.net

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A close call

Some people are blessed with solid common sense. I'm not one of them. In fact, there have been times in my life when I've been exceedingly stupid.

I remember one such time, late September, 1998. It was the afternoon of the first day of my masters' program in applied social sciences at Concordia University in Montreal. Our professors had just given our small class its first assignment – a scavenger hunt. They thought it would be a good test of our collaborative problem-solving skills. A handout listed the objects we were to find and present to class the next day.

Not only was I stupid, but I showed no aptitude for collaboration. Instead of pairing up with someone, I volunteered to go out on my own to Mount Royal, the city's magnificent hilly park and pick up two items: a paper napkin from the restaurant at the top of the park and, a plop of manure deposited by one of the horses from a nearby riding stable. Since I was staying overnight with a friend who lived fairly close to the park – or the Mountain, as everyone called it – the logic seemed sound.

It was about 4:30 in the afternoon when I drove through the Park's entrance gates. The sun was leaning toward the Mountain's ridge. I parked my tinny grey Chevette in a lot about halfway up, and decided first to head for the top of the mountain to get the restaurant napkin, and then pick up horse manure on the way back. I wore a long blue linen wrap skirt, a loose white shirt and weatherbeaten Birkenstock sandals. Over my arm I carried a Holt Renfrew shopping bag in which was a child's bright yellow beach shovel for picking up the plop.

Looking back, it's easy to enumerate the evidence for my stupidity. First, I had never before walked up the Mountain, and so had no idea where the restaurant was actually located. Second, I couldn't read the park map to save my life: it looked like a maze of intersecting lines that wove back and forth. Third, I didn't factor in the time of day. Dusk falls early on the east side of the Mountain, which is where I was. Tall shade trees and thick bush line the serpentine roads and intensify the shadows. Fourth, of course I got lost, as I always do no matter where I am. I have gotten lost on the 11th floor of the Turnbull Building in downtown Ottawa.

Mount Royal by artist Paul Beique
After a good hour of walking up the Mountain following the winding roads, I became ever more confused while searching in vain for signs depicting the restaurant icon. No-one else was around and the shadows were deepening. Suddenly, in the half-light, a man leaped out of the shrubbery to my right. He threw me a wolfish grin, crossed the narrow road in a sinewy lope and disappeared into the bushes on the left. I abandoned the goal of finding the restaurant and turned back down the Mountain. It was at this point that I noticed that the scores of beaten earth paths branching off from the road – and not a road sign in sight. I rounded a corner. Like a bad dream, the very same man sprang out of the bushes again and crossed the road just feet from where I was walking. He stared at me intently before disappearing once more.

Raw fear flooded my body. A cold metal claw started to carve away at my insides which had disintegrated into a roiling, black ooze. My heart was frantically trying to escape my chest. Two thoughts scurried like rats in my brain: one said, “How could you be so stupid!” and the other said, “You are going to be killed.”

I forced my legs to move. Some blurred shapes shifted in the distance: a family! I hurried to catch up with a man, his wife and two children. “Do you know where the parking lot is?” I asked. They looked at me blankly, not understanding the foreign English tongue.

I cast around desperately. Coming towards us was a jogger in a white mesh singlet and light blue nylon shorts. “Excuse me,” I said, and he slowed down, bouncing up and down, glancing at his watch. “The parking lot?” I asked. He pointed down the road and without a word, began to leave. I hitched up my skirt and jogged quickly to keep up. My feet banged away in the Birkenstocks and the useless Holt Renfrew bag slapped against my thighs.

Down this road?” I gasped. “Isn't there another parking lot halfway up the Mountain?”

The runner shook his head. “Just take this road all the way down,” he said. “The parking lot's down there. You can't miss it.” With that, he fired his booster jets and tore away.

I stopped and caught my breath. Doubts fogged my mind. I distinctly remembered parking halfway up, not at the bottom. But maybe I was mistaken. I scurried down the road. At least it was lighter here, and there was the calming roar of traffic. The road curved around the base of the Mountain. There were no sidewalks, so I had to hug the side of the road carefully while cars sped past. At last I did reach a parking lot. It was definitely not the lot where I had left the car, but to my relief I saw a telephone booth.

Annie!” I cried as my friend answered her phone. “I'm lost!”

Where are you?” she asked.

I don't know!” I wailed. “I'm somewhere at the base of Mount Royal, in a parking lot, but it's not the right one!”

Voyons donc,” said Annie, exasperation in her voice. “Look around. What street are you on?” I poked my head out of the phone booth. No street signs were evident.

Mary Lou, calm down,” said Annie firmly. “Is there anyone there you can ask?”

I looked around once more. Yes. Parked halfway across the lot was a black Subaru, with the front passenger door open. A man sat slumped in the driver's seat. Outside the car, a woman paced back and forth, her arms crossed tight against her chest.

I said goodbye to Annie, hung up the phone and began to approach the couple. Just at that moment, the woman stopped her pacing and turned to face the man. “You loser!” she screamed. “I hate you! Get the fuck out of my life!”

You can understand why I hesitated. Who in their right mind would want to interrupt such an intimate moment? Desperation pushed me forward.

Um, excuse me,” I inched toward the woman. “Um, I'm lost. My car is parked at a lot halfway up the Mountain, and I don't know how to get there. Um. Would you know how to get there?”

The woman swept her angry eyes my way, contempt for her man now merging with disgust for the whole human race. She sighed hugely. Why, why was she doomed to be surrounded by imbeciles? She turned back to the open car door. “This woman's lost,” she spat. “Can you drive her to parking lot A?”

The man shrugged himself upright and reached for the ignition. “Get in,” the woman ordered me curtly. I made for the back seat but she blocked the way and pointed to the open door. “Up front.”

So there I was, in the front seat with her estranged man while she glowered behind me. Acrid tension filled the air. “Oh, you're such angels,” I prattled, my words scattering into the thick silent gloom. I finally shut up. The man drove up the Mountain, eyes fixed on the road. After several interminable moments we arrived at the entrance of a parking lot – the parking lot that faced south-east, the parking lot that I now christened Nirvana. I pointed out my little Chevette at the far end. Just ahead of us, a large silver bus blocked our path as it patiently swallowed a long line of tourists returning from a scenic look-out. The turn signal in our car ticked steadily, its annoying beat adding to the tension. At last, I couldn't stand it anymore.

Thank you, thank you,” I burbled. “I can easily walk from here.” I opened the door and got out. My two angels stared ahead stonily. “Goodbye,” I chirped. “I hope you work things out! Goodbye – and have a happy life!” I shut the car door and bounded across the pavement.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Goodbye, Tante Benine

"And now I'm going to die,” said my Tante Benine in a matter-of-fact tone. Her small, capable fingers straightened the edge of her red and black tartan dressing gown. She sat in her favourite gold upholstered armchair opposite the hospital bed lately installed in the bedroom. Behind her, slate blue drapes were drawn back. French doors opened onto a balcony lined with window boxes of bright red geraniums. Rain pelted the sweeping manicured grounds surrounding the house.

In April of 2011, Benine had been diagnosed with bladder cancer. Up to then, she had been a vibrant, healthy woman in her mid-70s. Less than three months later, the cancer had spread rapidly. Nothing more could be done. At the beginning of July 2011, I flew to Holland to say goodbye to this special aunt of mine. It was now mid-afternoon on Thursday, July 14; Benine and I were saying our adieux. I would return to Canada the following morning.

It wasn't as if I had known her for a long time. I remember the occasional visits she and her husband Frans made to our farm in Mount Forest.  A photo exists of Benine standing in front of our farmhouse. During the 1980s, I had a couple of opportunities to go overseas on business, and stopped in at Benine and Frans's home near Arnhem for family gatherings. Benine was always in the background, serving food, milling with guests. Our lives went their separate ways. Then, in 2008, she sent my mother a manuscript consisting of letters that her older sister Hans had written in the late 1940s while in Canada housekeeping for my father who worked as a farm manager. My mother agreed to translate the letters. I offered to edit and polish. Benine and I exchanged a few e-mails – friendly, family-oriented, nothing more. But then, in one of those e-mails, she remarked on the lack of a role for women in the Catholic church. In my reply, I asked her what she meant...and so began the blooming of this late friendship between aunt and niece. Benine was blessed with a lively curious intelligence that took nothing for granted. We explored our views on religion, God, the psalms, poetry and music. We talked about what it meant to be human, and mused on the balm of forgiveness. We shared news about family, trips, and other day-to-day goings on. I asked her about her volunteer work with refugees; she asked me about my visits to the dementia patients in the local hospital.

Just as I reached out to her, so she reached out to me. When I visited in 2009 to celebrate the publishing of her book of Hans's letters, we walked through the tall beech and oak forest that banked their house. Her dog Aafke ran on ahead, her small black and white body hugging the trail, her nose to the ground. “You feel like a sister to me,” Benine said and the air felt fresh and sweet. She told me what it was like growing up in the war. Her sister Hans was a wonder in the kitchen, transforming scare food supplies into tasty soups and stews. Benine rarely saw my father, one of her older brothers. He spent the war working on their parents' farm in the north of Holland, a good day's travel by bike to the family home in Arnhem. Benine and I learned more about each other later, leisurely sipping coffee at a local café. I loved her sparkling blue eyes, her crooked front teeth, her wide child-like grin, her eager, roving mind.

But on this visit, little more than two years later, Aafke and I walked through the woods by ourselves. Earlier in the week, Benine had come down for lunch in the garden. It had taken her more than 10 minutes to descend the 15 stairs from the bedroom to the main floor. Each step required a pause and several breaths while she leaned on  Frans's arm. Midway down, she stopped for a long time, gazing out the tall paned glass windows at the forest, her eyes drinking in the view of the towering trees. 
An entourage ushered her into the garden. Frans and daughter Benien supported her on each side. Tutti, the cleaning lady who had been with the family for 30 years, carried the lunch tray. I opened doors and moved chairs out of the way. Benine stepped carefully, frail as a bird, her lips set determinedly. At last she rounded the corner of the house. Her brother Frits had just arrived for a visit. He stood to greet her. A cluster of lawn chairs, padded with bright green cushions, faced out onto the large sloping lawn and the tangled edge of the lily pond. The fountain splashed. The air was golden.

Benine lay back in the chair, and looked intently at the faces around her. Aafke settled down at her feet. With family circled around, she ate a lunch of brown bread and herring, washed down with her daily glass of buttermilk and sweetened with some fresh cherries. Her eyes brightened as the talk swirled around her. She stayed in the garden close to an hour; then, it was enough. The long trek back through the living room, up the stairs. One last gaze at the forest. Then the slow march to the hospital bed and finally, the sweet ambush of sleep.

It was the last time Benine sat in the garden, the last time her feet touched the earth.

Now, as the afternoon darkened and the sky wept, we talked about her life and her coming death. I couldn't connect the dots. Benine looked like someone recovering from a bad flu, not someone who was dying. The only hint of illness showed in the subtle plumping of her cheeks from the medications, and the faint yellowed skin on her brow. And the catheter's plastic tube snaking underneath her robe to the bag clipped to the metal bed frame. And her fatigue. She could sit in a chair for perhaps 20 minutes, hardly more.

"I'm no longer the person I was,” she said, shaking her head in puzzlement. “That person – going by bike into the village, doing all kinds of things. I've changed completely. I'm now an invalid, a sick person, someone who has to be taken care of. I accept that. But I'm no longer the person I was.”

"Are you at peace?” I asked her. “Yes.” The reply came immediately, without hesitation. “More than I've ever been before.”

Still, death was a mystery to her. “No-one knows what will happen,” she said. “It grows more mysterious the closer I get to it. But I've never been one to get all worked up about the future. I will take it as it comes.” She distinguished between faith and hope. “I'm not one to have blind faith. But I hope, like the psalmist says, that I won't fall into nothingness.”

There was a long pause. We considered the vase of pink and white sweet peas on the rolling hospital tray table. “I've had a full and satisfying life,” Benine smiled at me. “Seventy-six years. A privileged life. I've been able to do what I wanted. I married a nice man. I have four beautiful children, eight beautiful grandchildren. I've had my own interests, lots of travel. I've been fortunate, and I feel very grateful.” 
Half an hour had passed. She rested her head against the chair back and closed her eyes. I rose from my chair. Benine opened her eyes. “Wait,” she said. “I have something for you.” She picked up a gold pendant with a delicately carved ivory embedded in amber. Her mother had given her the necklace on Benine's 16th birthday. My throat filled as I held my hand beneath hers, and felt the amber connecting me to my Tante, and through her, to my Oma. 
I gazed at her as she had gazed at the forest. “Come to me in my dreams,” I whispered. She laughed. “I will, if I can,” ever honest and practical.
She died a year ago today, on the morning of August 10, 2011. Everything about her lies in the past tense. I can no longer say, “she laughs,” “she writes,” she speaks.” Now it is “she laughed,” “she wrote,” “she spoke.” Language buries her. My mind seesaws between 'before' and 'after'. I will never receive another e-mail from her. I will never again look into her lively blue eyes. I will never again see her eager wide smile. I will never again hear her lilting Dutch-accented English.

I woke up this morning and looked out the window at the green forest, at the oaks and beeches, smaller and more densely packed than the ones in Benine's forest. Good morning, God: my daily mantra. With a half smile, I wonder if God has tucked Benine under his brilliant gold wing. And then it comes to me: I have no idea. Benine has become part of the mystery. I hope that her soul has found its home in the all-consuming ecstasy that the mystics speak about in their poetry. But, at the heart of it, I simply don't know. I can only imagine and hope. Hope and imagine. 
A dump truck rumbles by, its deep throaty bass contrasting with the sharp razor cries of the blue jays. Mist lies heavy on the fields after the night's rain. The day's schedule rolls through my mind: an important meeting in the afternoon. I don't know how it will unfold. I can only imagine and hope. I can only stay open to the unknown which surrounds us as thickly as the air we breathe.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Hello, sweet baby

I've never been a mother. Big sister, yes. As the eldest of seven children, I spent much of my early adolescence washing diapers, feeding the 'little kids', and generally making sure that they didn't kill each other. As a result, my relationship with babies has usually been somewhat utilitarian.

But from time to time, a baby's charm bores a hole right through my heart.

The other day, I was standing in line at Pipolinka's, our village bakery. A family was eating lunch at the one of the round café tables lining the wall. Two young, dark-haired children munched on croissants. Their mother sat breast-feeding their infant brother. Their father stood in line ahead of me. He wore wrap-around sunglasses and a fitted black hat on his head. His face was tanned and unshaven, and sprouted a little tuft of beard underneath his lower lip. While the children remained eating, the mother rose from the table and, with the baby still in her arms, joined him in line. She was dressed in loose layers of sage and tan cotton. Her steady green eyes were set far apart in a wide Slavic face. Her brown hair was roughly cut as if for expediency rather than style.

She hooked her young baby underneath her arm, turning him outwards so that he was facing me. The baby wore an orange and purple jumper. His smooth, plump legs and feet were bare. He looked at me, then grinned widely, displaying toothless gums and a soft pink tongue. I grinned back and smooched the air. Giggling, the baby jiggled up and down, arms and feet pumping. We fell into the bright blue pool of each other's smiles.

Philippe the baker came out from behind the counter, wiping his hands on his apron. He leaned his thin face towards the man. They exchanged a loose hug. He greeted the mother warmly, then extended his arms to take the baby. As the child lay in his arms, Philippe bent his head and snuffled its scalp, closing his eyes and breathing deeply. He gently kissed the baby's head. I wanted to do the same: to drink in that tender, dizzying scent of innocence and joy.

For Huda, and her baby, Kareem.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Finding our piece of heaven

 “This land looks great!” I beamed at John. We leaned against our car, parked on a road deep in the Caledon Hills north of Toronto. We were facing a one-acre lot for sale. It boasted uniform rows of planted red pine, a scrubby field next to it, a low stagnant swamp next to that, and an army of hydro pylons marching across the fields beyond. John took his time replying and then shook his head, repeating what he'd been saying to me for the past year, “I think we can do better.”

I sighed. Our search for a piece of land had hit another dead end. And yet, I knew that he was right. Did I really want to live right next to a swamp?

We climbed back into the car and shuffled through the real estate listings. Nothing else in this area. It was 1995. John and I were newly-weds, my second marriage, his first. We were renting a house in the heart of Toronto where John worked as a software designer and I as a communications consultant. No longer a spring chicken, my hen-like nature fixated on finding a nest. John had long wanted to design and build his own home. We both shared the dream of living in the country.

Almost every weekend, we drove north of the city, flipping through a sheaf of real estate listings in search of our Holy Grail – one or two acres of land. We had talked at length about our criteria: John wanted trees. I wanted hills and a long view to the west. Not too many neighbours. Lots of space. Pitch-black skies strewn with stars. We wanted to be well into farming country, away from the noise, heat and congestion that Toronto living couldn't escape.

So far, no piece of land met all the criteria within reasonable price and commuting distance from the city. We found ourselves upping our budget and our commuting time as we roamed farther and farther afield. Of the dozens of listings we tracked down and looked at, I had been ready to buy at least half of them. John had always put on the brakes. “I think we can do better,” he would say. “Let's keep looking.”

Then there was cost. It seemed that any land under $100,000 – and we are talking here of one acre – was bound to be swamp, or a flat field with not a tree in sight, or a lot squeezed into a development of monster homes.

One fall weekend we broke our regular routine and drove to Wakefield to visit David and Maureen. For more than 20 years, I had been making the trek from Toronto to Wakefield to visit this couple, two of my oldest friends. During the mid-70s, Maureen and I had lived across the street from one another in Ottawa, when we were on our starter husbands. Over the years, we kept in touch regularly. For me, a weekend with Maureen and David was a welcome retreat from Toronto. I would make the six-hour drive daydreaming about living in the country. As I crossed the Ottawa River, heading north into Quebec, I could feel contentment settling around me like a warm shawl. Inevitably, every time I neared Chelsea and saw the horizon undulating into the Gatineau Hills, the phrase “my beloved hills” would fall from my lips. And now John was also a firm friend of David and Maureen and of the many other friends we had made in the area.

It took another eight months or so before the penny dropped. One Sunday afternoon in the early summer of 1996 we were heading back to Toronto after yet another unfruitful search in the Barrie area. Our car was one of thousands streaming like lemmings towards the brown band of smog glued to the Toronto skyline. It was a sticky afternoon. Shimmering heat waves bounced off the highway. We closed the car windows and turned on the air-conditioning. Surrounded by concrete, noise and speeding cars, a thought floated into my mind like a leaf in a still pool: what about Wakefield? Now, at this time, Canada was in the throes of separation anxiety. In Quebec, sovereignists had come into power led by the charismatic Lucien Bouchard. The news was full of the upcoming autumn referendum which would ask Quebecers to choose between leaving Canada (the Yes side) or staying (the No side). Support for the sovereignists had been growing, and the threat of separation shifted from a pipe dream to an alarming possibility. John and I weighed the pros and cons of living in Quebec if the separatists were successful. What was the worst that could happen? For us, closing the borders between Quebec and Ontario, or some policy that prevented us from working in Ontario, would be disastrous. And yet, how likely were these scenarios? Not very, we determined. Well, what about friends? Ironically, my closest friends lived in Wakefield, John's closest friends Ian and Jen had recently moved to Wakefield, and my mother lived in nearby Ottawa. If we did move to the area, we would find ourselves among good friends in a hospitable community. And bottom line, a big draw to finding land in Quebec was that prices were about one-tenth Ontario prices. We decided to expand our search.

One weekend in July we drove the back roads around Wakefield, gazing at farms, fields, and hills covered in trees. We roamed a farm of 150 acres on the Pritchard road, but the house was in a low rocky field, and there was no view. Further north, near Venosta, 50 acres of forest – including a lake – tempted us but the mosquitoes were mighty and the land too flat. We returned to Toronto slightly downcast, but determined to keep looking.

In August, I spent a week house-sitting for other good Wakefield friends, John and Annick while they spent a weekend with their family at a cottage. My John came up from Toronto and we set out early Saturday morning to explore the countryside. We found ourselves on Chemin de la Montagne, about seven kilometers east of Wakefield. A range of large old forested hills flanked a valley of green fields. We saw houses perched on top of the hills and took a rough, steep-climbing road to investigate. There were dozens of lots for sale, some of them giving out to magnificent westward views. My heart leapt – surely one of these would be the perfect match for us. But John shook his head firmly. Now what was the problem? The road. Not only was it far too steep, deep gullies and bone-rattling washboard could only mean trouble. “Think of winter,” John insisted. “Driving this road would be a nightmare.” He also pointed out that the lots were small, and fairly close together. Even though few homes had been built, John imagined the scene 10 years down the road, and saw a crush of 'estate' homes shouldering each other. No. “We can do better,” he said.

We drove back down the steep, unwelcome road and turned north on Chemin de la Montagne. About half a kilometer along, on the right, we caught sight of a hand-painted sign nailed to a tree trunk: Four acres. Private sale. And a phone number.

We stopped the car, got out and looked at the crowd of trees defending the property. Lots of trees. Hilly land. A long, westward view over open fields. A country road. Close to Wakefield, but no encroaching neighbours. No swamp. All right, hydro pylons in the opposite fields, but far away.

Why don't we take a closer look?” proposed John. A deep ditch, filled with a kind of robust, glossy three-leafed plant, separated us from the land.

Is this poison ivy?” I asked.
Dunno,” shrugged John.
Oh, probably not,” I said, my eagerness to explore cancelling out any concern.

In our T-shirts, shorts and sandals, we waded through the plants, and on hands and knees, clambered up the steep bank of the ditch. The land rose steadily and we walked among maple and oak, beech and birch. A small creek ran down the hillside. The trees murmured in the breeze. We climbed the hill and found a small clearing high up. The views were long and peaceful in the country quiet.

Now it was John who said, “This has possibilities. I can see building here.” I forced my face to stay calm. “Let's ask David and Maureen for their opinion,” I said. They had built their house on a hilly lot on a back street in Wakefield. We called them, and agreed to meet at the land after lunch.

Meanwhile, we had found a beaten-down animal path that gave ready access to the land. When our friends arrived, we all crossed the ditch on this path and stood amid the trees.

Oh, you can definitely build on this,” said David. “It's not as steep as the lot we built on.”

Just then, a car passed, slowed down, and stopped at the For Sale sign. A couple peered through the car window, looking intently at the sign. A slight quiver ran through me. Other people were interested in this property! About five minutes later, another car zoomed along, slowed down and stopped – and again, the couple in this car stared closely at the sign and seemed to take down its information. I threw a worried look John's way. Were we going to lose this land to someone else? A third car came by and the same thing happened. I couldn't contain my anxiety any longer. “Does anyone have a cell phone?” I shouted. “We need to put an offer in – right now!”

David was standing on the roadside when the fourth car rolled up. He asked the driver what was going on. “We're in a car rally, and this is one of the navigation points,” came the reply.

Even so, I wasn't taking chances. As soon as we got back to Annick and John's place, I insisted on calling the phone number listed on the For Sale sign. Two days later, we signed the offer and closed the deal. At last we had found our piece of heaven. And our down-payment? The worst case of poison ivy we have ever experienced. But it was worth every itch and scratch.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

My first paying job

The rows of green plants stretched their long arms down the garden. Each row was about 50 feet long and there must have been at least 20 rows in the acre and a half that made up my family's farm garden. Peas and beans, broccoli and cauliflower, kale and cabbage, corn and strawberries – most grown from seed, or in the case of the strawberries, from small plants, all of it feeding a family of nine through the four seasons.

In the fall, after the first frost, my father dug up the garden with his old rototiller. He hauled the rusty machine from one of the sheds hugging the barn, frog-marched it to the garden, and then spent the day walking up and down the length of the garden, ploughing under the past season's producers, now limp and black from the frost. The asparagus patch was left to its natural demise, while the strawberry plants were covered with a protective layer of straw. Snow soon blanketed the dark earth. During the long winter months, my father studied the seed catalogues, consulted with my mother, and then, in February, ordered the new seeds.

Spring tiptoed to our farm, fresh and green. When the wet snow finally disappeared and the soil had dried, my father and the rototiller re-appeared in the garden. The new furrows curled back, dark and crumbly. Earthworms squirmed through the clods of overturned earth, finding their way back into their tunnels. Seagulls from some distant unknown lake flew in to feast on the worms.

One warm spring Saturday, Dad organized the annual planting day with the the 'big kids' – the four oldest children. After a breakfast of porridge, we put on our work clothes – navy twill pants, plaid cotton shirts, black rubber boots trimmed in orange, and red baseball caps. We trooped to the garden and took our stations alongside the rows, which Dad had earlier marked out with pegs and string. Each of us was responsible for planting a different row, thereby reducing the likelihood of squabbling.

Our first job was to trench the rows. Dad handed out hoes. We drew shallow wavering lines in the earth, trying our best to follow the path of the string marking the row. I opened my package of pea seeds. Holding a handful of seeds in my palm, I closed my fist and then carefully rolled a seed at a time past my index finger and thumb into the waiting trench. “Not too close, not too far apart,” cautioned Dad, before turning to my brother Peter who held the package of carrot seeds.

We bent to our work, dropping the seeds into their rows, hoeing them over with a thin layer of earth, and patting the soil firm with our palms. Each planted row earned us five cents. This may seem like pittance today, but back then, in the late '50s, five cents bought a lot of candy.

Tending the garden was the source of our first income. The standard increment was five cents: five cents for hoeing a row, the same for weeding strawberries. When the plump red berries appeared, ten cents for each 4-quart basket. The exceptions were the cucumbers, potatoes and corn later in the season – these commanded 25 cents per bushel basket.

In the warming days of May and June, we spent hours in the garden, rucking the soil with our hoes and slapping at the mosquitoes. Dad kept the earth between the rows weed-free with weekly forays of the rototiller. Occasionally, he would let one of my brothers drive the machine, but always with an attentive eye. Unless you grasped the handles firmly, the machine would gallop away on its own and lurch drunkenly from the path, shredding the young plants.

The first vegetables to be harvested were asparagus and lettuce, followed by tender green peas. Ten cents for a four-quart basket of peas. Our dilemma: yield to the temptation of gobbling the sweet and crunchy peas, or, earn more money – and more quickly – by resolutely placing each pod in the basket. Of course, we couldn't resist snacking, and the path was soon littered with empty pea pods while neon green pea scrapings lined our fingernails.

In late July, we headed over to our neighbour's farm to earn more cash raspberry picking. Mrs. Barsevski's front field boasted row after row of raspberry bushes. When the fruit ripened, it had to be picked quickly while at its peak. Mrs. Barsevski, her Slavic head wrapped in a blue gingham kerchief led us to various rows, each with a tower of empty veneer pint baskets at the end. “Eat as much as you want,” she said to us in her thickly-accented English. I picked until my pint basket was level full with berries and brought it to her. “No, no!” she laughed, taking the basket out of my hands. “More, more! The peoples, they want full basket!” She proceeded to add berries, until the basket looked like a small mountain of red. We loved picking for Mrs. Barsevski. Not only could we eat as many raspberries as our bellies could hold, but she paid us 10 cents a pint – twice as much as we got at home. And she always supplemented the fruit with slices of freshly-baked apple strudel.

As the summer lengthened into August, beans overran our garden. We could barely keep up with their ferocious sprint. My mother took charge of freezing the vegetables. We topped and tailed green and yellow beans for hours, blanched batches in pots of boiling water, then packed the beans in plastic bags and layered them in the large chest freezer that stood against the wainscotted pine wall in the summer kitchen. When the beans got older and tougher, we put them through a mandoline slicer, which made them more palatable, and again, froze bags and bags. I can't recall that we got paid for this part of our family food production – I suspect my parents considered freezing vegetables a regular part of our chores.

Autumn once more, and with it, the end of the harvest. No use hoeing anymore – Dad would soon set the rototiller to destroying the spent plants. The freezer was full of layer upon layer of frozen beans, corn, peas and kale. Shredded cabbage sat in the stoneware crock, fermenting into tart sauerkraut. Jars of dill pickles lined the cellar shelves.

I shook my piggy bank, grown heavy with the summer's crop of nickels, dimes and quarters. Its maraca beat was music to my ears.

Friday, April 13, 2012

On meeting Beethoven's Fifth

In grade 10, at Mount Forest District High School, I was part of a four-some along with Gwen, Lois, and Henny. In the mosaic of our class, we were the 'serious' ones: plain-faced, studious, intense. Walking through the school yard together, we noticed how funny Mr. Gilbert was, how sophisticated Miss Taylor was. While George was the nicest boy in the class, Larry was the cutest. We drilled each other on Latin verbs and chemistry formulas, and wondered what questions would be on the next exam. We looked over enviously at vivacious Deirdre and pretty Wendy, who always seemed to be laughing and flirting with the circle of boys that constantly flocked around them.

Then a new girl joined our class. Her name was Pam Russner. She and her family had moved to Mount Forest from Provo, Utah. Her mother cut hair out of their home. Her father did some kind of agricultural engineering. They were Mormons, even more exotic to me than the handful of Jews in our small town in rural Ontario. I had never met a Mormon before.

Pam was strange and fascinating. While the rest of us spent hours arranging our permed hair, or backcombing our beehives, Pam wore her straight blond hair in a simple Dutch boy's bob. She didn't seem to care about clothes – or boys. She loped through the school yard like a wolf, body canted forward, always slightly ahead of us. She didn't speak a lot, but when she did, she said exactly what she thought – even to the teachers, which thrilled and shocked we four timid girls.

Pam taught Lois and I to fence, lending us the equipment – the black mesh face-masks, heavy white jackets and knickers, the padded gloves and slim dangerous epees. She demonstrated the lunge and riposte, the parry and thrust. We practised on the school's auditorium stage, sheltered from view behind the heavy grey house curtains. Lois and I faced each other a short distance apart, each foot deliberately placed at a 45-degree angle on the strip of masking tape Pam had laid down on the oak boards. When Pam declared, “En garde!”, we bent our hips and thighs into a half-squat, crooked our left arm and hoisted it behind our shoulder, and thrust forward our right hand which held the epee. Pam checked our body positions, stood back and ordered, “Fence!” We shuffled back and forth in a crab-like dance, waving the epees and poking at each other. Afterwards, back in our pleated grey wool skirts and white cotton blouses, we swished through the school halls, feeling slightly exotic ourselves.

One fall weekend as the maples were turning orange and red, Pam invited the four of us to a sleepover at her house. Her parents owned a ranch bungalow high on a hill in the countryside outside Mount Forest. This was a rare occasion for me: I looked forward to it all week with growing excitement. One of our parents dropped us off on the Saturday morning. Pam met us at the front door, and immediately ushered us into her mother's home salon, a small many-windowed room looking out on the garden. A flowered divan nestled against one wall next to a green leatherette seat topped by a cone-shaped metal hair dryer. We bunched together on the divan as Pam's mother deftly washed and styled each head of hair in turn, while Pam produced the odd laconic remark. In the afternoon, we headed outside to the steep paved road. Pam brought out two yellow skateboards, oblivious to the potential ruin of our new hair-dos. We teetered on the skateboards, practising short runs on the tarred driveway, and then Pam challenged us to the hilly road. Two of us looked out for cars, while the other two zoomed down the hill, hearts pounding, hair-dos frazzling. By some miracle, there were no fractured arms, dislocated shoulders or broken necks.

Supper was take-out Chinese food; dessert, crunchy fortune cookies. As the sky darkened, Pam led us into the living room. A long black leather chesterfield fronted by a heavy glass coffee table faced the large picture window, flanked by a teak credenza topped by a bold abstract painting. On an adjacent wall, a low matching bookcase held a long row of record albums and stereo equipment – an amplifier and turntable. Two large speakers stood in opposite corners of the room. There was a real Persian rug on the floor.

At Pam's direction, we pushed the coffee table underneath the window and pulled the drapes closed. She instructed us to lie down on the carpet and close our eyes. Then she pulled one of the records out of its sleeve, placed it carefully under the turntable's needle and turned out the lights. She lay down beside us. The room fell dark, black as the country sky outside. No one dared to speak.

We heard the faint hiss of the needle tracking in the grooves and then the room exploded with the opening bars of Beethoven's 5th Symphony: Dah Dah Dah Dum! Dah Dah Dah Dum! I had never heard anything like it before. My knowledge of classical music was limited to the simple Mozart minuets and Clementi studies that I thumped through in my weekly piano lessons with Sister Mary Lolament. At home, we sometimes hauled out an old portable RCA Victor record-player and listened to The Sound of Music or Oklahoma. This music felt wild, fierce and powerful. The sound hurled at me, as if it was a live thing. As the music surged around, my sprouting teenage body tingled with the urgency of the violins and timpani. I felt I was racing across the fields on a runaway stallion. When the notes of the last movement finally died away, we lay where we were, silent in the dark room, until at last Pam rose and turned on the lights.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Varney, Varney, one more mile

As much as I love to write, it often falls to the bottom of the priority list. Some time ago, I realized that I needed group support to sustain my writing efforts. And then, poof! an invitation came to join a group of friends who wanted to continue their own writing. Thank you to John, Norma and Joan for getting me back on track.

Imagine seven children, ages one to twelve, crammed into an old sage-green Rambler station wagon. In the back seat, two young boys sit on either side of the oldest child, their big sister. She jabs each of them with sharp elbows whenever they try to reach across her to slap one another with their striped towels. Three older boys jostle on the the rear-facing bench at the very back of the wagon. A red Coleman cooler doubles as a foot rest. No seat belts in this era. In the front seat, the parents, weary from the week's work of milking cows and night-shift nursing. Between them sits the one-year-old, sucking her thumb and fingering a doll, its copper hair springing wildly from a battered head, one blue glass eye staring fixedly at the car's push-button dashboard, the other eye permanently shut.

It's a hot Sunday afternoon in July during the mid-'60s. My family is heading for a picnic outing at Varney Conservation Area, a 20-minute drive from our farm near Mount Forest, Ontario.

Earlier that day, heading home after Sunday Mass, my father bent to my mother's will and agreed to the picnic. He would much have preferred to stay home – alone – enjoying a rare moment of quiet privacy. Now he drives without speaking, his eyes fixed on the road. He steers using one rough and calloused hand, the middle finger chopped off at the first knuckle after an accident with the hay baler. Occasionally he barks at us to stop fighting or to sit still. My mother rolls down her window, lights a cigarette, and watches the rows of bright green corn springing up out of the passing fields.

On my left side, my little brother Richie begins rocking back and forth, crooning, “Varney, Varney, one more mile.” He had composed this line after our first trip to Varney several years before, when he had asked, “Are we there yet?” and was told to wait until a road sign would tell him we were close.  “Varney, Varney, one more mile,” he chants. Like a flock of crows, the rest of us pick up the refrain and soon the car rocks with our noisy squawking. Varney, Varney, one more mile, louder and louder until my exasperated father yells at us to shut up. It's impossible to suppress the giggles that burble through our clamped beaks. My father glares at us in the rear view mirror; my mother interrupts her dreamy smoking to turn around, scolding us with a stern look. Then, surprisingly, my father sticks out his long tongue at us, and our giggles are set free, dissolving the tension.

Finally, we pass the sign, green letters on a brown wooden board: Varney Conservation Area, one mile. Dad parks the car next to a crescent of cedar trees hugging a small pond. There's a sandy beach and a diving board on a wooden scaffolding. Parents serve as lifeguards. My brothers tumble out of the car and race for the water, blue and red swim trunks hanging from their bony hips. I help my parents unload the cooler with its cache of cheese and bologna sandwiches, a large plastic jug of cherry Koolaid, nine plastic beakers, a handful of paper napkins and two packages of Voortman's ginger spice cookies. Finding a clear spot some distance apart from the other families, my mother shakes a dark green plaid blanket onto the sand, one hand clutching her cigarette package, matches tucked into the flap. She places these next to the cooler, then steps out of her pink-striped cotton blouse and denim shorts to reveal a black swimsuit encasing generous breasts and a thickening waist. Scooping up the baby, she walks to the water, sets the child down, and then lies full-length on her stomach in the shallow water. My mother loves to swim. Patricia splashes and gurgles. My father folds himself into a lawn chair with a dented aluminium frame criss-crossed with frayed green and white webbing. He rolls up the bottoms of his dark brown trousers, exposing stark white ankles and bony feet. Settling into the chair, he takes off his socks and shoes and pushes his long toes deep into the sand in search of the coolest spot. He hates the water; in fact, never once in all my life did I ever see him swim.

My brothers splash up and down, flinging droplets from their hair like young puppies. One dives down to bring up a clump of muddy sand, and soon all five are slinging mud at each other. My father yells. The mud-slinging stops. Meanwhile, I walk self-consciously to the diving board, pulling down the seat of the new tangerine one-piecer that I bought after hours of poring through the Eatons' summer catalogue. I do a running dive, and practise my crawl till I reach a shallow spot, then stand on my hands, arching my legs as high as I can above the water's surface. I roll over and over, water rippling my body, my long brown hair streaming behind me. I'm a delicate mermaid and although he's not yet in sight, I'm convinced a handsome young prince is swimming towards me. I know he will immediately fall in love with me, astonished by my beauty and charm.

We swim for hours, until our fingers wrinkle, our lips turn blue and our teeth chatter with cold. My mother calls us out of the water, swaddling us in towels. We eat the sandwiches, slurp down the Koolaid, and steal one more cookie than allowed. Just five more minutes, we plead, and fall back into the water for one last swim.

The sun is sinking slowly behind the cedars as we pile back into the car. My mother leans over Patricia, sprawled on her lap, to turn on the radio to listen to the 6 o'clock news. There's some half-hearted pushing and shoving in the rear-facing seat, then, silence. Telephone poles flash by, and the pastures glow in the evening light. My brothers' heads nod. Some fall asleep. Richie stays awake, rocking back and forth as the fields spiral past. “Varney, Varney, one more mile,” he chants softly. Then his voice too trails off. He yawns and leans his head against my shoulder.