Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: My Mother’s Hands.

Long piano fingers so elegant and lovely.

I miss Ma.  Sharing cups of tea.  Or lingering conversations on a quiet summer evening.  Laughing until we cried.  Long walks through the neighborhood.  Enjoying the pleasure of each others company.  Mother and daughter stuff.  All such lovely things that I cherish and hold dear.  But of all those things, it is her hands that I pine for.  Reach out and wish that they were resting next to mine.  Hand in hand.  Beautiful.  Comforting. Tender.  Reassuring.

Her touch was my first.  My touch was one of her last.

Her fingers were long, thin and graceful.  Pulsing with veins.  Like indigo rivers across translucent terrain.  We used to call them piano fingers because they could easily span an octave of keys.  She never played an instrument.  Except the music of her heart.

Her hands were hard working.  Dependable and strong.  They understood the connection between soap, water and a scrub brush.  A dish rag and a scouring pad.  Intimately.  Thoroughly.  Hardwood, tile, linoleum and wall to wall.  Down on all fours.  Scoured and cleaned.  Washed and wiped. Polished and shined.  Gleaming with pride.

Ma loved clean laundry.  Before washing machines were automatic, she filled her wringer washer daily.  Pulled her family’s clothes, piece by piece, through the hard rubber rollers.  Filled her wicker basket then meticulously hung the day’s laundry on the line to dry. Wooden pegs and twisted wire.  Summer or winter.  Spring or autumn.  The sparkling laundry fluttered and flew and often froze.  Board stiff long johns and flannelette nighties.  Her magical hands orchestrated it all with ease.  Held it close and let it go.

Hands that could cook up a storm.

Her hands were a sight to behold in the kitchen.  She cooked and baked.  Stirred and tossed.  Kneaded and coaxed.  Folded and cut.  Meals were prepared with tenderness.  Cookies were baked with love.  Cakes were dressed and adorned for every occasion.  Table was set.  Dinner was served.  Dishes washed and carefully put away.  Countertops glistened.  The floor was swept.  The refrigerator hummed with contentment.  Such power in those hands.

A paint brush found its place to dwell.  Between her thumb and pointer finger.  Strokes and splashes across the canvas.  Dabs and feather light lines.  Details drawn.  Smudges and smears.  Oil on canvas.  Flowers and trees.  Fruit in bowls.  The Sleeping Giant.  Artistic.  Expressive. Imaginative wondrous hands.

Her hands held books and magazines.  On topics diverse and sundry.  Her hands were eager to learn. To grasp the meaning of life.  To find the truth.  To seek wisdom.  To scratch her head when none of it made sense.

Fabric was transformed in her hands.  Curtains from calico.  Tablecloths from cheerful colorful cotton. Dresses from wool or the softest silk.  Jumpers from baby wale corduroy.  Skirts that twirled and flared.  Slacks that zipped or buttoned.  Shirts were crisp or casual.  A surprise dress at the end of a school day.  A new wardrobe to start the year.  Machine sewn.  Hand stitched.  Embroidered edges.  Guide me home.

Hands that gripped life and love and held on tight.

The exquisite hands that caressed my newborn head.  Supported me while I learned to walk.  Clasped my hand on my first walk to school.  Tended to my scraped knees.  Wiped the tears from my eyes when my heart was torn and broken.  Touched my shoulder with the language of love.  Embraced.  Hugged.  Carried.   Stroked.  Hands that gripped and held on tight.  To love.  To life.

Young hands.  Mother’s hands.  Old hands.  Grandma’s hands.  May they reach down from heaven and touch this daughter’s heart tonight.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: I Never Can Say Goodbye.

Ma enjoying her morning tea the summer before she died.

Goodbyes can be hard for me.  Especially when I’m saying them to someone I love.  Then they don’t feel very good at all.  But within every goodbye is the welcoming possibility of the next hello.  Saving grace.

Some goodbyes are more difficult than others.  Some are temporary.  Short lived.  But others are permanent.  Never another opportunity to bid someone a fond adieu.  These are the most difficult.  The heartbreakers.  The sorrowful ones.  And sadly unavoidable.  Sooner or later, it happens to all of us.

If we’re lucky there may only be a few really big goodbyes in our lifetime.  But along the journey there are many little ones.  These are the fine hairline fractures of the heart.  The tiny losses that are barely detected by our minds but somewhere deep inside our spirt, there is a knowing.  And with each one, life changes.  Maybe not in a gigantic shrieking way.  But there is a shift.  It’s the winds of changes, Dylan sang about.   And things are never quite the same as they were.  I think we record these moments in our soul.  Some we bury deep. Others we record for posterity.  Capture in black and white.  Or  record in living color.  And play back.  Again and again.   But no matter how many times we practice we are never ever truly prepared for the last time.

We probably say goodbye to someone everyday.  I know I do.  In the morning my husband shouts up the stairs on his way out the door for work.  “See ya later,” he calls.  I’m in the bathroom readying myself for work, toothbrush in hand and I holler back, “have a good day!”  He responds in kind, “you too!”  I can hear the back door slam on his way out.  Hello, where’s my kiss.

My youngest daughter does a similar thing as she leaves for school, or to meet with friends.  “Bye Mom.  Love you!” she sings.  Her sweet voice, music to my ears.  “Love you too dear!” I trill.  I could be anywhere at this point.  Applying mascara in front of the bathroom mirror.  Throwing on a pair of skinny red jeans for work.  Rummaging through my closet for a clean top to go with them.  Gathering up the bag of goodies I need for work.  I hear the door slam.  I hear her say “hello” to her best friend.  They giggle.  They talk loud.  They’re young.

At work there are numerous goodbyes.  Business associates and colleagues come and go.  I wish them well.  “Have a good day!”  “Enjoy your week!”  “Your weekend!”   Cheers and tootle-dos. And with each “so long, farewell, it’s been good to know you” there is always the promise of tomorrow.  Another day to say hello.

Some goodbyes are rites of passage.  Like when my son moved out of the house and in with his buddies.  He was a young man by then.  But that’s not what I saw as he moved his things out of his bedroom.  I saw my little raisin-eyed boy who loved to rub his hands together with glee whenever his favorite team scored a goal.  I saw the little boy who held my hand on the way to school his first day.  I saw our entire life together flash before me as he closed the door.  Just like they say happens when you die. I saw it all in an instant.  Hello, can we press rewind.

A similar thing happened when my oldest daughter left to go to college.  My son just moved across town.  But my daughter moved across the Georgia Strait.  In theory still close.  But there was this inconvenient body of water between us, which meant we couldn’t just hop in the car and be there in ten minutes.  This geographic situation introduced all the “special occasion” goodbyes.  Her birthday and Thanksgiving weekend combo.  Christmas vacation.  The quick trip over for a winter weekend.  Easter and maybe spring break if luck is on our side.  The long weekend in May or Mother’s Day.  Choose one.  Canada Day and little sister’s birthday BBQ if time permits.  Time.  Never enough.  But we’ve got memories by the truckload.  And lots of hugs and kisses at the ferry terminal or the back door.  “Love you dear.”  “Love you too Mom.”  Hello, can we have more special occasions.

By the time I had these rites of passage and special occasion goodbyes with my children, I was already well practiced with Ma and The Old Man.  I remember the first one like it was yesterday.  It was the hardest.  Painful doesn’t even come close to describing it.  When my son was three we moved to the Westcoast for the first time.  My sister was (and still is) living in Victoria.  The plan was to move in with her and start a new life.  It was time to cut the apron strings.  And stand on my own two feet.  Embrace adulthood by moving three thousand miles from home.  It was all very exciting.

The departure scene at the airport is imbedded in my memory.  Forever.  Leaving Ma was hard enough.  But leaving with her grandson in tow was agonizing.  She had helped raise him and he meant the world to her.  We hugged.  We cried.  We waved goodbye.  My son and I got on the plane.  I wanted to jump on the next one back.  I didn’t.  But I did return a year later with a new husband.  Hello, we’re home.

There would be more moves over the years and many goodbye hugs and kisses.  All in preparation for the big one.

Ma died a year and a half after she had a massive heart attack.  Until that fateful day she always seemed so young and energetic.  She was one of those people whose age was indefinable.  We all thought she’d live to one hundred, including Ma.  Her heart attack was a shock to everyone, including Ma.  In fact, once Ma was out of the hospital and recovering nicely, she immediately went into denial.  “Oh I didn’t have a heart attack,” she’d say.  “Oh but you did Ma,” we’d say.  She never listened.  And either way, she seemed in pretty good shape for someone who may, or may not, have lost over 70% of her heart muscle.  Hello, who knows best.

The year and a half that Ma lived after her heart attack was a gift from God.  Not just for her.  But for me as well.  Had she died instantly that day in early August, I’m not sure I would have fared as well as I did.  This long goodbye.  This period of grace from God was the time I needed to come to grips with my mother’s mortality.  Despite her youthful appearance and vigorous disposition, she was in her eighties.  She was elderly. And no one, not even Ma, get’s out of here alive.  That year and a half was a sweet gentle loving time.  I grew to appreciate the quiet moments.  I learned to sit and be still.  I learned to watch and witness.  I grew a grateful heart.  I learned to let go.

A few months after her heart attack my sister brought Ma out to the Westcoast for a visit.  Because she had been doing so well, we thought this would be a good thing for her.  She never did return home.  Never saw The Old Man again.  She pined for both.  One minute she was doing really well and the next she was severely ill.  Quite quickly we ran out of time to get her back home.  She was stuck in Oz.  Her last Christmas was spent in the hospital.  We spent the best part of it there with her.  It was a sad time.  But it was wonderful too.  Miraculous.  Not because Ma’s heart was repaired.  But because mine was transformed.  Permanently.  I would never take life for granted again.

Ma enjoying an intimate moment with her great granddaughter just days before she died.

In the days before her death my oldest daughter brought my granddaughter to visit Ma in the hospital.  They couldn’t get their eyes off each other.  There they were.  The one leaving earth and the one who had just arrived in a profound intimate exchange.  No words necessary.  Just a meeting of the souls.  Kindred spirits.  Evermore linked.

Hello.  I love you.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Where Would we be Without our Mothers.

Ma and Daughter Number One wearing matching sweaters.

I miss Ma.  Every day.  Some days I pine for her in the deepest way.  Especially at this time of year.  I’d like to sit and have tea and cookies with her.  Just one more time.  Phone her up to chat.  Long distance to wherever she is.   There are days when I weep.  Uncontrollably.  It’s like a sad Candid Camera.  When it’s least expected.  Tears.  I never know when they’ll erupt.  Or why.  I can look at the same picture of Ma a thousand times and all it does is evoke a smile.  But every now and again I’ll see it through a different lens.  And the tears fall.  Like the loss just happened.  Heart broken anew.

Ma was the perfect mother for me.  She wasn’t perfect.  And she’d be the first to point out her flaws. But only Ma could have given birth to me.  Without she, there would be no me.

I had a good mother.  And I gave birth to a good mother.  I am doubly blessed.  Twice heaven-sent.   Daughter Number One (DNO) gave me a granddaughter and made me a “boo.”  In our family this means grandmother.  It was an endearing childhood nickname that we hauled out of antiquity.  Ma was already Gran, Granny and Grandma.  No other title seemed quite as fitting so we came up with the boo thing.  And it just felt right.

I always knew I would be a mother.  It wasn’t like I lied awake at night dreaming of the day when I would hold a child in my arms.  It was just something I took for granted.  Understood would happen.  And I am so grateful that it did.  I love being a mom.  I love being a boo.

When Ma was a young girl, she did dream of being a mother one day.  Having a family to call her own. By the time she was ten both her parents were gone, and for all intents and purposes, Ma and her four sisters were left orphaned.  They were raised by their maternal grandmother.  Ma loved her dearly.  But she longed for a mother’s love.  I get that.  There’s nothing quite like it, especially when you’ve got a good one.

It was from that motherless child’s perspective that Ma’s desire grew.  To one day be a mother herself.  There was never any doubt in her mind. No second guessing.  It was her magnificent obsession.  Her four kids were everything to her.  As were her grandchildren and great grandchildren.  Quite simply, Ma loved kids.  Not just her own. But everyones.  That was where her heart was.  And kids loved her.  Drawn to her like Mother Earth.  They may have come initially for her cookies.  But came back for her kindness.  And she had it in spades.  Her heart was compassionate.  Her understanding empathic.  Who wouldn’t want to run into the arms of someone so emotionally gifted.

Ma holding me as we pose for the camera.

It was love at first sight for both Ma and me.  I don’t remember of course, but on some level I think we do.  Somewhere inside our spirit lives this first moment of meeting.  Ma said I was born around noon.  It was summer time.  Possibly the living was easy.  Ma was happy.  From what I was told her water broke, she had me, missed lunch and that “I was the cutest baby.”  As it just so happens, my three siblings were also the cutest babies.  It’s nothing shy of a miracle how every mother has the cutest baby, or babies.  I love how equitable the universe is on this subject. But equality aside, this was our moment for mutual admiration.  My three older siblings all had their turn.  Now this was mine.

Ma said I had dark brown eyes and tons of long black hair.  I used to pull it and make myself cry.  And then look at Ma like she was the culprit.  Ma loved to tell this tale of my infantile masochism.  It was her “cute baby” story.  And I couldn’t get enough of it.  Partly because it made us both laugh.  But also because Ma always told it with an air of pride in my crowning glory.  Like this was some extraordinary accomplishment on both our parts.  And at such a young age.

Me and Daughter Number One posing for the camera.

I remember the birth of my DNO like it was yesterday.  I was two weeks overdue.  And super-sized.  Next to me, an elephant looked svelte.  It was the beginning of October and Autumn was showing off as usual.  I was hoping DNO would arrive a week early for Ma’s birthday.  What a perfect gift this would have been. But that day came and went.  Then I placed my hopes on my best friend’s birthday in the middle of September, but that too came and went.  By the end of September, the doctor decided that if the baby didn’t arrive over the weekend, he would intervene.  Monday came and still no baby.  An induction was scheduled for 5:00pm that day.  This was the last thing I wanted but by this time, I was compliant.  Ready.  I hadn’t seen my feet in months.  I was swollen.  And exhausted.  It was time for the bun to come out of the oven.

Perhaps it was just a curious coincidence.  Or maybe DNO was finally ready.  Because not long after we arrived at the hospital, I felt the first pangs of labor.  No need for inducement.  This became my “cute baby” story for DNO.  Just the suggestion was enough for her to take things into her own hands.  Do things her way.  This willfulness has never left her.  It is one of the things I admire and love most about DNO.  It has taken her to wonderful places that I have only imagined.  It is the engine that drives her courage.  Her strength.  Her determination to live life to the fullest.  It propels her towards big dreams.

My other “cute baby” story is how she came out smiling.  She had a happy spirit right from the start.  This too in part defines her.  I looked into her beautiful dark brown eyes and it was love at first sight.  And I knew.  There would be no stopping a girl with a cheerful demeanor and a will of steel.  Watch out world.  Here she comes.

On some level the birth of my granddaughter was more profound than the birth of my three children.  When you’re in labor you’re caught up in the fray.  There’s no time for perspective.  Reflection.  Or introspection.  That comes afterwards.  But when your child is having a child, you are witness to the miraculous. And you know it.  With every fiber of your being.  Grandchild number one (GNO) came into my world one beautiful morning at the end of summer and made it a better place.  All has been right  ever since.

Daughter Number One holding Granddaughter Number One.

My daughter had been in labor for over two days.  It was difficult to watch my child in pain.  If I could, I would have taken it from her.  It’s natural for a mother to want to take the bullet.  Jump in front of the train.  Walk without shoes.  And this was one of those instances where I would have done anything for her.  But this was her journey to travel.  Her odyssey.  Her miracle in the making.  Her moment.  My job was to wait.  To comfort.  And to love.

And wait  we did.  In the final hours before GNO’s arrival, my husband and I sat on the floor outside my daughter’s hospital room.  From that vantage point, we listened while my daughter’s partner whispered words of encouragement and love.  We listened as the medical folks led her through the final stages of childbirth.  We listened as she became a mother.  We listened as the doctor declared that a beautiful healthy baby girl was born.  Those were the joyful words we were waiting to hear.  Then it was time to meet our new granddaughter.  I held her in my arms and she looked up at me with deep dark chocolate eyes.  Just like Ma’s.  And this is my “cute baby” story for her.  I remind her often that she has her great grandmother’s black Italian eyes.  And that their time together was brief.  But they knew each other well.

Ma was a remarkable mother.  My daughter is too.

Ma taught me everything she knew.  How to bake a perfect ginger cookie.  Sew a seam on a summer dress.  Tend to an open wound.  Mend a broken heart.  She taught me how important it was to listen to your child.  And to hear the words spoken.  And those not.  She taught me how to open my heart.  And when to keep my mouth shut.  She showed me how to make much of little.  And to celebrate the birth of a child.  For there is no greater gift.

My daughter is teaching me every day.  I watch her with my granddaughter and my heart stops.  She’s engaging.  And smart. Full of all the right instincts.  She knows how and when to discipline.  She knows how to grow an infant into a little girl into a preteen and one day into a strong young woman.  She knows how to entertain her daughter.  And when to let her entertain herself.   She’s funny.  And fun.  Kids are drawn to her.  They see her great big heart.  And welcoming arms.  Who wouldn’t want to be embraced by those.

Yes, both Ma and DNO have taught me much. I like to think that I’m a better woman because of these two extraordinary ones.

A few weeks after this photo was taken my granddaughter was born. A few months later Ma was gone. They knew each other briefly but well.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: The Second and Last Kiss and the Smell of Old Spice.

Ma + The Old Man sitting on the stone wall.

The Old Man and his beautiful Italian Sweetheart.

The second kiss.  Does anyone even remember?  We don’t write love songs about the Numero Duo.  No passionate odes.  Or lyrical poems.  Tragic melodramas.  Nothing much comes to mind.  No backward glances.  No second chances.  Or even a second thought.  Nada.

Ma gave me my first kiss.  And The Old Man gave me the second.  The order and circumstances of these inceptive parental kisses most likely set the tone for our future relationships.  The Old Man would always be second best in my life.  The first kiss trumps everything after all.

Little back story.  The Old Man was an emotional guy.  He laughed easily and heartily.  Flew off the handle at the drop of a hat.  Tears welled in his eyes when he watched something sad on TV.  He cried like a baby when our birds, Petie 1 and Petie 2, died.  But as emotional as he was, I don’t remember him being comfortable expressing his love.  Yet oddly enough I always felt loved by him.  That was the paradox of The Old Man.  Emotional yet stoic.  Loving but unable to show it.  The stoicism was in his DNA.  He was a Finlander and they aren’t known for their overt expressions of love.  They aren’t huggy people.  Like the Italians.  Like Ma.

Part of the way The Old Man was had to do with his generation.  Back then, men were different than they are today.  Real men not only didn’t eat quiche.  They didn’t seek help.  There was no Burning Man.  There were no public displays of affection either.  It embarrassed everybody.   Husband.  Wife.  And especially the kids.  Even the pets hid in self-conscious mortification.  All that mushy stuff went on behind closed doors.  If it went on at all.  Most kids, myself included, preferred to think that it didn’t.  I was perfectly content in the belief that I was plucked from the cabbage patch.  Then carried in a pink flannel blanket by a stork and placed into Ma’s waiting arms.  Some myths are worth perpetuating.

The Old Man used to kiss Ma lightly on the lips before going to work every morning.  Perhaps “kiss” is a bit of an exaggeration.  It was more like a little peck.  A light brush.  An accidental skim of the lips.  I don’t even recall them holding hands.  But he did put his arm around her for pictures.  I don’t think he was just putting it on for the camera.  I look at the old photographs and I see a man showing the world that the Italian beauty next to him was his girl.  Sometimes he’d come up from behind while she was busy cooking and give her a little peck on the cheek.  She’d pretend to be annoyed and send him on his way but secretly I think she loved the attention.  Loved that he loved her.

Saying I love you didn’t come easily back then either.  Another embarrassing thing that sent everyone running for cover.  Saying it was awkward.  Uncomfortable.  And often blush inducing.  It was especially difficult if you were even the least bit shy, which our family was.  It was written in all the greeting cards of course.  At the end of the rhyming couplet.  Love and X’s and O’s.  Hallmark took care of everything.  But it was rarely openly and easily said.  It was just understood.  A given.  Taken for granted.  Families loved each.  Parents loved one another.  Parents loved their kids.  And kids loved them back.  There was never any doubt in my mind that I was loved, whether the words were spoken or not.

When I was in my late teens I fell in love for the first time. I found myself expressing that love to this young man.  It came naturally.  Like breathing.  Nothing much came of this callow relationship.  It fizzled pretty quickly.  My young teenage heart was crushed.  There would never be another quite like him.  But every cloud has its silver lining.  And mine was three little words. I love you.  Suddenly I was liberated.  It was the beginning of my Flower Power chapter.  The Age of Aquarius was just dawning on me.  And I was determined to openly and freely tell people that I loved them.  I wanted to introduce the phrase into my daily conversation.  It no longer needed to be pulled out of the mothballs for special occasions.  Like the good dishes for Christmas dinner.

Saying I love you to Ma was a piece of cake.  It wasn’t long before our good-bye kisses included an I love you.  Off I went to school with an I love you tucked inside my heart.  Ma stayed home with hers held equally close.   But saying I love you to The Old Man wasn’t quite as easy.  But I did say it eventually.  Not every day like with Ma.  But I said it and I’m grateful I did.  The truth is, he needed to hear it.  Craved it.  Like sugar.  And I needed to say it to him. The last time I told him I loved him was when I went home to bury Ma.  By then The Old Man was living in an old folks home.  I visited him every day during that week.  He had grown frail and was wheelchair bound.  His hearing was pretty much gone.  It was the night before my return to the Westcoast.  He was in the common sitting room.  The gathering place.  It was eerily quiet.  Surreal. The only conversation was the one coming from the television set.  When my niece and I opened the steel double doors to the room, we were greeted by a group of elderly folks sitting in wheelchairs.  They were all just sitting there facing the door.  Like it was a stage and they were the audience waiting for the show to begin.  Expectant.  Eager.  Earnest.  But there was also something else that I saw in their faces.  Hope.  Maybe tonight was their night.  Tonight there would be a visitor just for them.  Someone from their past who loved them.

But on this particular night, the visitor was for The Old Man. He wasn’t part of the audience watching the door.  He was by the television set, his head slumped on his chest, his eyes closed.  I touched his shoulder, which was thin and bony under his flannel shirt. He came to life.  We had a short visit.  It was a shouting match actually.  Because he refused to wear his hearing aid, having a private conversation was impossible.  So we yelled at each other for an hour.  Some things never change.

When it was time to leave I bent down and shouted in his ear.  Not just because he couldn’t hear, but because I knew it was my last chance to say it to him.  Loud and clear.  For eternity.  For the whole world to hear.  I LOVE YOU DAD.  Then I gave a kiss on the cheek to the one who gave me my second.  He told me he loved me too.  By this time all the old folks had turned their wheelchairs around and were no longer watching the door.  All eyes were on us.  After I shouted my love to The Old Man, the entire room let out a collective “Awwwww.”  Not applause exactly.  But close.

The Old Man smelled different than Ma.  She was all sweet tea, peppermint Chicklets and Second Debut.  His scent was inconsistent.  Right after work he smelled of bakery dust and sweat.  He’d head to the bathroom to wash it off and emerge smelling of Ivory soap and Brylcreem.  On special occasions, or on Sundays, he simply smelled fresh and clean.  Old Spice.  And everything nice.  But on that last kiss good-bye he smelled peculiar.  Off.  Tinny.  Sour.  The smell of death around the corner.  All the more reason to shout I love you.

I’ve thought about that last scene with my father many times over the years.  And how hungry everyone in that sitting room was for some expression of love.  And how it took their breath away when they heard the words “I love you” shouted with such wild abandon.  Such a sublime and wondrous thing to hear.

I love you.  And you.  And you.  And you.

Bill and boo snow day

me & dad in winter

Me and The Old Man

me-lee-the-old-man-at-christmas (1)

Diaries of the Breadman’s Daughter: The First and Last Kiss and the Smell of Second Debut.

Always safe in Ma's arms.

I love kisses.  All kinds.  The sweet little girl smooches.  The best friend kiss and tell.  The back seat make-out medley.  The peck on the cheek.  The gentle ones blown across the room.  The long kiss goodbye.  And the one that makes it all better.

There’s also nothing like the first kiss. The first first.  Or the first with someone new.  The first kiss lights our hearts on fire.  And stays with us a lifetime.  We never forget it.  We may forget the name.  But never the kiss.

There is one kiss, however, that I don’t remember.  And the truth is, it was my very first kiss.  Long before the kisses with romantic undertones. The original one that trumps all others.  And most of us were blessed with a kiss such as this.  For me, it came from Ma in the minutes after I was born.

Little back story.  I don’t remember anything about me before the age of five.  It’s like my life began when I started school.  I’m not sure what it is about going to school that awakens us from childhood amnesia, nor why we start remembering things.  My first recollection is that of being a Mama’s girl.  No doubt about it.  I was a clingy fearful child.  And I never wanted Ma to be out of my sight.  This must have made life difficult for her.  Having me literally clinging to her skirt like a three-toed sloth.  But anxieties often have curious origins and I’m convinced that at the root of my childhood malaise was Ma’s age.

She would have been considered “older” when she had me.  By today’s standards, she would have been a spring chicken.  But back then she was noticeably older than most of my friends’ mothers.  At least that’s how it seemed to me.  Ma had already been married once before and had three kids by the time I came along.  That alone, put her in the same category as Methuselah in my books.  I worried about her not being around to raise me.  I remember calculating how old I’d be if she died at fifty, which seemed unfathomably ancient at the time.  How would I survive without her? The Old Man was capable enough but he was no Ma.  And he was The Old Man after all.  If my calculations were right, there was a strong possibility that he would outlive her.  He was four years her junior and a man.  With that kind of logic, along with dog-years mathematics, I figured biologically he was at least 28 years younger than Ma. Of course, my worries were for not.  Nothing happened to Ma nor The Old Man.  But the fear of losing Ma was real to me just the same.  On the other hand, I also had the same fear of losing my dog Sugar.  I used to do a similar calculation with her life expectancy.  The mammoth question in my minuscule mind was always, “would she live long enough to survive my childhood and teenage years?”  I wanted Sugar to live forever.  Or at least as long as a horse, an elephant or ideally a tortoise.  It didn’t seem fair that dogs didn’t get this same shot at longevity.  I needed her around until I graduated from high school, at the very least. She was my surrogate sibling and my love for her defied description.  True to her name, she gave me lots of sugar.  She not only survived my high school years, but she lived a year beyond my graduation from University. I will always remember her sweet doggy kisses.

I look back and remember those clingy years with equal doses of horror and astonishment.  It’s Friday night.  Ma and The Old Man are getting dressed to go out to a movie.  I’m like a distressed dog, who senses when it’s owners are leaving the house, and most likely without them.  I could smell abandonment in their every move.  It didn’t matter that it would only be for an hour or two.  It didn’t matter that my older sister was there with me.  There wasn’t a treat or bribe in the world that could convince me that things would be okay if Ma walked out the door without me.  All that mattered was that I was being left behind.  What if Ma never came back?  What would happen then?  So I did what every tiresome clingy kid does.  I bawled my eyes out.  I was too young to intellectually know how manipulative I was being.  I only knew that if I cried loud enough.  Begged and pleaded hard enough.  Flailed and foamed at the mouth.  Ma would come to her senses and not go.  This worked like a charm every time.  Ma, of course would comfort me.  And we’d settle in for the night.  I’d snuggle in her arms and she’d stroke my hair and kiss my forehead.  Things were as they should be.

Starting kindergarten was equally traumatic.  The first week was torturous.  For both Ma and me.  I recall sitting on her lap and refusing to join the other kids.  Soaking her short-sleeved sweater in tears and snot.  My arms wrapped around her neck like a noose.  The more she tried to pull away, the harder my strangle-hold on her grew.  Eventually, she was able to coax me into staying in the classroom without her.   My fears dissipated.  It wasn’t long before Ma was able to kiss me on the cheek and send me on my merry way. I actually grew to love going to school, to be independent for a few hours, and be with my friends.  It was also, the beginning of my love and admiration for teachers.  Mrs. O. soon became someone I could trust.  Maybe not love like Ma.  But pretty close.

That was the beginning of our daily kisses.  Every school day morning Ma would escort me to the front door.  Most days she would be all dressed and ready for her day.  In fall and winter she mainly wore slacks and coordinating tops.  And in the warmer months the tops were worn with pedal pushers or capris.  No make-up, just a splash of lipstick once and awhile.  This was the practical attire of a woman who spent her days cleaning the house, washing clothes in a ringer washing machine and hanging them on the line to dry, cooking meals, and baking goodies.

During the winter, Ma would help me with my outerwear.  Snow jacket and pants.  Lined rubber boots.  Hat and scarf wrapped around my neck like a woolen neck ring.  I was a northern Giraffe Girl.  In the spring and early summer she would make sure my shoes were done up properly, and if it was chilly or raining my sweater or raincoat was properly fastened.  Once I was thoroughly wrapped, buttoned or buckled, I would look up at Ma expectantly.   She would then lean down and give me a kiss on the cheek.  She smelled divine.  A combination of sweet tea and Second Debut.  Her skin was as soft as velvet.  Her lips warm and tender.  Her love deep and sincere.  This was all I needed to venture forth with confidence.  Her kiss was the secret sauce.  On with my day I went.  Much to look forward to.  And then at four o’clock I would return to the smell of freshly baked peanut butter cookies or chocolate brownies.  It was pure magic.

Stealing a kiss on the cheek from my sweet baby boy.

This sacred ritual of daily kisses carried on right through high school and university.  Even as a young woman with a child of my own, Ma would escort me to the door where we would exchange kisses.  By the time I was in my second year of university I was a mother.  Ma looked after my son while I attended classes.  She would carry him to the door on her hip.  I would kiss his sweet round face.  And then kiss Ma on the cheek.  I was now the kisser.  Some mornings she was still in her flannel nighty when she walked me to the door.  By then I was taller than her.  She was so diminutive.  I had to lean down to kiss her.  Breathe in the Second Debut.  The faint hint of peanut butter and home made strawberry jam on her lips.  My son on her hip, smelling in need of a diaper change.  That would come after the kisses were delivered.  Confidently I stepped out the door.  Back pack full of books.  Head down, deep in concentration.  So much to look forward to.  So much to learn.

When I moved away from home, the kisses grew scarcer.  But sweeter.  Time and distance had their way.  Daily rituals were disrupted.  But never forgotten.  Visits home were greeted with kisses of delight and joy.  Departures met with ones that lingered.  Imprinting the place where lips met cheeks.  Love and memories imbedded for life.

There were also all the special occasion and celebratory kisses.  Birthdays. Christmas.  Mother’s Day.  Graduation.  Weddings.  The birth of my children.  Then there were the comforting kisses.  The skinned knee.  The bruised shin.  The broken heart.  The end of things.  The losses.   And the best of all, the everyday kisses.  Little love plants here and there and everywhere.  For no reason in particular.  Just little reminders that no matter how old, or where you are in life, love can be captured in an instant.  And seized in a kiss.

I have no memory of Ma’s first kiss.  But because I’ve given three children their first one, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt what the exchange was like.  She gazed down at me with wonder and awe.  And I peered through a veil of newborn fog into her warm chocolate eyes.  I knew instinctively that I was loved.  Would always be loved. Unconditionally.  Uncontrollably.  Unequivocally.   I was hers.  And she was mine.

The last time I kissed Ma, I didn’t know it was the last time.  A good thing I suppose.  Had I known, I would have been a clingy five-year old with my arms wrapped around her neck.  Unable to let go.  But I will remember that last kiss all the days of my life.  It will linger on my lips for eternity.  That, and the smell of Second Debut.

Diaries of the Breadman’s Daughter: Dog Poop and the Fine Art of Raking.

The Old Man with his rake and white cowboy hat.

I like my garden.  And I like to hang out in it.  I like all the flowers and trees. The blueberry bushes, mauve lilacs and sundry shrubs with no names.  The bird houses clinging to the Garry Oak trees are cute and folksy.  But most importantly, they attract delightful birds into our little piece of the world and that fills me with glee.  It’s spring and I’m itching to get out there and watch my husband do all the grunt work.  I admire his talent for breathing new life into the places where unpleasant dead vegetation has amassed over the winter months.  He seems to enjoy doing that.  I see no reason to discourage him.  I prefer to putter.  Plant pretty things.  Pansies.  Petunias.  Poppies.  And flowers that start with other letters too.  Like Geraniums and Marigolds.

There was a time when I was a great gardener.  Or at least I worked hard at it.  Did all the grunt work like my husband does now. When I was living in Toronto with my two older kids, my summer weekends were spent mowing lawns, trimming hedges, dead-heading flowers, staking tomato plants, plucking peppers, weeding and watering.  I got my hands dirty and my knees bruised.  It was back-busting, nail-breaking work.  It involved blood, sweat and tears.  But it was also glorious.  And gratifying. Especially at the end of the day, when I sat in the tranquil shade of our grapevine canopy and admired my day’s travail.

We lived in a predominantly Italian neighborhood with a smattering of Greek, Portuguese and Jamaican folks.  I rarely knew what anyone was talking about because I didn’t speak any of those languages.  Ma was a second generation Italian and only knew how to count to ten, so consequently that was the extent of my Italian conversational skills. Not very engaging.  We were the foreigners in Toronto’s Little Italy.  The Mangacakes.  But nonetheless, we felt at home there. Possibly because in their warm olive-complected faces, I saw Ma.  But despite the language differences we were able to communicate, especially in the back gardens where our Italian neighbors and I spent much of our spare time during those steaming summer months.  And I definitely understood good advice on growing tomatoes and peppers – the vegetables that grew in abundance and seemingly effortlessly in that climate.  With their advice, even I grew them with ease.

I look back and marvel at the gardening language we employed.  It consisted of hand gesturing, facial expression, demonstration and example. There weren’t a lot of words because there were so few we had in common.  Yet we learned this universal language that crossed all cultures and parlance.  It was as beautiful as the luscious red tomatoes and delectable green peppers we grew.  Communication at it’s simplest.  You point.  You dig.  You hoe.  You stake.  You pluck, pinch and prune. You scratch your head.  You smile.  You laugh.  You say thank you.

Little back story.  I come by my love of gardening honestly.  The Old Man taught me all the basics.  Back then we didn’t call it “gardening” though.  Far too gentile and refined sounding for that time and place.  It was yard work.  Raking grass or leaves in the front yard.  Digging up earth, planting rows of seeds, watering, weeding and harvesting in the backyard.

Over the years, The Old Man tinkered with the backyard, adding a row of Poplar trees along the fence line and a Weeping Willow, that eventually became a nuisance despite it’s beautiful forlorn hangdog branches. It’s labyrinth root system overtook the yard and sucked the life out of everything.  There were a couple of evergreens here and there.  But the piece de resistance, the shining glory of the backyard were the Manitoba Maples.  Two beauties strategically planted about ten feet apart.  Just wide enough to hang a red white and blue striped hammock.   The swinging bed of afternoon daydreams and early evening siestas.  The double swing for giggling grandkids.  The humorous pratfall for anyone who dared to keep their guard down.  The place to rest your weary soul after a hard day’s work.

In the front yard there were flowers under the front windows.  Marigolds and Geraniums mostly.  These were the Old Man’s favorites. I suspect because they were both hardy and happy plants.  Bright and cheerful all summer long and well into an Indian Summer. Feisty enough to make it to Thanksgiving (Canadian) and some years tenacious enough to hold out until Halloween.  There was a wild rose growing between our yard and our neighbors.  The scent of which I will yearn for until the day I die.  But the centerpiece of the front yard was a beautiful lilac bush that bloomed in June.  Ma would pick a bouquet for the kitchen table, the sweet romantic fragrance enveloping the entire room.  On the boulevard grew another magnificent Manitoba Maple.  Every house along Kenogami Avenue had one.  They were a gift from the city to a weary wartime street.  Green lush shadow casters in summer.  A riot of autumn colors in September and October.  Naked, flexible and courageous all winter long.

I’ve heard it said that it is our sense of smell that has the power to conjure up past memories and emotions.  That appears to be true for me.  The first hint of Spring in the air and I’m ten years old in the front yard with The Old Man.  We’re raking.  (It’s probably more accurate to say, he rakes and I watch and pick up things with mine.  Just the same, I learned the fine art of collecting and disposing of winter debris.  A lesson that would serve me well years later in my old Toronto neighborhood.)  All the snow has finally melted.  The grass is still soggy and mushy in spots.  At first blush it looks dead and gone forever.  Hopeless.  The smell is a paradoxical brew of pure clear 100% Northwestern Ontario Spring air and fusty rancid months-old dog poop.  Then after all the raking and observing is done, something supernatural occurs.  God lifts the winter carpet to reveal the wondrous new green sprouts concealed beneath. And The Old Man and I stand there leaning on our rakes surveying the scene, and we’re hopeful. Optimistic. Expectant.  Summer is coming.  Soon the lilacs will bloom.

Eleven years ago, on St. Patrick’s Day, The Old Man, my father, the Breadman had dinner as usual at the old folks home, where he had spent his last year.  Afterwards, he went for an early evening siesta.  He closed his eyes and then held hands with Ma.  He left quietly without any fanfare.  No trumpet calls.  No slapping spoons.  No good-byes or family gathered by his bedside.  When I got the news, my first  thought was “just like The Old Man to leave town on St. Patrick’s Day.”  And my second thought was “I love you and say hi to Ma. I’ll miss you both forever.”