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: We are the Champions.

Ma and Mel surrounded by a sea of cat pillows.

On Halloween night I was driving home from work when I passed a little girl who was out trick-or-treating with her mom.  She was about six years old and dressed as a Princess.  She had a wand in one hand and a pumpkin candy bucket in the other.   It was just the two of them.

The sight of this little girl brought me back to another little girl, another Halloween night.  My daughter Mel was about the same age when she too dressed as a Princess for Halloween.  That night, we visited Ma at my sister’s place where she was staying at the time.  Ma was on the doorstep of death by then.  She was tired but uncomplaining.  As sweet as the candy being given.

I took this picture of Mel and Ma on my sister’s white couch surrounded by a sea of cat pillows.  It would be Ma’s last Halloween.  A few months later it would be her last Christmas.  Last New Year’s.  Last everything.  She would not see another Valentine’s Day.  The Old Man’s Sweet Heart would be gone by then.

The vision of that little Princess released a flood of tears. I longed for Ma.  And my own little Princess Mel.  I longed for all the little girl Halloweens where we walked the rainy streets while she collected her bucket of treats.  All gone.

As I drove down the road, the divine and powerful voice of the beautiful Freddy Mercury filled my truck with We Are The Champions.  Yes we are Freddy, I thought.   Mel, Ma and me.

Forever champions.

Diaries of the Breadman’s Daughter: The Fine Art of Courage and Sunflowers.

Ma’s Sunflower painting wide and open.

I love sunflowers.  They are such a cheerful good natured flower.  If they were people they would be the kind with the wide open faces and big toothy grins.  You know the sort.  The ones who always see the sunny side of things. The good. The optimistic. The hopeful.

Little back story: My love affair with this blithe bloom actually began as a seed.  As much as I loved the flowers, it was nothing compared to my love for the seeds.  Not the healthy versions that you buy in health food stores or in the bulk food section at the grocery store.  I’m talking about the ones you buy in the chip aisle or at your neighborhood corner store, the depository for all things so good tasting yet so bad for you.  I’m talking the super salty variety in their shell.  The ones that you suck, crack open, chew, swallow, wash down with soda.  One bag of Giants and your mouth is begging for mercy.  This is my idea of the perfect sunflower seed.

One summer The Old Man and I planted sunflowers all around the perimeter of our back yard.  They grew tall.  And confident.  And winsome.  They were magnificent.  I loved them.  The Old Man Loved them.  Ma loved them. The birds especially loved them.  Everyone was happier that summer.  Sunflowers have a knack for bringing out the best in all.  Perhaps that explains their popularity.

Ma wasn’t a gardener.  She left that to The Old Man and me.  Ma was an artist. I didn’t really appreciate her artistic abilities until she turned sixty.  Not that Ma suddenly became Picasso or even Grandma Moses on her sixtieth birthday, and then we all took note.  It’s more that Ma’s creative talents weren’t so clearly defined, at least not to me.  An “Artist” by my limited definition, was someone, most likely bohemian in nature, who had abstract paintings in uptown galleries, SoHo cafes, coffee table books or at the very least was someone like the quirky art teacher in my high school.  Not my mother.  But her domestic talent was always present, manifested in everything she touched.  From the one-of-a-kind clothes she sewed for me to her scrumptious baking and homemade pasta and bread.  Everything she made with her expressive hands was a work of art.  A masterpiece.

At sixty Ma went back to high school.  At night.  To study art.  Oil and charcoal.  I can only imagine the bravery it took to embark on such an endeavor.  What a personal challenge it must have been.  But also what an adventure.  What a magnificent obsession she must have had.  I say this because she was so painfully shy and timid.  Her voice, at times was barely audible.  You had to really listen to Ma when she spoke or you would miss all the good stuff.  The wisdom. The gems. The humor.

Off she went. Courage mustered. Heart full.  Audacity emblazoned. Once a week she headed out to my old school where she studied fine art.  Drawing and painting.  Life and landscape.  People and places.  Her imagination was set free.  She was firing on all cylinders and having the time of her life.  She was in bliss.  Cloud Nine.  Heaven.  And yes, it was oh so fine.

Ma’s life as an artist could have started much earlier than age sixty.  Raising a family, time commitments, financial struggles, shyness and fear aside, there was something far more sinister holding Ma back.  She told me a story once that both broke my heart and made me angry.  When she was a young girl in grade school she drew a picture.  I think it was of a cat.  Proud of her drawing, she showed it to her teacher.  Instead of praise and encouragement she was met with accusation and shame.  The teacher accused her of tracing the cat, berated her, saying that she couldn’t possibly have drawn it so accurately without having cheated.  Needless to say, this crushed Ma.  Her spirit.  Her talent.  From that moment onward she kept her artistic dreams a secret.  Locked away inside her precious little-girl heart for decades.

I have no idea what the catalyst was for her change of heart, for the unearthing of her secret desire.  I don’t know what made her push the fear and shame aside in favor of following her dream.  It seems that one day she just did it, as if out of the clear blue.  She had a notion and acted on it.  And I’m so glad she did.

Ma had many many joyful years of painting.  In particular, she liked to paint flowers. I remember towards the end of her life, when she was in her late seventies, I asked her to paint me some sunflowers.  By then, she had pretty much abandoned her easel, canvases and paints.  She simply stopped.  Almost as quickly as she started. For no apparent reason. Another notion perhaps.  Again I had no understanding of why.  It was all a mystery to me.  The enigma of Ma.  The request for the sunflower painting was my vain attempt to coax her back into doing the one thing in life that brought her such joy, that had nothing to do with raising kids or managing a home, taking care of The Old Man.  It was just Ma’s.  Uniquely hers.  I also really wanted a painting of sunflowers for my living room wall.  But she kept putting it off.  Said she’d “get round to it one of these days.”  Then I dropped the subject.  She was getting old.  Then she had the heart attack.  And everything changed.

After Ma’s funeral, on a cold February night in a small town in Northwestern Ontario my siblings and I visited the home where we all grew up.  This would be the last time I would ever step inside this place.  It was cold outside but even colder inside.  It struck me that without Ma, there was no warmth.  This was now just a small wartime house in the west end of nowhere.  I visited each room for one last time, collecting little mementoes and treasures that once belonged to Ma.  My siblings did the same.

Upstairs in the room that was once occupied by my older brothers, then by me, and was one of the places where Ma liked to paint, I found the most resplendent keepsake of all.  The sunflower painting.  There it was.  Waiting for me.  Even after she had moved on, she was still giving me gifts.  Suddenly the room grew warmer.  My heart was light.  My face open and wide.  My grin big and toothy.

Diaries of the Breadman’s Daughter: Every Girl Needs A Room Where She Can Dream

The Dreamer.

I have a room of my own.  Virginia Woolf would applaud this I’m sure. I’ve been blessed much of my adult life to have had such a space, a little sanctuary to call my own.  In this room, I get to be me.  Or at least the me, I imagine myself to be.  I’m a self-proclaimed dreamer.

Little back story.  Growing up I shared a bedroom with my older sister.  Not only did we share a room but much of the time we shared the same bed.  A double, which slept two rather comfortably.  Sometimes we were strange bedfellows but mostly we were amiable, considering our 8-year age difference.  The room we shared was downstairs next to our parents.  My two older brothers occupied one of the two upstairs bedrooms. The other room was our “spare” which was cold in winter but a fun place to play, and hang out with Ma while she sewed. By the time my sister moved to the West Coast and my two older brothers were both married, I had moved upstairs to their old room.  I finally had a room of my own. It was divine.

There were four things I especially liked about this room.  The slanted ceilings, the small attic door next to the closet, the brick chimney next to the door, and the wooden vent on the floor that you could peer down and see into the living room. There was something enthralling about these four details that captured my imagination.  I loved to poke around in the attic which was dark and musty and contained the usual things like Christmas ornaments, dance costumes, childhood artwork, old toys and a broken lamp or two.  But what was most beguiling was the possibility that buried deep within all this family memorabilia and junk was some mis-placed and forgotten treasure.  The vent was both scary and practical.  Scary because there was the possibility (although slim) of falling through it and practical because I could drop little notes down to Ma while she was sitting on the couch watching Ed Sullivan. I don’t recall what these messages to Ma said but most likely they were requests for food or drink.

Ma always made our home look lovely.  She didn’t have much to work with financially but what she lacked in cash, she made up for in imagination.  She just had a knack for this sort of thing and like most women of her time took care of “the decorating.”  I use this term loosely because no one spoke that way back then, at least not regular folks like Ma and The Old Man.  Decorating meant Ma made things for the house – curtains, table cloths, pillows.  She sewed and embroidered.  The furniture and appliances were bought on time at Sears or Eaton’s.  We weren’t poor but we were also a few miles from the middle of middle class.  Everyone in our neighborhood was, so it didn’t really matter.  At least not to me.

When it came to my room, Ma graciously handed over the decorating torch and without any strings attached either.  I was given free rein to do whatever my heart desired.  So I did.  I plastered the walls with rock posters and my kitschy-coo personal art.  The Old Man painted the chimney white which became the perfect blank canvas for my poetry, lyrics from folk musicians like Dylan and Leonard Cohen, pithy quotes by the pop psychologists of the day.  “If you love something set it free.  If it comes back, it yours.  If it doesn’t, it never was.”  I somehow found this to have deep meaning back then.  It just baffles me now.  Somehow we came into possession of an over-stuffed antique maroon velvet tub chair that had worn arms and smelled bad.  We put this in the corner for me to curl up in and read.  I had a desk that overlooked our driveway and stared directly into our neighbors upstairs window.  Thankfully they kept their curtains closed allowing us both the privacy we needed and me with the added blessing of natural light. I also had a record player, and by then a fairly decent collection of LPs which I played continuously.  Everything from The Beatles and the Rolling Stones to Dylan and Joan Baez.  From Rock to Folk, Motown to Blue Eyed Soul. This music comprised the soundtrack of my life.  It was the fire beneath my dreams and it fueled my creative passion.

It was in this little room at the top of a wartime house in the middle of small blue collar town where my dreaming wanderlust began.  I read books and dreamed of becoming a novelist.  I played rock music and dreamed of becoming a musician.  I made my own clothes and dreamed of becoming a fashion designer.  I scribbled poems on brick chimneys and dreamed of becoming a poet. I danced in my pajamas and dreamed of becoming a ballerina.  I doodled on albums and dreamed of becoming an artist. I gazed out at the stars and dreamed of flying.  I cuddled a dog named Sugar Miettinen and dreamed of becoming a mother. I had a typewriter and dreamed of using words to transform lives. I looked down at the street below and dreamed of a life outside of this room and wondered how I would get there.

And here I am.  Thousands of miles and many years away.  In this room, I write novels and blogs.  Play my guitar and write songs.  I sing to myself and dance like a wild woman. I gaze out the window at a sweet little pond and a garden full of Garry Oak trees, and I am in awe.  Full of wide-eye wonder and gratitude. I’m eternally grateful to Ma and The Old Man for giving me that first room and for allowing me a place to plant the very seeds that my dreams were made of.

Here in this room, I am becoming the woman of my dreams.