Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: The Search for Meaning.

E on his throne enjoying the Christmas festivities.

E on his throne enjoying the Christmas festivities.

I’m a seeker.  Especially at Christmas time.  I search for perfect gifts for everyone on my list. Ones filled with wow and wonder.  I comb second hand stores for delicate vintage glass ornaments like the ones we hung on our tree at 204.  I inherited all of Ma’s and have been growing her precious collection every year for the past decade.  It’s my magnificent holiday decorating obsession.

I scour cookbooks, online cooking blogs and recipe websites looking for something new and delicious to bake or cook over the holidays.  In the end, nothing compares with the treasure trove found in Ma’s sacred and magical Gurney Recipe Box.

I flip through fashion magazines for inspiration on what to wear for all those festive occasions.  This is a silly pastime because E and I don’t attend those kinds of affairs.  Yet I do it anyway.  It pleases me.

I’m also bedazzled by sparkly festive shop windows.  I hunt for the perfect holiday outfit.  I daydream about a beautiful more glamorous version of myself that will somehow magically appear like Cinderella at the ball. I wonder what it would be like to knock ‘em dead at our office party.  I fantasize about a transformation from drab nondescript woman in the corner cube to glamor girl in the shimmery dress with legs that never quit.  That never happens.  Even the younger me couldn’t have pulled that look off.  Truth is, that’s not me. Never was. Never will be.  But it is fun to play that movie in my head once a year.

Pursuit of the perfect gift, recipe, or dress aside, what I really seek at Christmas time is meaning. What’s it all about?  This search trumps everything.

With E’s cancer diagnosis hanging over our heads like the Sword of Damocles, the desire to find something deeper, more profound, more significant was intensified.  It served to remind us of the fragile nature of this life we live.  Teach us to grab onto every precious moment like it was your last.  Embrace the ones we love.

We were given a reprieve from the fear and anxiety that brought us to our knees the week E was in the hospital.  The Friday that he was released from the RJH was glorious.  A heaven-sent day.

The first thing E did when we got home was take the dogs for a walk in the crisp clean December air.  It was as though he was breathing for the first time.  He could walk unencumbered by the inescapable steel dance partner he had been hooked up to all week.  Free from all the medical machinery that monitored his every heartbeat and breath.  Free from the antiseptic smell that clung to every cell and fibre of his being.  Free to walk upright. Stride. Strut. Swagger. Flounce his new found freedom up the rocky hills that surround our home.

Simply be alive.

For as long as I have known E, he’s been a real crank about Christmas.   He would happily take a page from Rip Van Winkle’s book and sleep right through the entire month of December.  It was the same old thing every year.  Come the day before Christmas, the spirit would finally move him and off he’d go in search of my Christmas present.  Some years this was found at the local Shoppers Drug Mart down the road.  When M got old enough he solicited her help. This put a stop to the drugstore gifts.

“I’ll make sure he gets you something really good Ma,” she’d say.

And she does.

Of course, it’s not about the quality of the gift.  Or even that there are gifts at all. But in our family, we do enjoy this tradition. We like to acknowledge each other in this manner.  It’s sounds cliche but it isn’t so much the gift as the giving.  As a family we like this and we’re good at.  One look at our living room Christmas morning says it all.

This year, the curmudgeon grouchy bah humbug E left the building.  Like Elvis on August 16, 1977.  Replaced by the new and improved version.  Enthusiastic and joyful.  Happy to celebrate. Cheerful and charitable. Without complaint nor criticism. No protests. Gripes or grumbling.  Beefs or bellyaching.  And above all else, the new E, that emerged from the chrysalis on Friday, December 14, was grateful.

Deeply.  Profoundly.  Beyond words.

Recently, I read a quote by Cicero that really resonated with my spirit.  It expressed so beautifully the meaning I sought and found over the Christmas season.

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”

E and I are consumed with gratitude these days.  There is so much to cherish and give thanks for.  Starting with our love for each other.  For our family, our beautiful children, our granddaughter, our extended family and friends, our good neighbors, our understanding colleagues, the compassionate caregivers and spiritual teachers. Everyone who has touched our tender hearts so sweetly.

Kindness and compassion.  Generosity and magnanimity.  Big-heartedness and goodness.  It’s everywhere.  Dressed in the same attire.  Cloaked in the fabric of love.

Jesus and John Lennon were right. Love is all you need.

I’m grateful for that.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: My Best Friend Forever.

B at Boulevard Lake posing in bellbottoms.

B at Boulevard Lake posing in bellbottoms.

I have a best friend.  Ma always told me that if I had one really good friend in life, then I was truly blessed.  She was right.  And I do.  I was reminded of this on Saturday when a little package arrived just for me.

Little back story.  We met when we were both sixteen.  My recollections of our first meeting are hazy, veiled in layers of years. I think we were introduced at a party.  Why not?  We were teenage girls.  That initial contact put us into each other’s orb for life.

We might have met sooner, had we grown up in the same neighborhood.  The world is small in a small town but even smaller when you’re a little kid.  Now when I look back, there were many opportunities for us to have met before that night. The Old Man delivered bread to their house. Our neighborhoods weren’t that far apart.  We were both Finlanders.  But back then, I never wandered too far away from 204.

We had been going to the same high school for two years before the party and yet we had never crossed paths.  We were in different academic programs and travelled in different circles.  I was a band nerd and had trouble making eye contact.  She was one of the admin girls and painfully shy.

But once we were introduced that all changed.  Wham!  She’s in my universe and we’re bumping into each other everywhere.  Hallways. Gymnasium.  Cafeteria.  Washrooms.  Schoolyard.

We had a lot in common.

Soon we were walking home from school together. Sometimes we would stop at the corner before heading on our separate ways. These conversations that so absorbed us; it was impossible to let go. Other times she would come to my house for tea and the fresh-baked cookies Ma always had waiting for us.  Our discussions were large and deep for two teenage girls.

B and pregnant Boo on the shores of Lake Superior.

B and pregnant Boo on the shores of Lake Superior.

We explored everything.  No topic was off limits. We wondered and pondered.  Probed and mused.  Drilled down deep to places most young girls that age would never have contemplated.  The subject matter wasn’t always full of profundity however, nor was it terribly serious.  We were sixteen after all.  We talked about boys a lot.  She had a steady boyfriend.  I did not.  At times I lived vicariously through her romance.  It was fun.  And safer.

We were tender and sensitive.  Lovely and sweet.  Gentle and kind.  Creative and imaginative.  We both liked to write and sew and do crafty things.  We combed through teenage magazines and picked out fashions we loved.  One of our favorite haunts was the fabric department at Eaton’s.  She was a brilliant sewer.  I was accomplished enough but nowhere near as gifted as her.  She could have been a fashion designer.  That’s how good she was.

We were poets and Philosopher Princesses.  Our hearts were broken often.  Not just from love gone wrong.  But from all the pain, suffering and heartache we saw in the world. Everything touched our young fragile spirits.   We were emotional risk takers, willing to go out on a limb.  Fall.  Break.  And when we did, we helped each heal.

We laughed our faces off.  And cried until we were exhausted.  We ranted.  And raved.  We sang along to our favorite records.  And danced like wild girls in my small upstairs bedroom.

She taught me yoga and the power of meditation. Macrame and how to make the perfect square knot.  The fine art of stringing colorful beads into gorgeous necklaces. She gave me a slip from her mom’s African violet and taught me how to grow my first plant.

We hung out at local dives and smoked cigarettes and drank coffee until we were shaking from nerves rattled by too much caffeine and nicotine.  We wrestled with our own mortality.  Danced with our inner demons.  Contemplated what it was like on the other side of this life.  We were complex young women.  We were simple teenage girls.

B with my son having a tea party.

B with my son having a tea party.

We shared dreams.  Held secrets.  An unbreakable bond.  Sisters of the soul.  Best friends.  We got each other.  Really dug one another.  Like we were cut from the same cloth.  We were sisters from different mothers.

We marvel that this friendship of ours has endured decades.  We’ve gone from Teen Girl Warriors to Wise Crone Goddesses.  We can be apart for years, barely keep in touch, and reconnect in a heart beat. We’ve been through first loves, marriages and separations.  We’ve had children and watched them grow into beautiful adults. We’ve lost loves and discovered new ones in unexpected places. We’ve said goodbye to parents and stood at gravesides. We’ve been through a lot together and apart.  Yet one truth remains.  I’ve always known that no matter what, she had my back.  And I had hers.

Last week, she posted a note on my Facebook timeline.

“Did I receive the pkg?”

“I got a notification but didn’t know who it was from.  I was going to pick it up on Saturday,” I posted in response.

I love surprises.  On Saturday afternoon while E and I were running errands we stopped into the local grocery store, where the post office is tucked away in one corner.  I picked up the parcel, which was light and rattle-free.  Its weight and silence only added to its delicious mystery.  E picked up a couple of pints of ice cream that were on sale and headed to the checkout.  While he was waiting in line, I went outside.

B's original design vintage sundress inspired chef's apron.

B’s original design vintage sundress inspired chef’s apron.

Suddenly I was sixteen again.  I couldn’t wait to get home.  Standing next to the row of grocery carts, I thought to myself, I’ll just take the tape off.  But once the tape was removed, I couldn’t stop. It was like Pandora’s Box.  Too tempting.  Before E was through the checkout I had one end of the brown wrapper removed and was opening the box.

And there it was.  Wrapped in green tissue, sealed with gold stickers, and inscribed with five precious words, “made with love for Bonney.”  An original design by B.  Vintage sundress inspired chef’s apron.  Meticulously crafted with attention to every detail.  Sweet whimsical buttons in yellow red and blue set on tiny pink flowers.  Wonder-filled.

There isn’t a word for the delight I felt at that moment.

Once home, and in the privacy of my sacred writing space, I held up this beloved gift to take in its full magnificence.  It was like I was holding B in my arms.  Love was radiating from every thread.

Tucked in the pocket of the apron was her “go to” dessert.  Plum Clafoutis.  I will make this my “go to” dessert too.

Her final instruction to me on the pink post-it note included in the package, read simply. “Enjoy!”

And I will.  Oh yes I will.

Footnote: Last summer when I was back East for my brother’s wedding anniversary B and I had a glorious visit.  It was brief, just one afternoon but long enough to reconnect.  She took me out to see her beautiful garden.  Everything she touches blooms and blossoms abundantly. One flower in particular captured my attention. The Brown Eyed Susan.  In the package, with the apron, was an envelope with one last note from B.  It was filled with Brown Eyed Susan seeds from her garden.  “Scatter them in spring and let nature take its course,” she wrote.

Yes, my dear friend. 

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: How to Throw a Party.

Beautiful birthday cards saved through the decades.

I just celebrated a birthday.  Truth is, I didn’t actually celebrate.  More like ignored. I’ve been doing my best to ignore birthdays for years.  Decades even.  It all started with a Eureka moment. The proverbial light went on so I could clearly see this one pivotal fact.  The road ahead wasn’t as long as it once was.  This was both a frightening and motivating experience.

Either way it changed my perspective on birthdays. I determined that these annual milestones needn’t be marked with illuminated melting candles that no longer fit on a nine-inch round layer cake.  No matter how delicious and tempting the icing may be.  Furthermore, my ability to blow out that many candles in one go has long expired.  It’s mortifying.  I’ve lost all my candle-blowing gusto. I am no longer full of wind.  I suppose that could be viewed as a good thing.  Even Martha Stewart would agree.

Parties are out of the question. Especially ones involving a surprise. The risk of heart failure from shocks of this nature has increased exponentially with each passing year.  Who needs that?  Shindigs of any sort are frowned upon. And make for an upside down happy face.  So does any other kind of hoopla or fandango.  A simple card or birthday greeting from my family and loved ones is all that I will ever need.  Just another day thank you very much.  I’m grateful for them all.

It wasn’t always this way of course.

My first birthday cake. Big sister G shares the moment.

Little back story.  A long long time ago and far far away in another galaxy I looked forward to this annual celebration. Waited with bated breath.  And bubbly anticipation.  I counted the days with irrepressible eagerness and unbridled enthusiasm.  This other galaxy existed in a small Northwestern Ontario town on a street lined with wartime houses and Manitoba Maple trees.  In one of these little wooden dwellings, number 204, Ma made party plans.

Birthday parties were simple affairs back then. At least compared to the extravaganzas of today.  There were no bouncy castles.  No rented movie theaters, ice rinks nor gyms with walls to climb. Nothing laser — tag, bowling or otherwise.  No party rooms at MacDonald’s or Wendy’s.  No zip-line adventures.  Nor any combination of these things.

The birthday parties of my wonder years were held in the home.  Or in the yard, if you were a summer birthday child like I was.  I’m not sure if this is true or not, but I don’t recall it ever raining on my birthday.  Even now I am hard-pressed to come up with a birthday that wasn’t warm and sunny.  I either have selective weather memory or the sun has always shone for me on this day. I am indeed blessed this way.

Invitations were either purchased at Kresge’s five and dime or made by hand.  Before I learned to read and write Ma filled out the invitations for me.  After grade two I painstakingly did this on my own.   It was a labor of love.  Every kid on the block got one hand delivered at least two weeks before the big occasion.  No one was left out.  Not even those I didn’t care for much.  Usually this was a boy.  My parties were all-inclusive until I was around 8 years old.  From age 8 to 12 there was a no-boys allowed policy in effect. During this brief window of time I believed boys weren’t necessary to have a good time.  Before and after that single-gender period boys were a big part of the social scene.  And have remained so ever since.

Posing in my party dress for my 3rd birthday.

My upcoming birthday party was the talk of the neighborhood for those two weeks.  Chatter abound.  I was one of the lucky ones in that no one else had a birthday around mine.  There was no one else to steal my thunder.  Rob my moment of glory.  My day in the sunshine.   For this one day each year I was the girl of the hour.  Or two.  Which was precisely how long these birthday celebrations lasted.

On the day before my birthday Ma baked my favorite cake.  Confetti Angel Food.  Smothered and swirled in pale pink butter icing.  Licking the spoon and scraping the bowl clean of every morsel of sweet goodness was almost as wonderful as the cake itself.  These special once-a-year cakes were colorfully happy.  Festive.  And most importantly yummy.  Nummy.  Lip-smacking scrumptilicious.  Mmmmm.  Goodness aside, the other phenomenal thing about these cakes was the hidden treasures baked within.  Little silver trinkets and copper pennies carefully wrapped in waxed paper and strategically placed throughout the cake so that every guest received one.  No one walked away without a prize.  We all felt like a million bucks discovering one of these.  Oh the fun we had opening our baked gems.  Winners all.  Hip hip hurray!  Enough to make pirates green with envy over our bountiful haul.

On the morning of my birthday, Ma got everything ready.  She baked a batch of my favorite cookies.  Shortbread.  In the centre of each she carefully placed a red Maraschino cherry.  Baking these traditional Christmas cookies off-season was just another way Ma expressed how dear I was to her.  Imagine the depth and breadth of her love.  One that knew no limits.  So great that she was willing to violate custom, even go behind Santa’s back to bake these precious buttery rich jewels.  I was thrilled.  While the cookies were baking, Ma boiled up a pot of eggs for sandwiches.  And not just any old egg sandwiches.  These were fancy.  The Old Man would bring home special loaves of bread that were cut lengthwise instead of in slices.  Ma would then spread her delectable egg filling across the lengths, place a convoy of dill pickles at one end and then roll them up into perfect cylinders.  She would place these eggy tubes in the fridge to chill and set until the party began.  Then she’d pull them out, slice them into perfect circular wheels, and arrange them beautifully on one of her best china platters.  They were exquisite.  Divine. Out of this world.

Best friends posing with our favorite dollies.

Everyone dressed up for birthday parties.  Only our best dresses and hair ribbons would do.  New shoes and fresh white ankle socks.  The boys in the crowd looked quite snazzy too.  About an hour before my guests were scheduled to arrive Ma helped me get ready.  Scrubbed from head toe.  Hair curled and brushed to one side.  Pretty party dress.  Twirl and spin the crinoline.

Group shot. My friend Poo attends with a broken leg.

At the precise hour indicated on the invitations my guests arrived, each carrying a beautifully wrapped gift with a card taped to the top.  Ma greeted everyone amiably, collected their gifts, and set them aside on the coffee table for later.  Once everyone was gathered, the games began.  Drop the clothes peg in the milk bottle.  Pin the tale on the donkey. Musical chairs.  Simon says. Bingo!  Such fun!  We giggled and cheered.  We clapped and chuckled.  Then it was time to open the presents.  One by one.  Oohs and ahhs.  Always a thank you after each one.  Ma saved all their precious birthday cards.  I still have the first decade’s worth taped inside the pages of the old Scrapbook Ma made for me. Tattered and torn.  Kittens and yarn.

Parties were now in full color during the no boys period.

Then the piece de resistance.  The moment we were all waiting for.  The cake!  Candles lit.  Chorus of the Birthday song sung. Top of the lungs loud.  Out of tune and off-key.  Terrible and terrific.  Candles were blown out in one single breath bringing a year of good luck to the birthday girl.  Ma cut the cake perfectly, ensuring that each guest received the same amount along with their baked surprise.

Two hours passed and it was time for Ma and I to say goodbye to our guests.  But not before photos were taken.  Out to the front lawn we marched.  There we posed before Ma’s Kodak Brownie.  Group shots.  Singles.  Pairs of friends.  Squinting into the sunshine.  Shy smiles.  And big grins.

It was the perfect day.  Ma really knew how to throw a great party.  Everyone agreed.

Thank you Ma for a lifetime of birthday cakes.  I miss them dearly.

The Scrapbook Ma made for me. Kittens and yarn.

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: Baker’s Dozen – 13 Virtues from my Parents.

Ma and The Old Man pose in front of his birthday cake.

Ma and The Old Man taught me much during our lifetime together.  Some things were practical and intentional.  Like cooking and cleaning up after myself.  Brushing my teeth before bed.  The simple day-to-day things parents teach their children to help them grow up big and strong.  Others things involved character building.  Like doing the right thing just because it was right not because I particularly felt like it.  Saying please and thank you.  Expressing gratitude not bad attitude.  Then there were the big things.  Ten commandment big.  Don’t cause harm to any living creature. Don’t lie.  Cheat.  Steal, and that includes someone else’s spouse.  Respect your elders, especially your parents.  Then there were the things they taught me without even knowing it.  The ‘by example’ things.  The stuff kids pick up on.  Learn through osmosis.  By watching.  Listening.  Witnessing.

While all this learning was going on — the day to day, the big and the by example — thirteen virtues stood out. A perfect Baker’s Dozen.  These are what I would like to share with you.

8 From Ma:

LOVE: One of the big ones. The biggest.  For Ma it came unconditionally.  You didn’t have to do anything special to earn her love.  If you were one of hers, you just had it. There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do for one of her own.  Including lay down her life.  Thankfully she was never put into this position. What a blessing to be loved so dearly.  What more could a child need than to wake up every morning feeling cherished.  In the end, Ma was grateful that her life followed its natural course.  Although she hated to leave us all, she wouldn’t have had it any other way.  One day we will all follow her into the Light.  Her love was such a blessing to our entire family.  I still feel it now.  And I am grateful.

Ma and her grandson taking a moment to look at Polaroids.

WISDOM: Ma was a simple woman in many ways. Unpretentious. Unassuming.  She never graduated from high school and had very little formal education.  Although at age sixty she went back to night school and studied art.  We were all so proud of her accomplishment.  Her wonderful paintings are amongst my greatest treasures.  Education aside, Ma was a wise and enlightened woman.  She possessed profound insights. Introspective by nature, she was always interested in the “why” of life.  This led her to places of deep spiritual and philosophical understanding and acuity.  She was a good listener.  A skill lacking in the best of us.  I am eternally grateful for her counsel and sought it at every turn.  She was involved in every big decision I made.  It is my prayer that my children feel the same way about me. That when they turn to me for advice or simply a compassionate ear that I bring Ma’s kind of wisdom.

KINDNESS: Ma possessed this virtue in spades.  In abundance.  Good measure. Pressed down.  Shaken.  Running over.  Her heart was tender.  Not just for those she loved. But everyone she encountered on her journey through life.  Children, in particular touched her heart.  She never met a kid she didn’t like.  Her kindness was even extended to the naughty ones. Her heart was open and large towards the elderly, the downtrodden, the forgotten ones and those considered unlovable.  She was kind to animals.  They all knew a kindred spirit.  I am kind too.  Ma taught me well.

GENTLENESS: Ma touched everything with a gentle hand.  Her touch was soft.  Warm.  Benevolent.  She caused no harm.  Never spanked her children.  Nor scolded.  Shy by nature, her voice was quiet yet reassuring.  She was a Whisperer.  Even in the kitchen, nothing was forced.  Food was prepared in a sweet and easy style.  I will always miss her beautiful long-fingered veiny hands that caressed her world with loving kindness.

Ma and Daughter Number One smile for the camera.

PATIENCE: Ma was well practiced in this virtue.  Four children and an alcoholic husband could be taxing at times.  Being patient with children came easy for her.  She understood kids innately.  And consequently they were drawn to her like bees to honey.  She was like Jesus in that she wanted the little children to come to her.  Never too busy for a child.  No little one shooed away.  Her patience wasn’t only extended to the very young.  She successfully shepherded four teenagers into adulthood.  That took monumental skill and patience by the bucketful. Being patient with The Old Man was her biggest trial.  He was her Achilles heel.  I can only say she did her best to extend the same grace to him as she did the children in her life.  Nobody’s perfect.   Patience hasn’t always been one of my strengths.  Just ask my two older kids.  I’ll be working on this one for the rest of my life.  As I said, nobody’s perfect.

EMPATHY: Ma’s compassionate heart wept for the world.  She intuitively knew what people were feeling.  Felt their pain.  Embraced another’s sorrow.  She was the shoulder to cry on.  Her heart broke at the sight of any suffering.  Whether it was within our family circle. Or brought to her over the garden fence or through the television set.  Witnessing suffering on a colossal scale moved her to take action. She donated to many charitable causes and supported a third world child all the days of her life.  She inspired me to do the same.

COURAGE: Ma was timid, shy and meek by nature.  Yet she was also a warrior.  A little spitfire at times. Full of true grit. Especially when it came to protecting her kids.  She wouldn’t let anything or anyone cause us harm.  She was also courageous in the face of any adversity.   From the cradle to the grave.  Whatever the strife, she faced the challenge head-on with bravery and grace.  She also never complained about being sick.  She could be stoic to a fault at times.  We saw this intimately when she had her heart attack.  At first, she denied even having one.  She never ever gave up.  Ma taught me to fight the good fight right until the bitter end.  Like Dido said, there will be no white flags above our door.

THOUGHTFULNESS: Ma was considerate in her every thought, word and deed.  Not only in the small gestures.  Coming to the aid of the elderly.  Helping someone up who has fallen.  Figuratively and literally.  She was quick to send thank you notes, get well wishes and thinking of you cards.  My mailbox was always a wellspring for delightful little surprises.  She never forgot a birthday.  Cards were sent.  Cakes baked. Gifts given. She welcomed everyone into our home regardless of who they were.  There was always room at the table.  If she saw something in a store that she thought you’d like, she picked it up.  There were many just because gifts.  She had others on her mind. I miss dearly those cards and notes inscribed with her small meticulous handwriting. Trips to the mailbox aren’t as much fun anymore.

4 From The Old Man:

HUMOR: The Old Man loved a good laugh.  A silly joke.  A funny yarn with a good punch line.  He was always quick with one to tell.  A faithful reader of The Reader’s Digest, this was the source of much of his material. He also loved a good comedy on television.  Red Skelton could bring him to tears.  He laughed loud.  Heartily.  Easily.  Right from the belly.  I do the same.  I loved this about The Old Man.  It is also what I look for in friends and lovers.  I’m a sucker for a man who can make me laugh.  He will always tickle my fancy.  Laughter.  One of God’s greatest gifts to humans.  Thank you.

The Old Man and his grandson enjoyed a good game of crib.

GENEROSITY: The Old Man was one of those guys who would give you the shirt off his back.  Unlike Ma, who was quick to give to charitable causes, he didn’t part so easily with his money. Not that he had much to part with.  He happily gave his pay cheque to Ma every two weeks. She was the manager of our family finances.  But he gave other things.  If he had something you needed or wanted he rarely said no.  As a teenager I appreciated this virtue the most.  Especially when it came to handing over the keys to his car.  That was a big deal back then.  The Old Man supported his family.  No matter what.  Roof over our heads.  Food on the table.  I always felt that as long as The Old Man was on this earth I would never be destitute.  I’d always have a place to go.  A safe haven where I would be taken care of.  I am so grateful to have had that.  E and I have created the same for our children.  We also go through a lot of shirts.

WORK ETHIC: The Old Man loved and hated his job. Regardless of how he felt on any given day, he got up at 5am and did it. He showed up. For some thirty odd years.  He never actually said, “Take this job and shove it,” but I suspect there were many days that he felt this way.  Possibly he had bigger dreams than he had ambition.  In his defense, he was from a generation of folks who raised families and did whatever it took to do so.  No complaints.  No whining.  No woulda-coulda-shoulda.  Just hard work.  If he had regret over his professional path, he kept it to himself.  I understand.  I’ve done the same.  I show up.

The Old Man and his grandchildren pose for the camera.

SERVICE: The Old Man did what he could to be of service to his country, his family, his community, his employer, his church.  He was in the army.  He volunteered in sport.  Umpiring Little League games was his delight.  He helped out at the church.  Did yard work and painted one of his elderly customer’s home on a regular basis.  Old Jenny was dear to him.  Although she paid him a small fee I suspect he would have done it for free.  He was honored with an award for Service to his Community.  He taught me what an honor it is to serve.  People need help everywhere.

1 from Both of Them:

PUNCTUALITY: Some people might not consider this a virtue.  But I do.  I don’t think either of my parents were ever late for anything.  They were either right on time or early.  Like many from their generation lateness was akin to rudeness.  It was also considered thoughtless and arrogant.  They respected the time of others and appreciated that no one likes to be kept waiting.  Nor should they.  Lateness required two things.  A good reason.  And an apology.  I love that they were both so courteous in this way.

We all wore paper crowns on New Years Eve.

My Own:

GRATITUDE: I will forever be grateful to both my parents for their Baker’s Dozen, these 13 Virtues.  My heart is filled with gratitude every day for the life that God has blessed me with.  Starting with the ultimate gift of my parents.  Ma and The Old Man.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: 101 Lessons for a Good Life.

#73 – Every child born to our family is wanted and loved.

I like lists.  I find them quite useful.  They keep me organized.  Or at least they create the illusion of doing so.  A nifty thing about lists is how they come chock-a-block with little goals.  Each line item something to be accomplished.  Been there.  Done that.  Now move on.  And there’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of scratching something off the list.  Personally, I like to draw a thick heavy line right through the achievement.  Preferably in permanent ink.  Finito.

There are daily lists.  Like the “to do/call/email” list at work.  Some are weekly.  Grocery lists fall into this category.  Others are annual.  The family Christmas wish list reigns supreme.  Some are fun.  Like the list of things we need for our Annual Thanksgiving Bluegrass Party.  Then there are sundry others.  Everything from books to read, songs to download,  places to see, people to meet, things to keep and things to chuck.  All worthwhile and handy to have in your hip pocket.

One of the best lists I have ever compiled is the one that I am sharing with you today.  It’s a list of some of the things that Ma taught me during the course of our lifetime together. These are things she said, did, led by example, or simply implied.  There are 101 things on this list.  There could have been one thousand or one million.  Because she taught me so much and I am so very grateful.  But I’ve narrowed the list down to 101.  I like this number.  It reminds me of the first year course numbers when I was in University.  English 101.  Pyschology 101.  Anthropology 101 where I met my first true love.  It’s a solid number with the implication that there is more to come.  And who knows.  Maybe there is.

The list isn’t in any particular order.  It’s random.  Like life.  Some things are common sense.  Others uncommon. Extraordinary.  Some are peculiar.  And contradictory.  Some are funny.  Others very sad.  At times confusing.  Often profound in simplicity.  And full of classic cliches of the time.  But also bright.  And wise.  Witty.  Practical.  Pragmatic.  Confounding.  Infuriating.  Loving. Tender.  Touching.

Cherished gifts each and every one.  From Ma to me.  To you.  With love.

1.  Two wrongs don’t make a right.
2. You can’t make someone love you.
3. Always wear clean underwear.  Carry a pair in your purse just in case.
4. Tomorrow’s another day and this too shall pass.
5. The secret to baking a good cookie is to remove it from the oven just before it’s done and let it finish baking on the sheet.
6. Time heals all wounds.
7. You can’t take it with you when you go.
8. Bad breath is better than no breath at all.
9. Everybody needs love even those who are difficult like your father.
10. God is inside of me.
11. The secret to a good spaghetti sauce is to let it simmer all day.
12. Don’t complain.  No one’s listening anyway.
13. Nobody’s perfect. They just wish they were.
14. Life is far too short.
15.  Send your child to school in fresh clean clothes every day even if it means doing laundry every night.
16. Don’t go out in the sun without a big hat and long sleeves.
17. Walk whenever possible and always have a comfortable pair of shoes at the back door ready to go.
18. You don’t need make-up, except for lipstick.  It brightens your face and makes you look pretty.
19. Keep a nice home and welcome everyone into it.
20.  Always tell the truth.  No one trusts liars.
21. Pay attention to how the dog reacts to your boyfriends.  The dog is a good judge of character.
22. Splurge on a really nice dress for a special occasion.  Treat yourself and don’t feel guilty.  It’s important to feel good when you go out.

#23 – Don’t walk around the house with your shoes on. It’s rude.

23. Don’t walk around the house with your shoes on.  It’s rude.
24. Always wash your face and put on night cream before going to bed.  Repeat in the morning with day cream.  Moisturizing is the key to beautiful skin all your life.
25.  Pick up a “Ladies” magazine while you’re grocery shopping. It’s an inexpensive treat.
26. Not everyone belongs in a group.
27. Don’t throw Tupperware parties. No one will come.
28. Stay away from bad people.  Especially men who are bad for you.  You’ll get hurt every time.
29. Call if you need me.  Anytime.  Anywhere.  I’ll be right there.
30. Babies like to be picked up when they cry.
31. Nothing beats flannel pajamas and nighties.

#32 – Take pictures of the flowers you are sent.

32. Take pictures of the cakes you bake, the flowers you are sent, the gifts you are given, the Christmas tree every year even if it looks the same, it’s different.
33. Support a third world child regardless of your financial situation.
34.  Cry when you’re sad.  Yell when you’re mad.  Sit silently when you need to think.  Laugh at the funny things.
35. Get up early.  Put the kettle on first thing. Start your day with a cup of tea and piece of toast.
36. It’s okay to wear comfortable clothes around the house just as long as they’re freshly washed and ironed.  Being comfortable isn’t the same thing as being a slob.
37. You can never give a child enough love.  That’s not what spoils them.
38. Accept invitations to lunch or an afternoon shopping at the mall.
39. It’s okay to fall asleep on the couch while watching television.
40. Don’t worry about your age.  There’s nothing you can do about it.
41. Always send Thank You cards.

#42 – Remember everyone’s birthday with a homemade cake.

42.  Remember everyone’s birthday with a homemade cake and a nicely wrapped gift.  At the very least give a special card.
43. Take care of your teeth.  False teeth just aren’t the same as your own.
44. Invite people to stay for dinner.  There’s always plenty.
45. Make the bed as soon as you get up.
46. Have supper together every night and make Sunday dinner extra special.  Roast something.  Have the entire family over.
47. Give people the benefit of the doubt and don’t hold grudges.
48. You don’t need a reason to give a gift or to send someone a note to let them know you’re thinking of them.
49. Try not to hurt someone’s feelings but apologize right away when you do.
50. Mind your manners.  Always say please and thank you.
51. Wash your hands all day long but especially before touching food.
52.  Bounce a baby on your lap and sing “doodley doodley doodley doo.”
53. Pick up litter when you see it.  Stuff it in your pocket if there isn’t a garbage nearby and throw it out when you get home.
54. Never let your grey roots show.  It makes you look old.
55. Baths are better than showers.
56.  Always bring out the good china for company and on special occasions.
57. You’re never too old to start something new.
58.  Nothing tastes quite as good as a sandwich made with lettuce freshly picked from the garden.
59. It’s okay to buy certain things for your home “on time.”
60. Write letters.  Everyone loves getting them.
61. No one will love you like your mother.  Especially a man.
62. Some people can be mean.  That doesn’t make okay for you to be mean back.
63. Take all kinds of vitamins and supplements.  They’re good for you.
64. People with thin lips are nags.
65. Pay your bills every month no matter how broke you are.  Even if it’s just a little bit to everyone you owe.
66. It’s a sign of beauty if a girl looks like her father.
67.  Get the dishes done right after you eat.
68. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables and enjoy dessert.
69.  Learn to sew clothes, embroider tablecloths and knit scarves.  Teach these to your daughters.
70. Learn to cook and bake, especially if you have children.
71. Read everything you can about being healthy and subscribe to Prevention Magazine.

#56 – Always bring out the good china for company and on special occasions.

72. Try to see the good in everyone.
73. Every child born to our family is wanted and loved.
74. Exercise every day. Walk. Do yoga. Ride an exercise bike.
75. Go back to school at sixty.
76. Don’t waste your time gossiping.
77. A health food store is a good place to shop.
78. The secret to a perfect pie crust is a secret.  But here’s the recipe.
79. Be kind and decent to everyone no matter who they are.
80. Walk facing the traffic at all times.
81. Be nice.
82. Don’t go empty handed to someone’s house.
83. Pray for people whether they asked you to or not.  Especially your children.
84. Don’t go blabbing family business to the neighbors.
85. You can do anything you want to if you put your mind to it.
86. You’re just as good as anyone.
87. Always make lemon pie from scratch.  It’s worth it.
88.  Forgive and forget.  Sometimes it’s easier said than done though.
89. Celebrate the holidays with your family.  Have big wonderful meals and lots of gifts under the tree.
90. You don’t have to get married to be married.
91. Potatoes are versatile.
92. No matter how afraid you are, get on the plane.
93. Respect your elders and those in authority, especially teachers and police officers.  Their jobs are hard enough.
94.  Don’t be a show off, braggart or know-it-all.  No one likes people like that.
95. It’s important to have a room of your own to sew or paint or make things.
96. Always have Kleenex up your sleeve and a package of peppermint Chicklets in your purse.
97. Offer your seat on the bus to older people and pregnant women.
98. Italians are nice people.
99. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, especially to children.
100. You only get out of life what you put into it.
101. You’re never too old to play on a swing.

#101 – You’re never too old to play on a swing.

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 Attic, Hunting for Treasure and the Letter from Jerry.

The box containing the letter from Jerry.

I love treasure hunts.  And finding things I thought were lost forever.  There’s nothing like cleaning out a closet and finding some long forgotten gem.  An old photograph.  A thinking-of-you card or note.  A love letter from someone you once thought you couldn’t live without.  A concert ticket.  Recital program.  A baby book with a lock of hair and a lost tooth.

Most homes have storage spaces where certain things are put away.  For another day.  Another year.  Another time.  Sometimes these things get lost in the deep dark recesses at the very back.   And before you know it, forgotten.  Like they never existed.  We had a little attic in our home that contained such consigned to oblivion artifacts.  It was there that my addiction to treasure hunting began.

Little back story.  We lived on a street lined with wartime houses. They were all pretty much identical except for the size.  Two, three and four bedroom wooden bungalows that looked like they were built more for hasty necessity than longevity.  The big bad wolf could blow one over with a huff and a puff.  Ours was a four bedroom model, with two of those bedrooms on the second floor where the ceilings were sloped and the walls hung low.  My two older brothers occupied one of these rooms.  The other was where Ma sewed and I played by her side.

In “the boys room” there was a little door about three feet tall.  It looked like something that belonged on a child’s play house.  It’s Lilliputian size made it all the more alluring.  Irresistible. Tempting.  And I was drawn to it like a bee to honey.  A moth to light.  In my young impressionable mind it was the door to a whole other world.  Not necessarily like the one in The Chronicles of Narnia.  But equally fascinating and compelling to a small girl with a big imagination.  Truth was, on the other side of the door was just our attic.  And not like the kind you see in the movies either.  It wasn’t some dusty expansive space on the top floor of an old mansion filled with cobwebs and spooky pirate chests that groaned when opened.  It didn’t contain the magical world of Narnia with all its Turkish delight, White Witch and the great lion king Aslan.  But it was filled with family treasures.  And its own flavor of magic.  At times it could be scary.  And sometimes with a little inspiration, it could be downright spine-tingling. But it was always fun to explore.

It was dark, dry and dusty smelling with extreme temperatures. In the summer it was like the fires of hell.  You’d break into a sweat after two minutes.  In winter, it was colder than the Arctic.  You could see your breath if you could see at all.  It was pitch dark so you had to leave the door open and carry a flashlight.  The floors were uneven and creaked with ever move you made.  Slivers in stocking feet were commonplace.  There was also the odd nail that popped up out of nowhere.  The outer wall was lined with pink fiberglass insulation. And slanted so that the entire space formed a perfect right-angle triangle.  It was cramped and claustrophobic, which made moving around a challenge.  Even for a small person.  You had to hunch over or crawl on all fours.  But to me, it was the perfect size and shape.

Part of the fun of going into the attic was the fear.  Nothing filled my heart with terror quite like the scary shadows cast by the flashlight.  Ricocheting sinisterly off the fiberglass walls in the ghostly enclave within the upstairs bedroom.  Littered with the artifacts of our family’s personal narrative.  Dusty cardboard boxes filled with worn out clothes.  Old baby doll carriages with broken wheels.  Tangled webs of Christmas lights.  Battered suitcases with broken locks.  The canvas tent and metal poles.  Old hard cover books.  Stacks of dog-eared Popular Mechanics and Readers Digest.  Family Circle magazines with all the recipes clipped out.  Shoe boxes filled with old negatives of photographs taken on the Six-20 Brownie Junior.  A bulky Scrapbook containing a lock from a first hair cut, and pages of birthday cards and other childhood memorabilia taped carefully into place.  Dance Costumes stored in a McNulty’s dress box.  Old dolls with missing eyelashes and hair cut short by an amateur hairdresser.  Dime store Dishes with chips and cracks.  Bundles of metal clothes hangers.  And sundry bits and bobbles that The Old Man and Ma kept for reasons known only to them.  Treasures each and every one.  Freshly discovered foray after foray into the enchanted land.

I experience this same awe and wonder every time I re-discover the letter from Jerry.

Over twenty years ago, when I was working in a Toronto advertising agency as a Copywriter, I was partnered with an Art Director named Jerry.  We got to know each other quite well over the course of the year that we worked together.  Professional lives quite often blur into the personal in these circumstances.  We seek the universal thread that binds.  Common ground.  Connectivity.  I think it makes us better workers.  And our work better.

It was during one of our many creative sessions that Jerry and I somehow got onto the topic of mail.  I had mentioned how much I loved opening the mailbox to discover a surprise card or a letter.  But this rarely happened, I explained.  All I ever got was bills and junk mail, I complained.  I longed for the good old pen pal days, I declared.  Sigh.

My self-esteem was at an all-time low when Jerry and I had this discussion.  My marriage had fallen apart.  I felt ugly.  And not only unloved but unloveable.  Jerry listened.  I had no idea how well until a few days later.

It was a night like a hundred other nights.  I came home from work exhausted.  Rushed to get dinner started before my kids tore one another apart.  Fury induced by hunger and low blood sugar.  All three of us.  Once dinner was underway I hung up my coat, kicked off my boots and went to the mailbox.  It contained the usual things.  Bills, bills and more bills.  Junk mail from companies wanting me to buy their goods or services.  Disappointing all of it.  But in amongst the undesirable mail was a white business sized envelope addressed to me in cyan colored ink.  The kind used in fountain pens.  Or fine writing instruments as they were commonly referred to back then.  We all owned at least one.  In fact, I was given one when I departed from this agency.  And still have it as a keepsake and a reminder of another time, another place.

Just the sight of that cyan blue fountain ink made my heart beat faster.  I didn’t recognize the handwriting.  But something told me it was going to be good. No matter what. In that instant before opening the envelope there was optimism.  And hope. Elation.  My hands were shaking as I carefully removed the folded lined sheet of paper.  It looked like a page removed from a student’s notebook.  Six by nine inches.  Blue horizontal lines with two red vertical ones forming the margins.

It began “Dearest Bonney.”  You could tell that the writer had corrected the spelling of my name because the dot over the misspelling was still there.  I hadn’t spelled my name with an ‘ie’ since grade eight.  But this only added to the sweetness of the salutation.  The letter went on to say, “This may only happen once so really enjoy it.  But it’s happening because you are truly the kind of person who deserves to come home and find a letter from someone….”  The rest is between me and Jerry.  It was (and still is) the best letter I have ever received in my entire life.  I hold it amongst my dearest possessions.

Jerry and I weren’t lovers.  There was no office romance.  No secret affair.  We were just “Buds.”  Colleagues. Friends. But he gave me a gift like no other.

That was well over twenty years ago.  I have not only moved across the country, but have lived in several different houses since I got here.  Yet the letter has moved everywhere with me.  I packed it away when we left for the Westcoast.

But there’s a peculiar thing about this letter.  It keeps being found.  Over and over and over.  It’s the Groundhog Day letter.  I pack it away.  Forget about it.  And then a few years later I discover it.  All new and fresh again.  Like that night twenty years ago.  Like the treasures in our attic.  Every time I pack it away it’s in a different container, in a different spot.  This isn’t intentional.  It’s usually as a result of some sort of house cleaning.  Or purging of the past.  And with that goes the consolidation of those things being chucked and those things being kept.  The letter from Jerry is always in the “keeper” pile.  I love the serendipitous nature of discovering the letter.  The random accidental earthing of this jewel every few years.

It happened again last Saturday.  I was on the hunt for more family photographs and bits and pieces of our history when I found it.  Tucked away in a box inside a basket at the top of one of the closets in my office.  It’s an awkward spot.  Things that are stored there, are left there.  Kind of like Las Vegas.  But last weekend I was on a mission.  And the great treasure hunter in me had re-surfaced.  I had to find something good.  And I did.

In the box along with Jerry’s letter there was an assortment of random things. One of the most peculiar items was a placemat I made in elementary school for Christmas.  It looked like it was made from a white sheet.  It was adorned with two red bells, several food stains and “Merry Christmas” in my handwriting.  There was also a letter from my parent’s lawyer regarding their estate, a slide rule from high school, a golf ball, a Sarah McLachlan Surfacing CD cover, a photocopy of an American Express card cut into four pieces, a 19-year old candy rose and a combination lock.

There were a lot of other things too.  But once again I separated the wheat from the chaff.   All the stuff I described, along with the letter from Jerry, has now been placed into another box and stored away.  For the next time.  When I need to be reminded that I am someone who deserves to come home from work and find a treasure in the mailbox.  Love in cyan blue fountain ink.

Footnote: I have no idea where Jerry is today.  I don’t even remember his last name.  But I will never forget him and his wonderful thoughtful gift.

The beginning of the letter from Jerry.

Diaries of the Breadman’s Daughter: Insomnia and the Power of One.

Ma loved all children but especially me.

I like to give.  I also like to receive.  But giving just feels so much better.  You get that warm and fuzzy feeling.  All gooey inside like a hot fudge sundae.  And there’s this glow that appears all around your edges.  Like the kind Angels wear and Beyonce sings about.  You know what I’m talking about. The halo. There’s also music.  Harps and lutes and chirpy birds.  It’s marvelous.  All this just from the simple act of giving.

Ma was a bigger giver.  And The Old Man would give you the shirt off his back without hesitation.  But I learned all about giving to people I didn’t know, and who lived in worlds far beyond our borders, from Ma.

Little back story.  Many years ago, when I was a much younger version of myself, I was living with my two oldest kids in the Italian neighborhood of Toronto.  It was a bleak period in my life.  I was separated, raising two kids alone, had a low-paying job, not much of a social life, lonely, frightened and lacking in resources.  I was also an insomniac.  Still am.  I spent endless nights ruminating over the state of my life.  Looking under every imaginary rock to see what was lurking there.  Leaving no stone unturned.  It was torture.  Self-inflicted torment.  Oh the wretched scourge of it all. Woe was me.

Much of my time was spent worrying about money.  There was never enough.  I took the expression “robbing Peter to pay Paul” to all new heights.  Gave it fresh and new meaning. I was equally inventive and creative with my money management.  Plus, I was a master juggler of serious magnitude.  My financial situation was in such delicate balance that I was a one-woman circus act.  It would have been hilarious had it not been so pitiful.  Or my life.

It was during one of these sleepless nights that I learned one of the most profound lessons on giving.  Typically when I have insomnia I stay rooted to my bed like a beached whale on a California shore.  I toss.  I turn.  I thrash.  I flip pillows.  Pound them.  Beat them to a pulp.  Then ultimately toss them on the floor.  I kick my legs in and out of the covers.  I roll my eyes inside my head until they hurt.  I try to substitute my dark morbid thoughts for pleasant ones that involve sunshine and fields of daisies.  Eventually I succumb.  I never really know when or why.  But eventually the Sandman pays me a visit and I slip fitfully into Dreamland. Or Nightmaresville.
But on this particular night long ago, something mystifying compelled me to get out of my bed and walk down two flights of stairs to our basement rumpus room.  It had a television and was far enough away from my sleeping children not to disturb their peaceful and tranquil slumber.  Oh how I envied them.

It was the hour of the wolf and I was fully expecting to see nothing but snow and static on the television.  That suited me just fine.  My head was spinning and my heart was howling with fear and bitterness.  I was in no mood to be touched by anything broadcast in those murky unsettling hours before dawn.  But I was.  Deeply.  So powerfully in fact, that what I saw would stay with me for the rest of my life.

I guess it was an infomercial.  Although that seems far too trivial a description for what this was.  There were no hawkers of magic mops and make-up.  Nothing of that nature was going on.  But it sold me none the less.  It grabbed a hold of my heart and hasn’t let go since.

In the quiet of that early morning gloom I stared into the faces of sweet innocent children thousands of miles away who had nothing.  And I was broken. And humbled.  Saddened beyond description.  I saw bellies swollen from hunger and thin tiny limbs covered in sores.  Poverty.  Sickness.  Strife.  Yet in the eyes of these beautiful ones I also saw my own two children.  No different.  They were children. Kids.  Just like mine.  Suddenly my first world problems were put into perspective.  So I did what I often do in situations like this.  I had a little chat with God.

It went something like this.  “Okay, here’s the deal.  I’m on my own and I’ve got these two kids and three cats to take care of.  I can barely make ends meet.  Just ask Peter and Paul.  But I can’t deny what I just bore witness to.  I need a few extra bucks every month to help one of these kids and their families.  That’s all.  A few extra bucks.  Plus I need your help with my own kids too.”

That was the promise made.  That has been the promise kept.  On both our counts.

I also thought of Ma that night.  And wondered if she had ever made the same deal.  She had four kids and an alcoholic husband, who often in their early years together, spent his paycheck before it was earned. She was like the woman in the Bible who had little but gave much.  Ma’s five or ten dollars sent off to this charity or given to that cause was like the millions given by the wealthy.  She too supported a third world child.  I remember the photographs she received of her foster children over the years.  She never boasted.  She just quietly and faithfully gave every month for years.  They could count on her.  She loved children so.  No matter where they came from.  She wanted to help. To do something to change the course of even one child’s life.  Ma was a shining example of the power of one.

Flash forward.  It’s years later and I’m living on the Westcoast. It’s the middle of the night.  I can’t sleep.  But I can’t stay in bed either.  I have a room of my own now with a computer where I dream and make magical things happen.  Life is different.  I no longer ride it out.  Instead I write it out.  It’s raining as it so often does out here.  I’m worried.  There are wars.  And rumors of wars.  People are suffering.  Everywhere.  My heart aches and my head can’t make sense of any of it.  I get up.  I go to my computer and I write this poem.

A Mother’s Prayer for Peace

Dear God,

It’s the middle of the night,
And I cannot sleep.
The rain is pounding on the roof
And the wind is howling outside my window.
But I am safe and warm,
Comforted by my feather duvet.
My faithful dog curled up at my feet
And my husband breathing softly next to me
Our children safe in their beds
Surrendered to dreams,
Sweet sweet dreams.

Yet my heart is not at peace,
It is broken with sadness.
For out there
Somewhere in a world I do not know
In countries I’ve only seen on TV
Are other families
With mothers just like me,
Who but for your gentle grace
Live a different life.
One not privileged with
Warm safe beds to rest,
To sleep, to dream of tomorrow.

Their lives, every bit as precious as mine
Are torn apart and shattered –
By fear
And hate
And hunger
And disease
And disaster
And ignorance

WAR.

I pray for these loving mothers
And for their dear families
That they ALL
Each and every one
Have what I have
And know, truly know
What it’s like
To go to bed at night
And NOT be filled with fear
That their beautiful child,
Every bit as precious as mine,
Won’t be harmed
Or blown to piece
By the enemy lurking at the door.

God, I pray that all these mothers
Know at least one moment of peace.
And that that moment grows and grows
Like a wave across the world.

A graceful, gentle, loving wave of peace.

It begins with one moment
And grows from moment to moment.
It begins with one mother
And grows from mother to mother.
And it saves one child
And grows from child to child.

May we share this moment of peace
Mothers of the world.

Now I lay me down to sleep.

Amen.

In gratitude and love,
boo king