Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Garden of Little Big Things.

DSCN0818I’m big on the little things. The small, unexpected delights that make you smile. Or grin like a fool in love. Stand on your head and spit nickels. The unplanned moments and spontaneous incidences, with their elegant perfect brevity, that takes you by surprise. Then there are all those transitory things that are so easily overlooked or often passed by completely. Those are quite simply, the best. When you raise your head and say, ‘thank God I saw that.’

I also believe in everyday miracles. The tiny wonders that make you grateful.

This summer I was fortunate enough to bear witness to the innate generosity and enduring tenacity of the earth, quite literally beneath my feet. It began with a compost box in our backyard. Actually it began before that. With delicious winter meals of roasted squash and crispy green salads populated with grape and cherry tomatoes.

DSCN0834Little back story. Our house is built on a rock. A massive boulder that ascends heavenward less than ten feet from the back door. Steps have been cut and built into the rock so that you can climb it with ease. At the top it levels off into this lumpy grassy knoll in spring that is parched and stripped of color in summer and then mushy from the relentless rains of fall and winter. Always a farm boy at heart, E refers to this as his Back 40, but unlike his Annapolis Valley roots, where food crops grew in abundance, this little piece of paradise is canopied by Garry Oak Trees and shadowed by the Douglas Firs that tower like looming sentinels in the park that butts up against our property. We soon discovered, our first summer living here, that growing things to eat would be a challenge at best. And far too often, downright heartbreaking.

Like the early settlers and pioneers of the New World, E and I persevered. We were inspired by a deep yearning to sow good seeds, tend to them with loving kindness, watch them flourish and burgeon so that by summer’s end we could enjoy the harvest season, nature’s bounty, the abundance of Autumn. Surely this is what Mother Earth intended, even for gardens grown in difficult settings.

DSCN0971E persevered. I gave up.

Through tenacious experimentation with planting various and sundry seedlings, grew understanding, wisdom and respect for what we had in our Back 40. First and foremost, we accepted that it was different from any other garden we had ever grown. It did its own thing, for the most part. It was a maverick. In many ways, it was a mirror to our own natures.

Eventually E figured out what grew. And what didn’t. Blueberries for example, love the rocky ridged beds that E built and filled with enough earth for them to take hold and produce an abundance of juicy berries. We have over a dozen bushes now of different varieties, including pink blueberries. Who knew? On the very top of the rock, where the trees don’t block the sun, big bouquets of petunias grow beautifully in cobalt blue and burgundy glazed earthenware pots. And a variety of tall elegant grasses do well on the sunny slopes that flank the steps. In the long narrow bed that clings to the side of the rock, just outside our kitchen window, a grouping of succulents with tiny pink flowers that bloom in autumn have taken occupancy. I am a blessed woman.

One of the things we have grown to appreciate the most about this wild horse of a garden are all the things that grow naturally, without any help from us. For the rock knows what it needs and what it wants. Like all the wild flowers that grow in the tiny pockets in the rock. Purple things, little mysterious gems that pop up everywhere all year round. I don’t know their fancy Latin names. I just call them beautiful. Then there are the daisies with their sunny smiles that hang out on the side of the fishpond with the orange spiky lilies, red hots, the scraggly fuchsia bushes and overgrown grape vine. And of course, there are the clingers and hangers-on. The pale green lichens, the mossy carpet bits and the small-scale succulents.

DSCN0735The birds love it here too. Plus, they also do their share of planting. Without them, we wouldn’t have the pink and yellow funny-faced snapdragons.

But of all these miraculous things, the most wondrous of all, are what E calls “the volunteers”, a phenomenon of sowing and reaping that occurred for the first time this summer. One that took us by surprise, and delighted us, beyond measure. And to think, it all started last winter with roasted squash and tomato salads. And that black compost box.

In the spring E filled all the rocky beds with the rich mulch that he had been collecting all winter. And from that, six mystery squash plants and three tomato plants took hold. Sprouted and grew effortlessly. Miracle plants. Gracious gifts from God and Mother Earth.

We’ve spent the summer watching them do their own thing. Just doing what comes naturally, I suppose. Add a little sunshine and water to E’s well-mulched earth. And voila! Hallelujah! A miracle.

And we slow dance under the harvest moon.

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: The Second and Last Kiss and the Smell of Old Spice.

Ma + The Old Man sitting on the stone wall.

The Old Man and his beautiful Italian Sweetheart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill and boo snow day

me & dad in winter

Me and The Old Man

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

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

The Old Man with his rake and white cowboy hat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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