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: 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: 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