Our daily bread 2

I am thinking that bread must have been made in the house in Horni Lomna where my grandmother was born in 1881. This wasn’t my mother’s mother – I have no idea who my mother’s mother was; or, wait, I have an idea, but I will pursue that a little later on – but my father’s: Anna Klusova, daughter of Adam Klus and Eva Szkanderova. There are other names, a long line of them running across paper like the blue thread of the Lomna River I see on the map in front of me. Her house, just near the river, a small bridge crossing it by the road, and then a path, deep with snow when I visited in late February of 2012. I could see her house from the cleared yard of the house directly in front of hers but I couldn’t cross the white field to peer in the windows where she must have looked out to see what was going on in the world of sheep and spruce trees.

Deer pausing to drink from the river, or maybe a fugitive wolf, or a goshawk swooping down to take up a shrew in its talons. I know these animals exist today in the Mionsi  forest above the house and in those years their numbers must have been considerable. In fairy tales, the young girl walking home alone was often shadowed by a wolf. The church where my grandmother worshipped and was married from is perhaps a mile from her house. I imagine her walking home from Mass with her scarf pulled up over her face against the wind and hearing wolves in the mountains, knowing they would enter her sleep in the bed she surely shared with a sister or two. Or noting the stamp of lynx paws in the snow as they led over the bridge and up into the trees.

So the windows where she looked out: I’ve seen them. And there’s a chimney, so they had fire, and of course they would have eaten bread. My father didn’t cook much but he did make pancakes and he always put buckwheat flour in them. Buckwheat figures in some of the dishes of the Beskydy Mountains so perhaps my grandmother’s father (my great-grandfather: how intimate a term to use for someone I never met, will never know, and yet whose house I yearn for at this great distance: the Sunshine Coast to Horni Lomna; something in excess of 8000 kilometres), described in my grandmother’s certificate of birth and baptism as a farmer, well, perhaps he grew buckwheat on that slope of hill behind the house. There were fruit trees under a burden of snow. Plums? Apples? In summer photographs, the valley of the Lomna River is verdant and lush. I imagine the taste of apples grown there, fed by those waters.

Can a relationship be recreated with such small ingredients? With the possibility of buckwheat, the dream of wolves? Only think of bread – pulverized wheat berries, water, yeast. Salt had to be brought in to the area for sheep and people; they traded plum jam, slivovitz, woollen goods, and cheese. In that small house, I imagine the bowl of dough rising by the hearth, curds in a wooden trough, and jars of plums gleaming on a shelf.

Aria for early summer

“Yes, but what can I say about the Parthenon – that my own ghost met me, the girl of 23, with all her life to come…” (Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary, April 21, 1932)

How I felt that as I looked at our photographs of White Pine Island – Brendan and Angie in their little bathing suits, Lily on a log, Forrest rowing the boat away from us, my parents smiling the summer of their 40th wedding anniversary. All the years of our family, the warm days, the smell of pine, the silken texture of dry grass flattened under our towels, taste of lemonade from the River Trails thermos jug, all of them collapsed into an hour, a moment, held in my hands, water falling through my fingers. How do I keep my memories intact, how apart from this, a brief time in the middle of the night, darkness pressed to the window by my desk, myself reflected in glass as I sit in my white nightgown, every cell in my body yearning for those I have loved, still love, though the only one left in the sleeping house is John.

Our daily bread

Every week she made bread. I remember the lard melting in a big saucepan of milk, then cooling. She mixed the dough in a huge aluminum pan, battered, with a hole on one edge for hanging it on a hook. It was never hung up in our place but sat on a shelf until required again. (It was also used for mixing the turkey stuffing at Christmas.) I don’t think I’m wrong in remembering that she made 12 or more loaves at a time. Mixed by hand, kneaded by hand. I liked returning home to the smell of fresh bread and sometimes there were even cinnamon buns, sticky with raisins and brown sugar. I would have liked slices of warm bread with lots of butter, but she was too thrifty and careful to allow the bread to be used for anything other than daily sandwiches or weekend toast. We didn’t have toast on weekday mornings but woke, instead, to porridge in the melmac bowls, a scant spoonful of brown sugar on top, and milk cooling the grey mush. I always said I hated it but in fact it wasn’t the taste I hated – there was something comforting about a bowl of porridge – but that we weren’t allowed to refuse it. And that she wouldn’t allow suggestions – flavour the oats with cinnamon, maybe, or add some raisins or walnuts? No. She was queen of the kitchen and so sensitive to anything resembling criticism that a suggestion produced anger. And tears.

But the bread, I see this now, was such an accomplishment. I make two loaves a week, enough for my husband’s morning toast, and to accompany the occasional meal of omelette or soup. When my children come home for a holiday, I make it more often – one son has been known to eat most of a loaf warm from the oven, with butter and cheddar cheese. And I use my Kitchenaid to mix the dough, removing it at the end to give it a few nostalgic turns with my hands. I didn’t always use the Kitchenaid (I’ve only had it for five or six years) and know something of the work of kneading larger quantities of dough but I never made 12 loaves at a time. But the point (or one of them) is, it’s no effort at all to make bread this way.

Once, when I was perhaps 11, a school friend invited me to spend a weekend boat camping with her and her parents. This was such luxury! We would head out from Sidney where they kept their cabin cruiser and meander up to Cowichan Bay and environs. My friend promised those tiny doughnuts covered in powdered sugar and lots of soda pop, things we seldom had at home. We moored off Tent Island, I remember, in a marine park, and my friend’s parents drank cocktails on deck. This seemed the height of sophistication to me, those drinks in tall plastic glasses jaunty with nautical flags, maraschino cherries impaled on toothpicks with cellophane streamers on the tips. Meanwhile we went ashore in a dinghy, exploring the island in sunshine. My mother sent a loaf of her bread and a jar of concord grape jelly, gifts I gave my hostess with some embarrassment. Who would want homemade bread, I thought. It turned out this family did. They went into rhapsodies over breakfast, buttering slices of my mother’s bread and spooning on jelly. Did I tell her how they’d loved her bread? Probably not, another small pleasure I kept from her.

I never heard her complain about the work of making bread. She didn’t often complain about any of the work associated with our household of 6. She was cheerful about laundry, for instance, even in the days when she had a wringer washer and no drier – and even when she did have a drier, she seldom used it, begrudging (her word) the expense. Instead she hung everything on outdoor clothes lines or else on twine strung across the basement. She ironed everything imaginable – pillow cases, shirts, our jeans, tea towels – and even the unimaginable: my father’s boxer shorts. She’d set up the ironing board in front of the television and watch her favourite shows while spraying clean cotton with water and running her hot iron across each item. Lawrence Welk, Jackie Gleason, Don Messer’s Jubilee or anything else with a maritime flavour to remind her of Nova Scotia where she was born.

I laughed at her, mocked her choice of programs, because that wasn’t what I wanted – a mother soft-eyed, even teary, as she watched Catherine McKinnon sing sad songs of the old country or Lawrence Welk manfully guide the latest champagne lady around the floor, the June Taylor Dancers grinning as they twirled in crinolines or bolo ties.

But what did I want of her? I couldn’t have known then, obviously, but I rebuke my younger self for treating her so casually – did I ever say, I think it’s amazing that you make bread? Or did I thank her for ironing my jeans with such care? I rebuke my older self for not taking her aside and hugging her with gratitude. It would have delighted her but I never did.

Every week she made bread.

Passage

This morning I was talking to Alan Jamieson — he and Miranda Pearson read at the Arts Centre in Sechelt last evening, a lovely event, and then returned to our house for the night… — in the kitchen when we both noticed a strange bird on the railing of the deck. It was trying to perch and couldn’t seem to find its balance. When I went to the sliding door to watch, I could hear the churring of sapsuckers in the trees below the deck. Then it dawned on me: this was a young sapsucker, one of this year’s hatch, and it was the offspring of the pair which have spent the last few weeks in the cotoneaster just by the deck. I knew that the adult birds were making wells in the bark of the tree for sap to collect and I knew that insects were attracted to, and trapped by, the sap as well. But I hadn’t made the obvious connection: that they must have nest a nearby and that they were drinking sap themselves and taking insects back to the nest.

Later we went for a walk and the air was full of the sound of sapsuckers encouraging or scolding their young who were flying with them from tree to tree, the young clumsy and new to flight. I saw two young ones, each shepherded by an adult, fly from one tall fir to another (I suspect their nest is in a standing dead cedar not far from our house). And just now I saw this young one in the cotoneaster, trying to hold on to the trunk as one parent busily fed on a lower branch, stopping from time to time to give directions which the young bird seemed to ignore. Keeping its difficult balance was all it could do for now.

All the years I’ve lived here and watched birds build nests, hatch young, teaching those young to fly and make their way into the wild blue skies, I’ve never seen this moment in the lives of sapsuckers.

Small update, the next morning: one of the young sapsuckers came to the sliding doors leading from the deck into our kitchen (I’m describing this from its perspective, not ours…) and clung to the screen, looking at us with such urgency that it felt like a visitation from…well, you can fill in the space.

High Ground Press

The other evening, John had the honour of speaking at the Alcuin Society’s Annual General Meeting in Vancouver. His topic: “The Printing of Poetry, the Poetry of Printing”. In 1980, he went with a friend to Prince George in a rented van and brought home an ancient Chandler and Price platen press which became the basis of our High Ground Press. John’s idea was to print poetry broadsheets in limited editions and for 30 years he’s done this in the belief that “poems warrant singular lives in the light, no less contemplative (and as compelling) as their lives in books, voice or imagination.”

It was interesting for me to watch as he showed images of our print-shop,

our presses (for the C&P was joined by a small Adana from England a few summers ago),

and a couple of the broadsheets he’s printed. This one was part of our second series of broadsheets and the image isn’t particularly crisp but the poem, by Jan Zwicky, is beautiful and I love the design:

And this broadsheet is from our Companions Series, for which we asked Canadian poets to respond to a poem in the canon. Sue Wheeler chose a poem by Don McKay (who had a poem in an earlier series so the sense of companionship extends into our printing history as well as in this series…):

In Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, I write about the history of printing and type in an chapter about my grandfather’s origins in Bukovina, and I say this about John: “My husband labours in our print-shop over type, chases, ornaments, and the unwieldy nature of ink. There are far more convenient ways to transfer texts to paper, this suits his meditative nature, and mine too, for I love to think of the slow work of poetry finding its way to a broadsheet. Paper impressed with ink, like a kiss, a tattoo.”

Father’s Day

The father in this house was celebrated with phone calls from Victoria, Ottawa, the Edmonton airport by one mathematician on his way to Paris. And with a hike up the Malaspina trail where two bears were spotted eating new grass and had obviously been walking on the trail before us, turning over big rocks for ants and grubs underneath. And with a dinner of duck legs roasted with tiny new potatoes, asparagus, and a bottle of Desert Hills 2007 Syrah (I swear Desert Hills makes the best red wines in the Okanagan Valley — Syrah, Meritage, their luscious Gamay, all redolent of the Black Sage Bench near Oliver), followed with Fraser Valley strawberries and praline Hagen Das ice cream.

Wax fish

This morning I’m finishing the first stage of a project I hope will result in a quilt. I’ve stencilled salmon images onto squares of white cotton (cut from fragments of cotton sheets I brought home from my mother’s apartment after her death; she’d saved everything and I was reluctant to toss the bag of sheets away, knowing that white cotton can always be used for something…), in varying configurations, and then have carefully brushed the fish with melted wax. A kind of batik, but it’s simply one step in printing a design on these squares. The next step will be to stitch the background with strong thread to create a mokume or woodgrain resist pattern. Then the squares will be immersed in indigo dye. I’ll crack the waxed fish images a bit so that the indigo bleeds into the white cotton. After the dye is set and dry, I’ll iron the squares to remove the wax and then use some fabric paint to detail the fish a little — red is particularly nice against the white and indigo. And if all this works out according to plan, then I’ll have 15 blocks to use for a quilt. I have to confess I’m not an artist. I have almost no graphic ability. But sometimes I have such an urge to make something, to make a visual thing with texture and colour, and so I keep trying to find ways to do this. Fabric seems to be the most forgiving. And this method of resist-dyeing is also kind of forgiving. I’ve made a quilt using this ancient Japanese shibori technique in the past and added batik to the mix with results that I still love (the quilt is on a daybed in my study…) so I’m hoping to expand on what I did in the past and add a few new twists. Stay tuned. I’ll add images of each stage of the process.

colander of roses

I was out in the garden, cutting garlic scapes and Mendel’s peas to steam for supper and because I had scissors with me, I also cut roses and sage to bring in as well. I passed John on my way to the kitchen and he said, “There you are, with your colander of roses,” and I realized how lovely they looked, still fresh with rain, and worthy of a photo at least, if not (eventually) a poem.

Tweed

It was the year I was in grade one. My father’s naval ship went to Asia for three months and for that period, my mother cared for us alone. When I think about it, I can’t imagine it was entirely unexpected  – she’d married a sailor after all. He’d been in the navy ever since she’d known him. But we’d lived in Matsqui for four years of my early childhood – two two-year postings – before moving to Victoria in the summer of 1962 and for those years, my father worked at the radar base just behind the family housing where we lived in the house at the end of the boulevard, next to the Sward’s farm. He went to work each morning and returned each evening. So now I’m thinking that this might have been the first time he’d been away for such a long time.

Four children. She didn’t drive. There was a big grocery store, a Safeway, I think, on Fort Street, near Douglas, and some days after school, she’d take my younger brother and me with her to do the shopping. We walked. We almost always walked in those years, though buses ran down Cook Street and maybe even along May Street. But, no, I’m sure she worried about the fares (we were not well-off), so we walked. How far would it have been? I consult a map and count: 24 blocks. Each way. And for the walk back, we all carried two bags. This was before plastic bags with handles so imagine my brother and me with our paper bag holding macaroni, dog food, carrots, and tins of soup. Some days there would have been a treat – Lifesavers or a stick of gum.

I remember how she sat by a window with a cup of instant coffee, a cigarette, and a far-away look in her eyes. I knew even then that she longed for his return.

And one day I returned from school to find her in her – their—bedroom in a new suit and coat. The suit was powder blue with dark velvet trim on the pockets and collar. The skirt skimmed over her hips and flared a little, mid-calf. She looked so elegant, hardly like my mother at all, in seamed stockings and small blue shoes. The coat was Harris tweed. She told me this reverently. It had come from WJ Wilson on Government Street, by Trounce Alley. It was wool, its colours soft and muted: grey, brown, an aqua thread that somehow reminded me of birds. She said with such vehemence that I knew she felt guilty about how much she had spent: I’ll have it for my whole life so it’s worth every penny! She let me smell it and that scent imprinted in me: earthy, not unlike animals, and of her somehow too.

The day he returned, we met the ship at CFB Esquimalt. It was familiar ground in some ways. My brothers and I took swimming lessons there, at the Naden pool, free for the children of naval personnel. But this time we waited on a dock, or some sort of jetty, while men gathered on the deck of the ship and waved to their families. I can’t remember seeing my dad but of course he was among them and we were taken aboard the ship for a tour and refreshments and to see where he slept all those months he was away from us. It was not luxurious. And he was strange to us, or to me at least, in his naval uniform, among men with whom he’d drunk rum daily, maybe never using his Old Spice on Sunday mornings as he did at home, or sharpening our knives at his basement workbench, the sound of the whetstone making my spine shiver.

And he brought presents for us, packed into a fragrant carved chest which was my mother’s main gift. There was also a bottle of My Sin, bought (I’m supposing) at a duty-free shop. There were two cotton dresses for me, identical madras but for the colours: one was blues and greens, and the other rusts and browns. They buttoned down the chest and had full skirts. I remember I loved them. There was also a little music box for jewellery. I still have it, though I dropped it the first day and the mirror cracked, which seemed ominous. It played, and still plays, a sweet song that my father told me was called “China Nights”. As a child I believed this but later wondered  if he just made it up on the spot.

No, he didn’t. Thanks to Google, I’ve found MP3 files of the song and it’s the same sweet melody. Further searching reveals that it was a song popular with U.S. Marines during the Korean War and that they often bought highly lacquered music boxes which played the song.. Sew girls – the women who worked in barracks, repairing and tailoring uniforms, would sing the tune for their American customers, and they told those customers that “China Nights” was a Japanese soldier’s lament for his Chinese sweetheart A little more research tells me that the music was “written by Shinko Takeoka and Hamako Watanbe sang the first version. The words were written by Yaso Saijo in 1939 (it is uncertain if Saijo was ever a soldier or ever in China, but the sew girl would probably like to think he was)”.

I wish I knew the itinerary of that trip. The camphorwood chest was almost certainly from China but where, exactly? Hong Kong? I know my father was there, for instance. In the mid-1990s, he arranged an envelope among the branches of our Christmas tree and when my mother opened it, she found plane tickets to Southeast Asia, to places my father had gone to on that particular trip and to which he wanted to revisit in her company. Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore – these were ports of call that still held romance for him. My parents went off in winter to tour those old haunts, sending postcards of beaches and golden temples.

When we returned with the stranger who was our father to our house on Eberts Street, my parents went into their bedroom and we were asked to leave them alone. I imagined my mother twirling for my father in her new suit and then the two of them hugging on the bed. Her Harris tweed coat was hanging in the front closet and I went in, closed the door from the inside, and put my arms into its satin-lined sleeves where I could smell my mother’s Avon underarm deodorant mingling with the wool.

I still have the chest. For years my mother stored all her sweaters in it and they had the distinctive smell of camphorwood. There was a shallow inner box that sat on a ridge around the top. She kept small containers with various pieces of jewellery on the shelf, and gloves. I keep my sweaters in the chest, and the linen tablecloths which have come from John’s mother (embroidered with brilliant flowers by his grandmother in Suffolk) as well as several from the Goodwill on Pembina Highway in Winnipeg, bought while I was killing time between readings on a book tour in 2001. I keep my pashminas there too, a kaleidoscope of them, many of them gifts from my children. Everything that comes from the chest carries the smell of my childhood.

And I have the coat, still in good condition though the cut isn’t flattering on me. But after a chance comment on a stage – a book of mine had been nominated for a prize and standing with the other shortlisted authors, I had a brief conversation with a man who’d written a book about his father, remembering him through the process of tailoring his father’s suit to fit himself. I mentioned my mother’s coat and he said, Why not have it remade? – I began to think about what I might to do to make it my own.

A thrift shop in the town near where I live always has Harris tweed jackets on its rack. And when I look at people shopping in the grocery store or waiting in doctors’ offices, when I listen to them speaking with English accents, or soft Scottish ones, I know why. (I think I know their values.) It’s an aging population in that town and when the men die, I imagine their wives asking sons if they want their father’s well-kept jacket. Most younger men wouldn’t be interested. So the jackets are carefully folded and donated to the thrift shop run by the auxiliary to the hospital. Funds raised by the auxiliary go towards equipment we all feel safer for knowing the hospital has in its emergency room and its operating theatres. Defibrillators, pulmonary devices, an MRI machine, and I believe the auxiliary even equipped a hospice unit, a birthing suite. I can’t bear to leave the nicer of the jackets on their hangers and gladly buy them for 4 dollars a piece. I have in mind a quilt, squares of alternating tweed and velvet, using jackets and dresses from the Thrift shop. But then I buy the garments and remember my mother’s assertion that she would have her coat for life and I can’t bear to cut into them. What do you do with the jackets that don’t sell, I ask the women working among the old clothes and shelves of mismatched china. I thought that I’d feel better about cutting into one if I thought it was going to the landfill if it didn’t sell or else recycled as rags.  Oh, we make up parcels for homeless people on the Downtown Eastside, one of them tells me cheerfully. So then the thought of cutting up a perfectly wearable garment seems doubly wicked, though I have to say that no homeless person I’ve encountered in Vancouver – and we often stay in a hotel on the corner of Pender and Homer, walking out in evenings to a play at the Rickshaw or Firehall Theatre, passing the people camped out under the Army and Navy eaves – has been wearing a Harris tweed jacket, dapper with jeans or rough corduroys. My husband has at least three of the jackets; each son has several; and dinner guests often leave with a jacket in hand after a discussion about tweed has them confessing to always having liked the look of a tweed sport jacket and a tee shirt underneath. Or a turtleneck. A nostalgia for professors reading from a battered copy of Milton or Byron, or aging gardeners in the west of Ireland, men digging potatoes in a tweed jacket and gumboots, collarless shirt of rough linen or cotton, blue stripes on a creamy ground. I knew some of those Irish gardeners and sat with them by turf fires, drinking tea so strong that it curdled my throat; and I know that their tweed jackets were never cleaned but carried the odour of bog smoke and chickens, released by rain.