Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Stray Cats, Hitch Hikers and Under Dogs.

Some of the strays who found their way to 204.

I love stray cats.  I’m not talking about the feline variety, although I do like them.  Nor am I talking about the band from the eighties.  I like them too.  The stray cats I’m referring to are all the misfits of the world.  The ones who don’t belong.  Or haven’t found their home.  The square pegs. The oddballs.  Weirdos.  Freaks.  Under dogs.  The ones called last to the team.  Or not at all.  These are my favorites.  I have a huge place in my heart for this motley collection.

I don’t remember when my heart first opened up to let the strays in.  From the very beginning of me, it seems.  Like Lady Gaga, I was just born that way.  I also think that Ma and The Old Man were born that way too.  Maybe it’s in our family DNA.

Little back story.  Over the years many stray cats found a place at the table at 204.  Or on the couch.  Sleeping bags in the backyard.  Rusted out vans in the driveway. Everyone from cute young hitchhikers to the lost girls I met at school.  The travelers.  The seekers.  The Emotionally wounded.  Those consumed by wanderlust.  And the temporarily homeless.  All were welcome.

Some travelers who camped out in the back of 204 for the night.

One girl comes to mind readily.  Although we haven’t spoken in decades, I have never forgotten her.  To the best of my recollection, and photographic evidence, we met for the first time in grade eight.  We were an unlikely pairing.  Yin and yang.  I was painfully shy, quiet and introverted.  She was naturally outgoing, loud and gregarious.  One day she would blossom into a beauty but in grade eight there was very little to suggest that this would ever happen.  That was an awkward age to begin with.  For all of us.  One look at our grade eight class photo says it all.  Not one raving beauty in the bunch.  In all fairness, we were transitioning through that God-awful uncomfortably homely stage where our body parts hadn’t quite jelled.  You could see it in our grim expressions.  If there were smiles at all, they looked tentative and forced.  We were a collective mess.

But in her case things were even worse.  Add a high forehead.  Acne.  Lazy eye.  Thick glasses.  Not a pretty picture no matter what lens you use.  Too bad there weren’t more crystal balls around back then so we could have seen the swan emerging.  There were hints of course.  Perfectly even white teeth, great smile and beautiful legs.  I didn’t have a lazy eye nor a high forehead but I did have acne flareups, thin lips and skinny bowed legs.  So I could relate.

Beneath her wise-cracking-gum-smacking-nothing-bothers-me veneer, she was also angry.   I was too.  Another thing we had in common.  Except she probably had more cause to be.  I was angry at the world for its lack of equitability.  I moaned and groaned at how unfair life was.  And she was my case in point.   Her mother died when she was a little girl leaving her and her older sister to be raised by their alcoholic father.  The Old Man was an alcoholic too but he was a saint next to this guy.  They lived in a tumbled down weather beaten house on the fringe of our neighborhood.  I don’t recall ever going inside.  The outside looked like one of those scary haunted houses in horror movies. That was enough for me.  The ramshackle nature of the place, and her father, both embarrassed and humiliated her.   Like many alcoholics, especially those who are gooned most of the time, he was unpredictable.  She often sought refuge at 204.  Like in the Dylan song, we gave her “shelter from the storm.”

Ma and The Old Man loved this girl.  Flaws and all.  They saw past the loud, often obnoxious behavior to the insecure girl crying out for love and attention.  And for whatever reason, I just plain flat-out liked her.  She was hilarious and fun.  Spontaneous and full of surprises.  Every day was a new adventure.  She took me places that I would never have gone otherwise.  Introduced me to people I never would have met.  Widened my circle.  Broadened my horizons.  Expanded my universe.  We may have had a few close calls along the way.  But it was worth it.  All relatively innocuous when I look back on it now.   She dressed up my drab life and I am grateful.

She added thrills and spills to my life and I kept her out of trouble.   When she went to the edge of darkness, I had her back.  Took care of her when she got drunk.  Held her hair out of her face when she threw up in the revolting toilets at the Arena where the weekly teen dances were held.  The smell of the urine soaked concrete is permanently imbedded in my head. I also made sure we got home safely to 204 before things went too far.

Ma saw herself in this motherless girl. She understood profoundly  the craving for a particular kind of love.  That only a mother could satisfy.  The truth is, this girl was a snap to love.  She was abundantly affectionate and demonstrative.  Hugged hard.  Squeezed the love right out of you.  She expressed her rainbow of feelings without hesitation or self-consciousness.  Who wouldn’t be drawn to a person like this?  Ma, The Old Man and I were like bees to honey.  She had us at the first hug and tight squeeze.

All were welcome at 204 even the cute ones.

Some people bring out the best in you.  Others just bring you out.  That’s what she did for me.  I always felt more courageous when I was with her.  Less inhibited.  More myself.  I liked who I was when she was around.  We may have been yin and yang but we were also two peas in a pod.  We were more alike than we were different.  I think that’s true of most people.  If we dare to peel back the layers.  We find ourselves there too.

It’s what’s on the inside that counts.  Most of us are taught that at our mother’s knee.  Tired cliche.  Overused platitude.  Hack-kneed homily.  But cliches don’t become cliches for nothing.  Within their lackluster facade are essences of truth and wisdom.  Don’t judge a book by its cover.  Another cliche.  Also true.  It’s hard not to judge people.  Especially when they are different.  All the more reason to pause and open your heart and mind to what it feels like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.  Another cliche.  Again true.  It changes you when you do.  I have proof.  Sitting in the front row of our grade eight class picture. The only one wearing boots.  My unlikely friend.

What did Ma, The Old Man and I see in this girl?  Quite simply. Ourselves.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: The Orange Swivel Rocking Chair by the Window.

Pregnant with Daughter Number One. Great expectations in the tweed version.

I like to stare out the window.  It’s a relaxing and meditative diversion.  Some people experience this by looking heavenward to the stars.  Or by sitting in front of an aquarium filled with exotic tropical fish.  Others like to watch the tides roll in.  But I’m a window gazer.  A peaceful tranquility washes over me whenever I sit in front of a window.  And look out.

Little back story.  In our house at 204 there was always a chair in front of the living room window.  Or at least from the time the house was renovated and a large picture window replaced the small wartime paned version.  This window cried out for a comfy chair and a place to watch the world outside.  With this in mind, Ma arranged the furniture so that there was always such a chair. And within arms reach, the treasured pedestal table with its sundry potted plants over the years, and always a coaster conveniently placed to support a cup of tea or coffee, glass of milk or Pepsi.

Daughter Number One liked to window gaze too.

It wasn’t exactly a big world to gaze upon. Not like looking up at the infinite sky on a clear August night.  But it was my world for many years.  This was the cherished spot where I honed my observational deftness.  Even long after I had flown the nest I loved to return to the chair by the window.  To daydream.  To reflect.  Or rest.  Often to recover from the battlefield of life.

Over the years, several different chairs occupied the space next to the window.  They all had a few things in common.  First and foremost, the color orange was represented in them somewhere.  Solid, tweed, plaid or striped.  Ma used to say that she loved color and she wasn’t kidding.  And when it came to decorating our living room, orange was undeniably her color of choice.  Something I never fully appreciated until I looked at Ma’s albums filled with scads of photos of family and friends taken on the various chairs.  Not only orange chairs.  But Curtains.  Lampshades.  And wall to wall carpet.  It was a dizzying sea of riotous color.   Autumn lived perpetually in our living room.

On the outside Ma was a quiet, soft-spoken demure woman.  But if a person’s color preference reveals anything about their true character, than Ma’s interior spaces were filled with fire, passion and fervency.  She was a courageous artist fearlessly expressing herself in the boldest of possible ways.  Orange.

The First Born having a snack in the striped version.

This common thread of orange aside, these chairs all rocked and swiveled.  This made them very practical because you could position them in any direction depending on the need.  They provided a 360 degree panorama of our downstairs.  Swivel slight to the left for television viewing.  To the centre back and you could watch all the kitchen activities, in particular Ma cooking up something spectacular.  To the right and you could engage in lively conversation with whomever was on the couch.  And centre front, there was the view of our street.

These chairs were also enormously fun.  Swivel and rock in a full circle. One way and then the other.  They turned us all into whirling dervishes.  Spinning tops.  Every bit as good as the old leather and chrome stools at the food counter in the basement restaurant at Eaton’s.  Giggles and glee.  Tee-hee!  Plus, they were all so comfortable you never wanted to leave.  No matter what was going on in my life, whenever I sat in the orange chair  by the window everything was right with the world.

In truth, there wasn’t a whole lot to see out of that window.  Mostly just the houses across the street.  The mauve lilac that grew on the edge of our lawn next to the lumpy sidewalk and the Manitoba Maple on the boulevard.  I watched it grow from a tiny sapling to a magnificent old sentry watching over our little wartime house.  In summer it shaded our front yard.  In fall it graced us with glorious red, orange and yellow leaves that danced and quivered in the wind.  In winter it held strong and steady while the snow collected on its barren branches.  In spring came the buds of hope and great expectations.

One summer the city added cement curbs and paved the street.  We were delighted to say goodbye to the pot holes and annual tarring of our road.  I have to admit though that the smell of tar triggers happy memories of childhood summers.   It’s right up there with the scent of Coppertone, freshly mowed lawns, wild roses and hot rubber hoses.

The First Born sharing the plaid version with The Old Man.

One of my fondest memories is from the winter.  I was home visiting over the Christmas holidays with my two older kids in tow.  It was a large blue sky afternoon.  The kind that only Northwestern Ontario can produce.  Nothing quite like it anywhere I’ve been.  On this particular afternoon Ma got a call from her sister Hazel to go over to the mall for the afternoon.  Ma rarely turned down an opportunity to go for an outing.  It didn’t really matter where.  I sat in the orange swivel rocking chair by the window and watched Ma as she stood in the driveway waiting for her sister to come pick her up.  The snow was crisp and clean. The snow banks were so high on either side of the window that they dwarfed Ma’s already small frame.  She was wearing her gray fake fur coat.  I don’t know what animal it was imitating.  Her purse was draped across her chest.  While she was waiting she traced the snow with the toe of her boot like a windshield wiper.  Back and forth.  Every now and then she would pause and look down the street for Auntie Hazel’s car.  Her cheeks were blushed red from the cold air and her dark eyes were so bright and alive.  I had to remind myself that she was in her seventies.  She looked like a young girl.  Full of life and eagerness.  I will always remember her that way.  And how the sight of her touched my heart with such tenderness.

Ma enjoying a moment of relaxation in the solid version.

In my room, the place where I write and dream, my computer sits in front of the window overlooking our beautifully imperfect garden, which is green and lush at the moment. Teeming with birds, squirrels and dragonflies, the occasional deer, raccoon, duck or heron.  When I window gaze here I also see another time and place.  I’m transported to an orange swivel rocking chair that sits by a picture window.  It hugs me.  It holds me when my heart is heavy.  It comforts me when I’m full of fear and lost all hope.  It rocks and swivels me to a place of peace.  I see the street where I grew up.  Played scrub ball.  Rode my bike. Scraped my knee.  Ran under the sprinkler.  Sat on the neighbors front step and shared a first kiss.  I see the place under the maple tree where I sat in the shade and drank Pepsi.  I see the tarry road and the dreams of other roads to travel.  I see The Old Man tending to his garden.  Raking leaves.  Shoveling snow.  Blowing his nose in a big white cotton hanky.  I see Ma waiting for Auntie Hazel.  I see God’s hand reaching out and touching all of it with wonder and grace.  I see love in the large blue sky.  I am cradled in my mother’s arms.

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: 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 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: Spring Traditions, New Shoes and the Easter Bunny.

Boo in her shiny new shoes and Easter best.

I love shoes.  There’s nothing like a new pair to hearten the soul. And the soles.  Snazzy sneakers for Saturday morning strolls with the dogs.  Dependable running shoes for weekday jogs.  High heels with pointy toes for strutting or stumbling depending on the height.  Cute comfy flats engineered for walking at lunch.  Freedom flip flops in every color under the sun that just make me so happy.  Summer sandals to show off my red painted toes.  Butt-kicking black boots with straps across the ankle and shiny silver buckles.  Cowboy boots.  Doc Martens.  Converse.  Leather, canvas, suede or rubber.  My love affair with shoes began early.  And came honestly.

Little back story.  When I was a kid, way back in the day, the arrival of Spring was a long time coming.  Much anticipated and welcomed.  Weary winter arms wide open.  Some years there were a few false starts.  Hiccups along the transitional path. Others years felt like it was never going to come.  We were taunted and teased by Mother Nature.  Occasionally, it seemed as though the season was by-passed completely.  We were catapulted right into summer like a rock from a slingshot.

But when Spring finally did arrive, there were a few things that I could count on.  The Easter Bunny.  Chocolate eggs.  Hot cross buns.  And new shoes.

In northern climates, the mere thought of Spring is reason enough to rejoice.  Celebrate.  Skip to my Lou.  Do a little Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah dance.  You were happy to surrender your snowballs in favor of cats-eye marbles, skipping ropes and red rubber balls.  You could smell the balmy potential for knock out ginger, dodgeball and red rover.  Your bike was waiting for fresh air to be breathed into its tires.  Peddle pushers and other cotton casuals, that had been hanging around all winter, were raring to go.   You could smell change in the air the second you stepped out the door.  Palpable.  Expectant.  Buoyant.  There were chirpy hints of green everywhere.  The possibilities were breathtaking.

In the midst of all this climatic commotion and hullabaloo, there was Easter.  I’ve always found this particular holiday to be a bit emotionally and intellectually confusing.  And perhaps that’s the point.  To Christians, this is both a sad and happy occasion.  Sad because of what happened on Good Friday.  Joyous because of the awe-inspiring event that occurred the following Sunday. An entire religion was built around this belief.  Despite the fact that we were Lutherans, this foundational theological presumption eluded me.  It was only years later that I understood this core tenet.    Doctrine aside, weather-wise I recall Good Fridays as being bleak.  Grey.  Cold.  Depressing.  And Easter Sundays were just the opposite.  Bright.  Warm.  Optimistic.  To add to all this dogmatic perplexity and emotional bewilderment, there was the Easter Bunny.  It was a head-scratcher for a church-going kid.

I have to admit, that as a child I was much more interested in the big EB than JC.  The Easter Bunny was something real.  Fun.  Exciting.  Santa Claus’s good buddy.  They were in cahoots.  I loved them both.  I looked forward to their annual visits.  And the gifts they came bearing. In particular, I loved Easter Bunny’s sense of adventure and cleverness.  Unlike Santa, who just deposited his gifts under the Christmas tree, Easter Bunny hid his all over the house.  Chocolate covered marshmallow eggs tucked beneath the cushions of the couch. Bright colored sugary eggs nestle behind the clock on the mantel.  Jelly bean eggs scattered hither and yon throughout the kitchen and living room.

Like Christmas Eve, I spent the night before the Easter Bunny visit imagining all the sweet treats that would be delivered to our house.  Just for me.  It was a night of salivation and sleeplessness.  The next morning I would hop out of bed (in honor of my long-eared hero), anxious to begin the annual hunt.  Ma would have a brightly colored woven basket ready for me to collect my hidden treasures.  Around the house I scurried.  Like a  saintly little Jack Rabbit.  Crouching and crawling to retrieve treats concealed under various pieces of furniture.  Standing on tiptoes to peer over the top of the taller things. Carefully reaching behind Ma’s nicknacks and ornaments to gather these sweet rare gems.  A special delivery made once a year by a giant white rabbit with enormous ears and a dapper pink bow tie around his neck.  It was like I had died and gone to Sugar Heaven.  It was exalted.  Majestic.  Downright divine.  I suppose in my young mind this was somehow the connection to God.  Only a Supreme Being could send someone so wonderful.  So magical.  So marvelous.  And so imaginative.

After the hunt was complete, and Ma assured me that I had discovered every treasure hidden, we had breakfast.  I never questioned her psychic ability to know this.  It was all part of the fantasy.  The wonder.  The make-believe.  After breakfast of eggs, bacon and hot cross buns, we got ready for church.  This involved a new wardrobe.  In particular, new shoes.

Back then it was tradition to get a new pair of shoes every spring.  It officially marked a farewell, not only to winter but to sloshing around in big heavy pile-lined galoshes.  I looked forward to the annual shoe shopping trip with Ma.  I would try on various footwear options but in the end it was usually the black patent leather shiny ones that seduced me. With or without bows.  Usually with round toes, straps across the ankle and gold buckles.  They were magnificent.  And I wore them proudly to church Easter morning.  Along with the new dress Ma made for me, white gloves, my spring coat, an Easter bonnet and white cotton gloves.  I was a vision of sartorial splendor.

Although Ma and I were the annual Spring shoe shoppers, my love for shoes actually originated with The Old Man.  Next to sports, sweets, and Vodka, he loved shoes.  He called them kicks.  Even as he grew older – when his stride became a shuffle – and the compulsive hunger for a new pair struck, he’d declare that it was “time for some new kicks.”  I suspect it was an urge as irrepressible as that for alcohol or orange filled wafer cookies.    It doesn’t take a psychologist to understand the motivation behind The Old Man’s obsession with shoes.  It was simple.  As a child, he never had much of anything that was new, little alone a pair of shoes.  Everything was either second or third used.  Hand me downs.  Patched, stitched, re-patched and repeat. Worn with holes in the soles.  Broken laces.  Flapping toed humiliation.

The Old Man had shoes for every occasion.  And for no occasion at all.  He needed no rhyme nor reason for acquiring new shoes.  It was equal parts compulsion, exhilaration, triumph and satisfaction.  And once purchased, he lovingly and happily cared for them.  Polished.  Buffed.  And shined.  Lined up in a tidy orderly row.  Contained and coveted.  Something he could control.  They were his to admire and enjoy all the days of his life.  It seems with each new pair, he was given a temporary lease on life.

It’s also not surprising, nor coincidental, that The Old Man not only named his horse Tootsie but one of our dogs as well.  So great was his affection for his tender ones.

This Easter my grand daughter will hunt for chocolate bunnies and rainbow colored eggs, that the big EB will sprinkle about our house in all the usual places.  But before that happens, we’ll go shoe shopping.  This is not the time to break with tradition.  And as the Paolo Nutini lyrics express so fittingly, “hey I put some new shoes on and suddenly everything is right.”

Abby's new Easter shoes. 2

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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

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: The Last of His Kind.

Big Sis G with Tootsie on the left. Kids flocked to the Pied Piper of Bread.

I like to work.  I like what I do from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday.  And I also like what I do outside of that window of time.  There are many things about work that I like. But the thing I like to do the most is to serve. I don’t mean serve in the way that a waiter or a clerk or a bell hop would do. I’m talking about something much more generic.  Quite simply, I like to help people. To be of service to those around me. This covers a broad spectrum of possibilities because the brush is so wide, making the opportunities for work vast and limitless.  There’s no end to what you can do, where you can do it, and who you can do it for.  People need help everywhere. This is such an appealing notion. At the end of the day my job title or description is almost incidental.  Because when you drill right down to the heart of the matter, what I actually do is help other people do what they do.

According to Bob Dylan we’ve all Gotta Serve Somebody.  Whether it’s the devil or the Lord. Whether they call you Doctor or Chief.  Inevitably there’s someone you’re going to serve.  I not only accept this to be fact, but I embrace it.  Arms wide open.  It’s both humbling and gratifying.  For me though, it’s always been the little “s” service.  Not the big “S” classification.  I’m not a doctor or a chief, an ambassador nor a heavyweight champion.  I don’t eat caviar nor do I live in a mansion.  I also don’t go off to battle, the mission field, lead a congregation, a classroom or a country.  But every day I wake up and ask God, “How may I be of service today?  How may I help those that I work for and with?  How may I help those I love?  How may I help a stranger?”  That’s my doctrine.  My personal credo.  Mission statement.  Plain and simple.  Uncomplicated.  How I work.

Little back story.  My parents both worked hard.  Ma, like most women of her generation stayed home and raised her family.  Back then, women didn’t say things like “I work at home.  I’m a stay-at-home mom. I’m a Domestic Diva.”  They just did what they did.  And for the most part, they never doubted that it was the right thing to do.  At least not Ma.  She was the first person to serve me. Something that she did pretty much all of her life.  From my cradle to her grave.  The thing was, Ma served everyone, not just me.  Well into her seventies she seemed blessed with abundance of youthful energy.  She was industrious and her hands were always occupied.  Whether it was baking a pie, scrubbing a floor, nursing a wound, or wiping a snotty nose.  Her marvelous hands had work to do.  Purpose.  When a guest  walked through Ma’s door, she immediately stepped into action, ready and willing to serve.  With ease and grace, she made you feel not only welcome, but important.  She would serve you tea and cookies or cake or pie.  And she would listen.  Attentively.  Kindly.  Patiently.  Small “s”   service.  Big worth.

The Old Man worked for the same company for the better part of his entire career.  I use the term “career” loosely here.  The Old Man had a job.  His collar was blue.  And his neck was red.  His heart, both tender and angry.  The Old Man worked for the Shaw Bread Company.  To be precise, he was a Breadman.  For most of his working life he delivered bread door to door.  He had the same route, delivered to the same families, Monday to Friday. His route covered two distinct areas of our town.  One was where the relatively affluent people lived, and the other was the Finnish business community, that included the famous Hoito Restaurant.  Because the Old Man was a bonafide Finlander, one who was fluent in the language, and knew the difference between a sauna and a steam bath, it was natural for him to work this route.

The best time of year to be a Breadman was at Christmas.  This was when The Old Man reaped the benefits of his good customer service.  This was when he brought home the loot.  Sundry gifts and tips from his happy and satisfied customers.  Joy to the world. The week prior to Christmas, the Old Man came through the door each night bearing gifts.  The fruits of his labors.  Mostly cards with money.  Or cartons of Players cigarettes, his preferred brand until he kicked the 30-year habit.  Or chocolates, of assorted varieties.  Some gifts were homemade.  Like knitted scarves.  Or socks.  Sometimes he’d get a bottle of booze, which was frowned upon by Ma and her children.  The Old Man was an alcoholic and a gift like this could be the kiss of death for our Christmas.  Booze aside, one of my fondest memories, growing up is that of dumping out his sack full of goodies onto the living room rug and combing through it like a bloodhound on the scent of a murderer.  We opened all the cards first.  How much would the M or the P or the S family give?  Ten bucks from the Ms!  Yippee!   What a grand expression of appreciation for his incomparable bread delivery service.  His friendly disposition. His cornball jokes.  His fresh bread and sticky sweet Persians.

In the summer The Old Man had an extra route that serviced the surrounding lakes, where the lucky folks had summer camps. Sometimes he would take me with him on these deliveries.  I also have many fond memories of these afternoon trips.  The roads were hilly and curvy, poorly surfaced and narrow.  Yet The Old Man could drive these roads with his eyes closed.  I remember the thrill of flying down hills like we were on the roller coaster at the circus. Airborne half the time.  My stomach full of butterflies and tickles. “Do it again!  Do it again!” I cried as we as we approached the next hill.  And the next. And the next.  Yes the Old Man knew how to make a bread truck soar.

Before there were bread trucks with doors that swung open wide, that smelled of yeast, sugar and sweat, there were bread wagons.  Horse-drawn relics.  The Old Man drove one of these up until around 1960.  His horse’s name was Tootsie. Toots. She was brown and hard working. I don’t actually remember her as a real living creature.  I see photos of me next to the wagon but I don’t recall the time, the experience.  My Old Man was the last Breadman to use a horse-drawn wagon.  There was an article about him in the local paper years later that said he was the “last of his kind.”  They got that right.

There’s just something about a man who drives a wagon full of fresh baked bread and doughy treats, pulled by a horse named Tootsie, that draws people in.  He was like the Pied Piper.  Kids couldn’t get enough him and his wares.  And his appearance in the neighborhood was quite possibly the highlight of some exhausted housewife’s day.  Possibly they flirted.  At the very least they exchanged pleasantries. It was nice.

I must confess I had mixed feelings about The Old Man’s occupation.  On the one hand I was grateful that he worked every day and provided for his family. However meager it may have been at times.  But there were many occasions when I was ashamed or embarrassed.  Especially when someone asked me what my father did, and in particular if the person asking had a father who wore a silk suit to work, and not a blue twill uniform that smelled of bread dust and sweat.  Then, I didn’t want to admit that I was the Breadman’s daughter.  I wanted him to own the company, not deliver the bread door to door.  But in the safety of my own neighborhood, where everyone’s dad had a crappy job I didn’t care.  In fact, I loved that he had a job that attracted people like bees to honey.  But outside of Kenogami Avenue, things were different.  And the older I got, the more painfully aware I grew of the differences between the neighborhoods.  The white vs the blue.

Even now, years later and thousands of miles away, when someone with a white collar demeanor innocently asks me what it was that my father did for a living, a part of me hesitates.  Cringes.  Blushes with embarrassment. Be it ever so brief, it’s there.  The automatic response to a memory imbedded in my DNA.

What did my father do?  He served. The Shaw Bread Company. His loyal customers. A brown mare named Tootsie. He did it all with good humor.  Silly jokes.  Kindness and generosity.  And according to the article about him, he did it quite well.  The most important thing I learned about working, my father taught me on those sunny summer afternoons when we barreled down the hills on our way to the lake.  Or on cold winter nights when we tore open white envelopes addressed with cheerful Merry Christmas greetings and chocolate boxes wrapped in green tissue paper.  Not by his words.  But by his actions. Yes, this is what the last of his kind taught me.  To serve.

And I am The Breadman’s daughter.

The Old Man at work 2

The Old Ma on his bike

Diaries of the Breadman’s Daughter: A Good Snow Day Trumps All.

Me and The Old Man posing in the snowy backyard.

I love a good snow day.  I always have. We had one last week.  They are pretty rare in this part of the country so when one happens it’s an ‘event.’  Not momentous like Christmas, a wedding or a milestone birthday.  But in some nonsensical way, celebratory just the same.  And if the truth be told, the amount of snow that causes a snow day on the West Coast is laughable compared to that of my wonder years.  A heavy enough frost out here can bring the city to its collective knees.  The size of the celebration is not necessarily equal to the depth of the snow either.  It’s not always relative.  I think even Einstein would agree.

When I was a kid a snow day was synonymous with no school.  That in itself was cause enough for celebration.  Nothing much has changed since then.  When my kids were younger they behaved pretty much the same way I did. Their reactions echoed those of a girl growing up in another place, another time.  Same holds true today for my grand daughter.

It pretty much goes down like this.  If you wake up to a magical and mysterious Brobdingnagian sized nighttime dump, you immediately turn to some form of authority for their take on the situation.  I’m not talking about your parents here.  I’m talking the BIG authority.  And no not God.  I’m talking the Media.  And only the local, close-to-home purveyors of news and weather will do.  Who cares what’s going on in the rest of the world when you’ve got a day full of plans to make, your life to reconfigure.  Your snow day trumps all.  Will you do the happy dance, jump for joy, slap the high five?  Or will you grit your teeth, throw on an extra sweater, button up your pioneer spirit and walk five million miles to school in this crap?  One’s emotional landscape can be turned on a dime depending on the news.  Pretty or ugly.  Which is it?  Truth is, it’s just cold precipitation and sometimes it can be pretty ugly.

Let’s say the news is cause for celebration, a paradoxical thing often occurs, whether it happened last week, last year or the last century.  The very same kids who are incapable of pulling up their bootstraps (literally) and getting themselves to school are supernaturally transformed into hardy Nordic tribesmen who charge fearlessly into the very depths of the white stuff.  Here they commune, they romp about, and play gleefully like there is no tomorrow.  And in truth there isn’t, at least not like this.  This may be it.  The one and only snow day.  The one chance to throw caution to the wind, make a snowman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Uncle Bob, fall backwards, with complete trust into the blanketed earth, to make a glorious one-of-a-kind snow angel, slide down the closest hill on a rickety wooden sleigh, broken toboggan or hunk of cardboard, have a spontaneous snowball fight, put on old leather skates, cry out to God for the sheer splendor of it all, and just let go.

Snow is seductive.  It beckons.  Calls your name.  Calls you forth.  And calls you back home. It calls a treasured daughter to a garden-sized ice rink her Old Man made in the backyard solely for her skating pleasure.  It calls out love through the years, the passage of time, from the heart of the whiteness.