Wednesday, November 02, 2016

My Mother's Tipsy Afternoon

Probably too long for a blog entry - 5 pages, double-spaced. Our writer's group decided to attempt this level of output weekly. I don't think I can keep it up, but I did manage to take a fairly short scene and stretch it into 5 pages. This is the opposite of what I usually try to do, which is pare everything back. I have to admit, it was fun to rattle on and on for me, the writer, but probably boring for anyone else to read.

That summer...that day, was when I first realized my mother was different. We were at Dorothy Lake and it was blazing hot. In Canada, heat records had been broken and it was well over 100 degrees F. with high humidity. I have to stop here and explain a few things. We Canadians, notorious for being non-notorious, begin most of our conversations with weather talk. Weather can break the ice—important in Canada—and get a couple of people used to being with each other, face to face. A skilled Canadian can stretch a weather conversation to the limit, getting into barometric pressure, wind speed and weather records—like those we were experiencing at the lake that day. Broad generalizations are of course dangerous, and I can’t speak for Canadians of all ages, color, sizes, religions and ethnic persuasions but I can tell you, you just can’t go wrong talking to a Canadian about the weather.

Don’t expect to hear a lot of personal stuff from a Canadian, particularly a French-Canadian for some time. It’s not considered polite to talk about yourself and certainly not to disclose personal information to people you’ve just met. My mother and her neighbor, Mr. LaCroix addressed each other as Mr. and Mrs. for all the twenty years they lived next door to each other. Even though his undershorts flapped on their clotheslines in our plain view and even though my mothers’s bras flew gaily on our clothesline in his plain sight, formalities and a distance was always maintained. between them.  

And there’s another thing I should mention here—Canadians like their personal space. Good manners, Canadian style, dictate that you give a person a foot or so of his or her own to maneuver in.  We’re also notoriously non-argumentative, so don’t try and give me a load of crap about being prejudiced with these remarks and how there are more differences between individuals than there are between ethnic groups. Give me a break...anyone who has traveled around picks up pretty quickly on these behavioral differences, like how close to stand to someone during a conversation. Probably it’s something built into our genes to make us amenable to strangers. Otherwise, our gene pool would have turned awfully shallow and who knows where we’d be now? Crouching in caves with clubs ready to bash anyone different in the head? Eh?

As an example, I used to work with a man named Barrero—I loved the guy. But he liked to stand two inches away from me, look me directly in the eyes and talk—made me mucho uncomfortable. I’d back up and he’d move forward….like a magnet was keeping us together. People in our office used to enjoy our dancing around and tease us both about it. Even though he knew I was bothered by this trait of his, John kept on doing it; eventually, I played along and would take the initiative, standing so close to him I could smell the tacos he’d had for lunch. Fat lot of good it did me….John would never budge and wouldn’t blink. I thought we’d be friends forever but when he left the job the company had a big roast for him. He kept a silly little statue on his desk of a clown pulling his pants out and in the space this created, a tiny cactus was growing. I always thought it was in bad taste but I refrained from making any kind of judgment. But a roast??? ...that’s another thing altogether and who could pass up the opportunity?  I began my little roasty speech about him by saying I always wondered what John was trying to say to the world by keeping that statue on his desk. What a prick he had? —remember I said it was a tiny cactus— or what a prick he was? John never spoke to me again.

But I’m straying away from my story and that’s almost enough about the weather. As I mentioned, the heat was horrible. And how ironic it is to complain about the heat as most of the time we talked about how cold it was. The cold talk wasn’t idle chit-chat..because there were times I can remember when it was life threatening. At 30 - 40 below zero, your skin can freeze in three minutes of exposure. Radio stations would interrupt the “regularly scheduled programming” to give alerts, warning us to cover our faces when outdoors and limit exposure to a minute or two.

Sitting on the big sunny rock at Dorothy Lake that summer, i was about ten years old, winter was far from our minds and we were fanning ourselves with the Winnipeg Free Press, the paper where my Uncle Lorne worked as a linotype operator. Uncle Lorne and Auntie Addie owned the folksy cottage sited about thirty feet from the clear water’s edge and eighty miles out of the city of Winnipeg, capital of Manitoba.  Lorne, Addie and my mother were perched on a trio of folding aluminum chairs. Most of the time, the chairs hung on a couple of nails outside the cabin. When you took them down and opened them up, spiders and other insects would climb out of the nooks and crannies and put on a real creep show. It wasn’t so bad during the day, but at night when we lit the lamps inside the cabin, the windows on the outside would be covered with bugs - big and small, flying and crawling. Fortunately, I always liked bugs and enjoyed sitting on the inside looking at the bug underbellies as they crawled and slithered around. My mother couldn’t stand them and stayed as far away from the windows as she could. Why so many bugs? The little cabin was the first structure ever built on that virgin piece of land. Ever. Like the insects covering the windows, the 35 million people living in Canada are all strung along the border with the U.S. Go a hundred miles north of the border, where we were and there are gajillions of acres, either farmed or in brush and further north tundra. It was an entomologist’s dream.

I stayed in the cool water most of the day submerged up to the neck, hanging onto the edge of the moored boat, close enough to hear all the conversation but protected from our greatest nemesis—mosquitoes.  The three adults had Black Cat cigarettes fired up and puffing, creating a kind of temporary protective screen. Out of the water, I’d have to slather myself with the stinky, insect repellent we used to keep the pests away. Or as away as they got—which wasn’t far. We all had bites, and scratching was just a thing you did all summer. Scratch, scratch, scratch. You probably think I’m exaggerating but at one time, the chief entomologist in Winnipeg made a salary equal to that of the mayor. He was a bit of a rock star and when he quit under mysterious circumstances, the front page headline read of the paper read,  “Winnipeg Bug Battler Bolts.” That's how important mosquitoes are.

From my watery vantage, I could see the bites and welts along my mother’s stomach. Even though she’d applied a paste of baking soda and water to the itchy spots, that concoction provided minimal relief. Mom was wearing her two-piece, mauve satin bathing suit with the gathered top and gently elasticized tummy front. Addie, Mom’s younger sister, skinny and wiry, wore a bathing suit probably purchased in a teen’s size; she never weighed more than 100 pounds. The top of her suit was polka dotted and had ruffles.  Bustlessness was a family curse and ruffles were our only defense in those days. Horizontally striped ruffles were even better. We fooled ourselves into thinking they created the illusion of a bosom.

Addie had made us a big jug of lemonade and we were enjoying a rare lazy afternoon. We’d eaten Addie’s famous egg salad sandwiches for lunch and were contentedly stuffed. My aunt’s secret was freshness—she simply boiled the eggs just before assembling the sandwiches instead of hours or days before. She’d peel them under cold running water and chop them while still warm; then she’d mix in mayonnaise, a tiny bit of Dijon mustard, salt and pepper and some of her home-made pickles, diced small. We only used Wonder bread for these sandwiches because my mother and aunt, who grew up with home-made coarse textured loaves, loved the fine white even texture of the Wonder stuff. Lumps, frequently found in home-made bread, were a deadly sin in their opinion.  My mother would hold each slice of bread up to the light checking the texture, like an oncologist checking somebody’s lymph glands. If she spied a lump, the whole loaf got torn up and turned into bread pudding! Addie made double-filling sandwiches: three layers of bread and two of egg salad. After assembling, she’d press them down gently, cut all the crusts off and then slice diagonally across each sandwich making four dainty triangles. Why am I going on and on? Because the devil is in the details with the simple, comfort foods of our memory. I remember these sandwiches as exquisite...and some of the exquisiteness came from the freshness and some from the home-made pickles and yes, some from the slight pressure Addie applied to the sandwiches before cutting. That little pressure spread the egg salad evenly and pasted the layers together. Without the final pat, the layers might have slid apart when bitten into and the beauty of the flavor came from eating exactly three layers of bread with exactly two layers of egg salad. And of course, it goes without saying, that the sandwiches had to be in triangles. With triangles you ate each corner in one bite, leaving a lovely small piece in the center - the heart of the thing. A square egg salad sandwich would just be so WRONG.

We easily ate a dozen eggs during that wonderful lunch, savoring every bite—licking our fingers and exclaiming about the deliciousness of every morsel. It was such a care-free day without my father and sister. Dad would have been trying to teach me something boring like the geology of that lake area; my sister would be annoyed with me as always - if I wasn’t annoying and she wasn’t annoyed, our relationship got out of kilter. It’s just how it was. We all loved each other, but as everyone knows family dynamics are tricky. That afternoon, my mother seemed light and unburdened, free to be herself and a sister to Addie—not a wife and not a mother.

Around 4:00 we decided to drive back to the city, cleaned up the kitchen, folded up the chairs and got into the car. Even though the windows were down, the air was hot and sticky. After about 30 miles of driving, we stopped at a tiny lake, more like a waterhole to cool off.  It was 5 o’clock by then and cocktail hour could begin. Lorne mixed a couple of drinks and Mom and Addie got the inner tube out of the trunk. Somehow they both got into it and proceeded to merrily float back and forth across the pond, sipping and laughing together. By the second drink, they were laughing at everything...and so were Uncle Lorne and I. It all seemed funny, the floating, the drinking, the pond, the inner tube… I’d never seen or heard my reserved mother like that before having such uninhibited fun, wildly laughing and enjoying the closeness with my aunt. I think I saw my mother for the first time.


  1. i love this story - especially about the Canadian traits which I didn't know about. And also about your mother. can't wait to read your book!

  2. I love your writing! This was fun to read.