Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter. It Smells Just Like Yesterday.

tom+aimee+mel b+wCertain smells always bring me back.  Flood my brain with memories.  Ones I thought were long gone and forgotten.  I love it when this happens.  It’s enough to send me on a scent hunt.  Digging up recollections like hidden clues to buried treasures.

Then becomes now in a heartbeat.

I can’t walk into a kitchen where baking has taken place without thinking immediately of Ma’s cookie baking emporium at 204.  Oatmeal raisin.  Hermits.  Ginger Snaps.  Sweet and spicy.  Rich with love and motherly goodness.  One whiff of Italian food and it’s a Spaghetti Saturday Night.  The best comfort food smack dab in the middle of a brutal Northwestern Ontario winter.  Cold as the Arctic outside but warm and deliciously cozy inside. Turkey roasting in the oven conjures up decades of Christmases enjoyed with our family.  This mouthwatering array of aromas reminds me to count my blessings.

I can close my eyes and smell Ma’s Second Debut face cream. Breathe in her presence.  Inhale it’s gentle loveliness as my lips brush against her cheek.  Just like I did every morning before I headed off to school as a kid.  This fine scent not only evokes memories of the softness of her skin but the kindness of her heart.  In her later years she treated herself to a weekly hairdo.  She would return feeling pampered and pretty, filling the house with the beauty parlor scent of freshly coiffed hair.  Set for the week.  I’m reminded that although true beauty blossoms from within, it’s also nourished with a dab of cream and a nice do.

When I wash with Ivory soap I think of The Old Man.  A grimy bar sat in the soap dish next to the bathroom sink.  As soon as he got home from work he washed off the grunge that clung to his face and hands after a long day on the road delivering Holsum bread and Persian buns.  He’d emerge from the bathroom a new man.  An Ivory man.  Pure and simple.  Now when I stand in the shower preparing for my day, lathering on this creamy white soap, I am reminded that hard work of any sort is honorable.  No matter what you do.  Sell bread.  Or shoes.  Fly to the moon.  Or stand on your feet all day.  Work, especially in service of others, is good.

Old Spice makes me think of Sunday mornings and going to church.  Once a week The Old Man donned a suit and tie, and escorted Ma and me to Christ Lutheran Church on Walkover Street.  We drove there, despite the friendly invitation to hoof it.  All week he wore his stiff blue twill uniform that smelled of flour dust, sweat, and when I was really young, tobacco.  But on Sundays, he dressed for the occasion.  He was a stylish confident man with his two favorite girls in tow.  Old Spice has always been a feel good scent memory.  Yet also contradictory. Like The Old Man, in many ways.  A peculiar blend of spirituality and carnal pleasure.  Old time religion and hedonism.  Fear of the Lord and the folly of the man.  Imagine all that in just one sniff.

The mauve lilac bush at 204.

The mauve lilac bush at 204.

There’s nothing like the perfume from a mauve lilac.  One hint and I’m instantly transplanted to the front yard at 204.  There, a charming little tree bloomed every year in June.  It marked the end of the school year and the beginning of summer vacation. It was a symbol of freedom and carefree days.  A simple bouquet adorned Ma’s kitchen table and filled the room with such exquisite inimitable beauty.  I’m reminded of the wonder and splendor just outside our door.  The natural abundance of the earth.  It’s symmetry and grace.  And for that I am grateful.

Then there’s the fragrance of first love.  I can’t walk in the early morning rains of April or May without thinking of him.  Not every time.  For the memory to come, the rain must possess a particular scent.  A bittersweetness.  Sadness in the joy.  Longing in the reverie.  Then I go back to this love that was beginning to unravel.  So new yet tired of itself.  Still, all these years later I think tenderly of him.  Of us then.  I know the smell of him.  It reminds me to be inspired by love.  To carry on.  Love again.  And again.  Enlarge my heart.  Grow it bigger. Until it beats no more.

And oh, the sweetest of all perfumes.  My newborn babies.  Tender. Innocent.  Still so close to heaven in their scent.  Still so filled with the essence of the divine.  Without earthly tarnish.  Nor painful sheaths sullying their pristine souls.  Just perfection.  I have been blessed to enjoy this redolence three times.  Three times I breathed in their beautiful newness.  Each time I was reborn.

I’ve read that the science behind this sentimental journey originates with the olfactory bulb in our limbic system, which is associated with memory.  Called the “emotional brain” it allows us to conjure up memories in an instant just by smelling something.

I am grateful for this bulb in my brain that allows me to go back.  Not just remember.  But to be there.  Time travel does exist.  And the beautiful thing is, we all possess this wondrous gift of uncommon sense.

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

E on his throne enjoying the Christmas festivities.

E on his throne enjoying the Christmas festivities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simply be alive.

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

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

And she does.

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

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

Deeply.  Profoundly.  Beyond words.

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

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

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

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

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

I’m grateful for that.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: The Weekend from Hell.

E singing and playing his bass.

E singing and playing his bass.

It was the weekend from hell. A topsy turvy terrifying roller coaster ride.  One moment we could see sunlight and the possibility of rosy days.  Only to be sucked into the uncertainty of the rabbit hole the next.  In between we did our best to breathe.  Keep our head above the icy waters that threatened to take us down.  Mostly we tried to make sense of this unforeseen mess that we found ourselves in.

The surgeon, who had performed the biopsy, sent E home with a prescription for painkillers and antibiotics.  In thirty years of practice, he’d never seen a reaction to a biopsy like this.  Lucky E.  One for the medical history books.  I was a little surprised that the surgeon wasn’t more curious to find out why.  Then I’m like a four-year old who asks ‘why’ about everything.  Except for why me or why us.  Life is a game of Russian Roulette at times.  Shit happens to everyone.  Good and bad.  So why not me.  Or us.

The painkillers did their job for short intervals, which gave him little pockets of relief throughout the weekend.  E spent most of the time hunkered down in his Man Cave watching TV or dozing off on the couch.  Deep regenerative sleep was elusive and interrupted by pain so severe it would have brought a lesser man to his knees.  But E refused to buckle.  Since his motorcycle accident at thirty, he lived with chronic pain in his hip and right leg.  He still felt unsettling phantom pains from the big toe that was removed shortly after his bike was t-boned and ended up in a gutter fifty yards away.  This pain was close to that.

During the interludes when the pain was tolerable we carried on with our regular weekend affairs.  Errands and chores mostly.  I was still doing most of the talking.  Acting as his interpreter.  Under any other circumstances I might have welcomed the quiet.  Instead I missed his chattiness and running commentary on life.

One of the things we managed to squeeze in was Christmas shopping for his sweet 94-year old Mama in Nova Scotia.  Every year he gets her the same thing.  A sweater and pajamas from Walmart.  E is a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to shopping.  But Christmas shopping takes this crankiness to new heights.  The fact that he does it at all is a bigger miracle than the Immaculate Conception.  We combed through the selection of sweaters and PJs to find this year gift, then made a swift exit. The pain was returning and his tongue was again thickening.  Visions of baby’s fists were dancing in my head.

Back home, E noticed that the rear license plate on the truck had been stolen while we were shopping. E called the Cops to report the theft while I did a rant on the nerviness of the thieving creeps.  How could they pull off something like this in broad daylight? In a crowded parking lot full of Walmart shoppers no less.

Drinking was unbearable.  Eating impossible.  The pain “was like I’ve bitten down on my tongue real hard and can’t let go,” E said.

Imagine a cruel relentless Vice Grip.

By Sunday afternoon there was no improvement.  Painkillers were painfully useless.  A fiendish joke. We had no idea what the antibiotics were supposed to be doing.  Apparently nothing.  E agreed to another visit to the ER.  Before we could do that I had to get new license plates for the truck.

Things went from bad to worse.  While E rested on the couch, M and I drove across town in her car to an insurance provider that was open on Sundays. This should have been a straightforward no-brainer transaction.  Wrong.  As the insurance guy was filling out the form for the replacement plates he noticed that E’s name was on the registration of the truck.  It’s my truck but E’s name was included as a formality.

“I’m sorry Ma’am, but I can’t finish this transaction without your husband being here,” said the soft spoken insurance guy.

“Whadayamean?” asked the impatient cranky wife of a suffering man.

“His name is on the registration and he has to be here in order for me to give you new plates,” said the soft spoken insurance guy.

“Are you kidding me?  He’s really sick. I need my truck to drive him to the hospital,” said the increasingly impatient cranky wife of a long suffering man.

“I’m sorry Ma’am, but there’s nothing I can do,” said the completely-powerless-to-do-anything insurance guy.

M and I stormed out.  Mumbling under our breath.  Christmas Carols were wafting through the outdoor shopping centre where the insurance  provider was located.  It was an irritatingly cheerful and festive juxtaposition to our dispirited foul moods.

Back home, I conveyed our frustrating story and lack of success at obtaining the license plates to E.  He was furious and raring for a good squabble.  And if not for his inability to speak coherently he would have been all over that.  To end things on a peaceful note, we went to a different insurance provider to get the plates.  Happy ending to that part of the story.

By the time we got back home, it was early evening.  We decided to have dinner and then go to the ER.  M and I devoured our meal while E forced a few tablespoons of mashed potatoes past his raw cheeks, over his swollen tongue and down his throat.  It was excruciating to watch.  I can’t even imagine how it felt.

We never did go to the ER that night.  E wanted to see his own doctor in the morning. He may not have been able to swallow.  Nor speak clearly.  But he was still capable of making decisions that concerned his body.  We went that.

When I left for work the next morning he was sleeping peacefully.  The plan was for M to drive him to the doctors.  As I was driving up the long and winding country road that leads to the Agency, I was finally able to achieve some clarity.

This thought hit me like a ten pound hammer.  E had barely eaten nor drank anything since Wednesday night. How long could someone last before their organs started to shut down?

The second I got to my desk I phoned M.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: I Saw God in Church.

Dressed in head-to-toe Communion white and looking so pious with bible in hand.

I’m a sporadic churchgoer these days. There were times throughout my life when I was a faithful attendee.  The Old Man, Ma and I used to go every Sunday. I was baptized and took communion.  I read Bible verses and some chapters.  But never the entire thing.  Not enough grey matter between the ears to keep track of everyone and everything. Especially all the goings-on in the Old testament.  So many begats and battles. Bloodshed and betrayals. Miracles and meyhem. Famines and bad things happening to firstborns. So complicated and confusing.

But the New Testament is a whole other story.  While it contains its share of death, denial and despair, there is also hope and love and kindness and compassion. Sacrifice and forgiveness. Yes indeed, the New Book is chock-a-block full of precious and useful life lessons regardless of your faith or personal beliefs.  Who could deny that loving one another is the ultimate purpose of all humans no matter where on earth they call home.

My favorite stories are the ones about Jesus, in particular, the Nativity and the night he was born.  I also really enjoy a good old fashioned Christmas pageant.  Especially ones enacted by earnest five year-olds. I never grow tired of such performances.

When I turned eighteen, and for the twenty odd years that followed, I went in hot pursuit of God.  My spiritual excavations took me far and wide on my interior journey.  I looked under every rock.  Behind every locked door.  Inside a plethora of books and passages.  I sought the holy, the evolved, the gurus, the teachers, mentors, ministers, the religious, the spiritual, the wise, the dedicated, the sacred, the masters, saints and the venerated.  It was an incredible journey of wonder and awe.  It both grounded me and threw me off balance.  It gave me confidence and brought me to my knees.  I was exalted.  And humbled.  But mostly grateful.

The family gathered after the Communion for Sunday dinner. The Old Man and I had already changed into more comfortable clothes for this photo. Ma in her apron over her Sunday dress.

At that journey’s end, I found myself in a little church in the countryside.  It was a familiar place.  It felt like coming home. It reminded me of the little Lutheran Church where The Old Man, Ma and I shared a pew.  It wasn’t perfect.  It didn’t satisfy all of my spiritual needs.  Nor did it fill my hunger completely, nor answer my endless questions.  But it was a place to dwell, to sit quietly and learn. To witness and rub shoulders with fellow seekers on this bumpy, often terrifying, road.

It was there that this happened.

I saw God in church. It wasn’t at all what I expected it would be.  It was such a quiet whisper of a moment.  Manifested in a simple expression of love between an elderly husband and his fragile wife.  I don’t think either of them noticed that something so incredibly extraordinary was taking place.  But I did.  The providential witness.

The congregation was about to sing another hymn. Everyone was seated and looking to the Music Team Leader for direction.  He asked us all to stand and sing our praises.  Obediently, all the adults in the church stood, except for one.

Ma and The Old Man on the steps of 204. One of the last photos together.

He stood with confident ease.  Thin and stoop shouldered.  Yet strong.  In conviction and constitution.  She made a feeble attempt to rise. Her heart was willing. A formidable match for his on any given Sunday.  But her tired, frail body was uncooperative.

Without skipping a beat, he reached for her arm and gently helped her to her feet.  There they stood.  Side by side.  Singing with hearts wide open with love and devotion.  As it had always been.  Now and forever.

The tenderness of this ordinary, natural and unassuming gesture touched me in ways that were more profound than any sermon or hymn or prayer.  I was overwhelmed by the presence of God.  Just two rows up.

There it was.  In a flash.  An instant.  Grace.  Sweet, kind, patient, loving and humanly divine.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: The Christmas Dance.

Hugs after the dance.

I have many fond memories of Christmas.  The wonder years at 204 waiting for Santa’s arrival. Shaking the merrily wrapped boxes adorned with bright ribbons and bows.  Guessing the contents. Hoping and praying Santa brought the number one thing on my list.  Moody teenage walks through the evening snow pondering the true meaning of the season. Looking up to heaven for clues.  Breathing in the cold air and welcoming the white flakes on my ruddy cheeks. Celebrating the magical First Christmas for each of my three children. Planning and preparing, making lists, shopping, decorating, wrapping, hiding gifts, baking, cooking, roasting, mulling, eating, singing, laughing, welcoming and praying.  Joyous greetings.  And wistful farewells.  I love it all.  And recall with bitter sweetness.

There’s this little snapshot in my mind of one particular Christmas that always makes me happy and takes me back.  Not to 204. But to a snug cozy living room tucked away in my heart.  One filled with warmth and a whole lot of love.

It was a couple of weeks before Christmas.  A song came on the radio, a festive tune in three-quarter time.  A waltz.  Inspired by the music, E spontaneously scooped up M, who was two or three at the time and began to dance with her.  I watched as they twirled around the living room, E crooning to his little daughter, who was decked out in her holiday finest, a deep purple velvet dress with a white peter pan collar.   An angel.  Heaven sent.  Divine in every way.  M giggled with sheer delight as they swayed around the coffee table and sashayed past the tree laden with festive baubles and twinkly lights.  Her diaphanous white-blonde hair fell around her delicate face, her skin so blue-white you could almost see through it.  E was badly in need of a shave but on this wintery afternoon I found his two-day-old stubble somehow less objectionable.  Oddly endearing.  Downright gorgeous.

The Divine Miss M in purple velvet.

Around and around they danced.  It was glorious.  Took my breath away.  My heart and soul and every cell within filled with gratitude.  I never felt more alive.  Nor at peace.   Humbled by the awesome grace these simplest of occasions bring.  Clear out of the blue.  Unexpected.  Gifts from God.

Could this be what it’s all about?

As I sat on the sofa and witnessed this intimate father-daughter connection I remember wishing I could stop time and stretch the moment out forever.  Every once and awhile life presents a situation that is so picture perfect that it puts everything into perspective.

There it was.  The fullness of life dancing around the living room to a White Christmas.  Just for me.

Diaries of the Breadman’s Daughter: There’s Nothing Like the Smell of Coffee in the Morning.

Ma and boo in PJs enjoying a morning moment.

I’m a morning person. I get up early while my family remains nestled all snug in their warm comfy beds. This does not mean they are sleepyheads.  Or lazybones.  It’s just that I’m a particularly early riser.  For it is only at this time that the house is quiet and still.  Like the Herman’s Hermits song proclaims, “there’s a kind of hush.”  Just the way I like it.

When I’m in full-blown writing mode I get up, I make a cup of hot tea and head for my room.  But it wasn’t always so.  The room was there but I wasn’t.  I was in another room with a bed and a warm body next to mine.  That was, and is, nice.  But for a writer, and a creative spirit, it’s not enough.  I made excuses for why I wasn’t in my very special room doing creative things.  You know the kind. Family commitments.  Full time job.  Busy life full of distractions and diversions.  Pets to walk. Cakes to bake.  But excuses aside, the truth was it made me sad.  Glum.  Blah.  Whiny even.  Then I had this eureka moment about 15 years ago. The switch was flipped and the light went on. I had this notion that if I got up an hour or two earlier I could go into my room and do stuff.  At the time, I wasn’t sure what that would be exactly.  But as it turns out I had a novel to write.  Some poems. A ton more letters to God.  And a few song lyrics. Then some music to go with those.  I learned that much can be accomplished in the wee hours before 6:00am.

The truth is, it wasn’t all that difficult for me to get up that early in the morning.  Pre-dawn rising is part of my family heritage.  If geneticists were to look inside our DNA, I’m certain they would find some little atypical first-light wrinkle in one of our chromosomes.

Little back story.  Because the Old Man was a Breadman, his workday began early.  Crack of dawn.  He had to get to the bakery, load his truck and be on the road delivering the bread and other baked goodies by 7:00am.  This was back in the day, when it was essential to deliver the ultimate in freshness door to door.  Warm and ready.

Ma always got up with The Old Man.  While he was getting ready for work, she was busy in the kitchen.  A fresh pot of coffee was perking in the dinted aluminum Percolator with the black handle and glass knob on top.  Once the water-coffee mixture began to bubble up into the knob, Ma would turn down the heat and let it settle and simmer on low.  While the coffee was brewing, the well-oiled cast iron frying pan was in full-on action.  Four strips of bacon fried to a medium crisp.  Two eggs.  Sunny side up with a fringe of brown crunch.  Two slices of white Wholesome bread toasted to golden perfection, then buttered.  The table was set for one.  Next to The Old Man’s plate was a jar of Kraft strawberry jam or orange marmalade, a bottle of homogenized milk, a bowl of white sugar, and glass shakers of salt and pepper.  These were the scrumptious aromas of morning for the thirty-plus years that The Old Man worked for the bakery.  This was the first heavenly scent of dawn and waking up.

Sometimes I would get up before The Old Man left for work and join him at the table.  But mostly I got up afterwards and had breakfast alone with Ma.  I loved my morning time with her.  I was never really that hungry in the morning but I ate anyway.  Mostly to appease Ma, so she wouldn’t worry or fret that I was malnourished or starving to death.  Ever since I was a youngster I drank coffee.  The Old Man was a Finlander so coffee was a huge part of his personal culture.  Next to Vodka, coffee was the Finn’s beverage of choice.  The coffee of my wonder years was nothing like it is today.  We’re not talking Starbucks super strength here.  Back then, coffee was akin to dish water.  And we were blissfully ignorant of any harm it may have caused a child.  I enjoyed my daily morning coffee until I hit my early twenties when I quit cold turkey.  As it turned out, it wasn’t so good for my sensitive nervous system, causing my body to shake rattle and roll after one or two sips. Tea, in particular herbal or decaf, then became my beverage of choice for decades.  It’s only been recently that I have started to enjoy one cup of coffee in the morning.  All things wonderful.  Ma and I were also Tea Grannies and loved our Orange Pekoe and Earl Grey.  Especially with fresh-baked cookies.  Simply divine.

For the most part, Ma and I had toast and jam for breakfast. We kept it sweet and simple.  White bread.  Lots of butter slathered on first, then a big dollop of jam.  Sometimes we’d add peanut butter.  Sometimes we didn’t add anything.  Just butter.  It all depended on whether we were in a sweet or savory mood.  My morning coffee was really more milk and sugar than it was coffee.  And it was delicious.  Sweet.  And creamy.  I drank it down quickly in big gulps.  Sometimes I slurped it from my spoon like soup.  But mostly I poured it back. “Ahhhhh.  That was sooooo good Ma,” I’d exclaim.

I enjoyed this quiet breakfast time with Ma.  We drew together, both in our flannel nighties, and talked about things.  The kinds of conversations mothers have with their little girls.  Precious.  Intimate.  Confidential.  I shared all my secrets with her.  I knew she was the one person in the entire world that I could trust completely with my tender young heart. I told her funny stories.  She laughed.  I relayed the nightmare that woke me up in the middle of the night.  She comforted.  I confessed my unrequited love.  She consoled.  I cried over my broken heart.  She caressed.  I confided my dreams for the future.  She encouraged.   I hurt her feelings.  She forgave.

On special occasions or holidays, when the family gathers, I still like to get up early, even though I don’t write during vacation time.  Our entire family comes together at Christmas and I’m usually the first one up.  I like to putter around in the kitchen and put the coffee on.  And that’s when it happens.  The fresh brewed aroma takes me back.  To a little kitchen table with its cheerful homespun tablecloth.  It’s set for two.  It’s cold and dark and wintry outside.  But it’s warm and bright and safe inside.  Ma pours me a cup.  Life is good.

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: Sometimes It Can Be Awkward.

boo posing awkwardly in white communion dress with white bible in front of floral curtains.

The day that I had the epiphany, that ‘ah ha!’ moment after reading Eric Weiner’s article in The New York Times, I got to thinking about when this whole thing began.  Not the world beginning, that big bang thing or whatever it was that started what is commonly known as life.  I’m talking about something far more personal.  I’m talking about my life with God – and when that all began.

I wish I could say it started in the womb and that I had these primordial memories of being in heaven and sitting on God’s lap, but it didn’t.  Or if it did I don’t remember so that doesn’t count.  The best I can recall is that this ‘relationship’ (and I use the term loosely, at least in this context) began in elementary school.

Little back story.  Until this juncture I don’t recall being from a terribly religious family.  We celebrated Christmas (with presents under the tree and a turkey with cranberry sauce) and Easter (with ham and scalloped potatoes, new shoes and an awkward photo op.)  But we also celebrated Thanksgiving (with mashed potatoes, turkey with cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie instead of presents), and Birthdays (no turkey, no cranberry sauce, no pumpkin pie but a galaxy of presents for the special one of the hour.)  So throughout the year there were many celebrations and it was hard to tell which ones, if any, had religious affiliations.  It was confusing at best, given the abundance of delicious food and divine presents attached to every one of these celebrations that took place at 204.

Anyway, my best guess is ‘it’ all began sometime in early elementary school when I hooked up with S and T and we became the three Musketeers, a nickname coined by T’s father, who was the manager of the local movie theater. It could have been worse. We could have ended up the Three Stooges.

They both went to church, as did many of my other classmates.  I did not. This made me feel bad.  Inferior. Flawed.  Unworthy of God’s favor, whatever that meant.  To not feel bad, or worse yet, to not be a blemished cursed sinner I approached my parents with the notion that we go to church.  At least this is what I recall.  I probably didn’t.  It was most likely their idea, but this is my take.  Besides, I’m too old to have clear memories, and that was a long long time ago.  But we’re talking about God and He/She forgives the forgetter.

Of my parents, oddly enough, it was The Old Man who had the closest connection to what would be considered organized religion. He was a Finlander and there was some sort of ancestral connection to Lutheranism.  Ma may have been Anglican as a child but that affiliation was long gone and best forgotten.  Her connection to religion was unorganized, I suppose.  So off we went to Christ Lutheran Church.

Thus began my indoctrination into the Christian faith.