Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: The Photograph.

ma me dog on back steps at 204I love taking pictures. It’s just another one of those things that I come by honestly. I’m not a Pro, nor do I aspire to be. I just like to take pictures. Plain and simple.

My parents loved to photograph the sundry events of our domestic life. Both momentous and intimate alike. All the milestones were covered. So were the trivial, trifling and trumpery.

While browsing through our old family albums, it’s always photos of the small everyday things that captivate me the most. The prosaic and mundane events capture my imagination like no other. For it is in these ordinary images that I see the unguarded details and accidental gestures. They become the grand movements that spawn wonder, and where unexpected beauty dwells.

Everything from Ma in the kitchen stirring the Saturday night pot of spaghetti, with the food-worn wooden spoon that had grazed many lips and touched all of our tongues with its tanginess. Or The Old Man sitting in his favorite orange velvet swivel rocking chair, with his oversized horn-rimmed glasses perched on his nose, engrossed in the evening edition of the Times Chronicle. The exquisiteness of the waning summer light glinting through the living room picture window upon my unwitting father takes my breath away and stills my heart.

There were the bigger things too.

Like the photo taken of me on the Sunday I got Confirmed. There I stood in front of the Kodak Brownie camera looking more like a reluctant blushing bride than a religious devotee, who had just received the Gift of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it was the combination of my not-so-holy Mona Lisa smile, the newly sanctified white leatherette Bible that I was clenching so fiercely to my precious budding bosom, and the unfashionable translucent off-white organza dress Ma bought from a secondhand shop just for this pious rite of passage. In the same cream-colored album, just a few pages later, there shines the real bride photo of my luminous sister-in-law in her fairytale wedding gown looking beyond radiant on the day she married my big brother.

Then there’s all those birthday party photos of me surrounded by my little friends in our fancy dresses and Sunday-best shoes. Sitting cross-legged on the grass or standing side-by-side posing, smiling and squinting into the glaring midsummer sun. Ma really knew how to throw a good party.

The silly lighthearted things were captured too. Like the night my sister decided to pin curl both my brothers’ hair. All the crazy amusing family antics. Giggling. Hoot and hollering. Laughing our guts out. All there. Perfectly preserved.

Pictures were taken everywhere. From the bathroom to the beach. Around the kitchen table and all around Lake Superior. In front of the Christmas tree and behind the back porch. Sitting on the front steps, the front lawn, the front seat of the car, in front of the TV, and in front of God.

Ma, in particular, had an abiding love for capturing the events of our lives. She had a Polaroid camera that brought her endless hours of fun and fascination. Its ability to seize a fragment of time instantaneously was a marvel to her. Holding the print in her fingers as the picture appeared within seconds. Right before her eyes. Pure magic. A modern day miracle. A wonder of wonders. Oh how she loved it so. I feel the same way about the photos I take on my iPhone. Mind blowing amazement.

As a result of all this finger-snapping photo-taking, I have a glorious visual documentation of my life. One that covers the panorama of events and emotions. From the bitter to the sweet. Snared at the intersection where joy meets sorrow. Where the profound punches the profane. The everyday and the spectacular events in the life of a regular ordinary family. Nothing special. Yet remarkable.

I have looked at these photos hundreds of times over the years. More so lately as I record the stories of my life growing up at 204.

The cracked and tattered black and white images from the early days. The washed-out color photos from the seventies. The blush-inducing eighties pics. All the nineties farewell kisses. Ma and The Old Man both died in early 2001, and with them went all the interesting, eccentric, peculiar, wonderful, joyful, melancholy, and magnificent photo ops.

There is a photo that I looked at this morning, as if for the very first time, although I had seen it countless times over the years. One of the black and whites taken by The Old Man.

My recollection of 204 was of a lovingly well-kept freshly painted white wartime house, with an enviable vegetable garden in back and beds of sunny happy Marigolds under the front window, with a beautiful Lilac bush that bloomed every June.

But this picture told a completely different story.

Staring down at the image in my hand I thought, “Holy shit. Were we really that fucking poor?” And then, shaking my head in disbelief, I thought, “The place was a run-down beat-up crummy shack.”

But as quickly as these thoughts passed through my mind, I saw this treasure of a photograph through my father’s youthful eyes.

Everything he held dear in life was in that photo. Ma, his beautiful Italian girl looking so lovely in her flowing cotton skirt of flowers. His shy baby girl with curious dark eyes just for him. The sweet gentle caramel colored mutt, with her ears perked up and dialed to his whistle. And of course, the leather baseball glove on the bottom step, ready for a game of catch.

Not so shabby.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: What Happens in 204 Stays in 204 and the Fine Art of Secret Keeping.

We couldn’t stop looking at him and he at us.

The older I get the better I get at keeping secrets.   I now understand how sacred secret keeping is.  What a privilege it is to have someone trust you so dearly with a confidence.  Even if they have shared their secret with someone else, it matters not.  This is your secret to keep. Held safe for as long as required.  It could be for a day, a week, a year.  A lifetime.  Some secrets I will take to the grave with me.

I’m from a family of secret keepers.  So perhaps this gives me a bit of an edge over those who are not so well practiced.  The biggest secret our family kept concerned The Old Man’s drinking.  Not just his alcoholism.  But his recurring rampages that terrorized our family. We were like visitors to Vegas.  What happened in 204 stayed in 204. This family secret, that I held close for over twenty years, was one of two that shaped the landscape of my youth. I looked out at the world, not with wide-eyed wonder, but with fear.  For the flip side of keeping secrets is disclosure.  I didn’t want anyone to know about The Old Man. Not even my best friend.

Some secrets are held in fear.  Others in shame.  This was at the heart of the second family secret.

Little back story.  When I was twenty-four I wanted to go to Europe.  I hadn’t travelled much.  Nor ventured far when I did.  Little trips with my family mostly.  Circle Route around Lake Superior.  Trips to Duluth, Minnesota.  Once as far as Minneapolis.  One quick secret disastrous trip to Toronto with my first love.   A cross country car ride to Victoria which included stops in Winnipeg, Regina and Calgary.  That was it.  My wayfaring adventures by age twenty-four.

We converted Ma’s sewing room into a nursery for a few years.

Many of my friends had already been to Europe.  Backpacking globe-trotters.  Nomads and gypsies.  Sophisticated and worldly.  I had been to Duluth.  I was green with envy and itching to gallivant.  This became the hot topic of conversation between my new boyfriend and I.  We made plans.  Beginning with acquiring passports.  We did all the appropriate paperwork and mailed off our applications to Ottawa.  This was a long time ago so the details of the process are a bit sketchy.  But to the best of my recollection, this is what we did.  Then we waited.  And waited.  It took weeks to hear anything.

Everything went smoothly for my boyfriend, who was far less new after weeks of waiting for passports. His knapsack was packed and he was good to go.  But this was not the case for me.

I never got my passport.  Instead, I got a letter from the government of Canada informing me that I did not exist.  ‘Don’t exist’ I cried.  ‘How is that possible?  I’m here aren’t I?  Look at me.  I’m right here.’  This occurred while I was living on the West Coast, the first time round.  I thought perhaps this mix-up had something to do with geography.  That I wasn’t actually nonexistent, just misplaced.

Determined to prove that I did indeed exist, I decided to go to the fountainhead.  Take it to the two people who were there right from the beginning.  The source of my genesis.  No, not God and Jesus. That would come later.  Ma and The Old Man.  But before doing so, I mentioned this misbegotten madness to my sister, who was also living on the West Coast.  I showed her the letter.  ‘Look at this,’ I uttered incredulously.  She read the letter.  Looked me straight in the eyes and said, ‘I have to tell you something.’

The Old Man and his grandson sharing a moment together.

Ma and The Old Man weren’t legally married.  There was nothing shocking about this revelation. I had suspected as much for years.  But it was a bit unsettling to hear those words said out loud for the first time.  This subject was taboo in our family.  Strictly off limits.  In truth, I was the only one not in on the secret.  The evidence was there of course.  For starters, Ma and The Old Man never celebrated their anniversary.  Yet she went by Mrs. M.  And she wore a wedding ring.  This was good enough for me.  When I was really young I didn’t understand such things.  When I was old enough to know, I didn’t want to.  By the time I figured it out, I didn’t care. By then, I was actually in on the secret.  But no one knew that I knew what they knew.

Once the proverbial cat was let out of the bag I called Ma.  There was no going back.  The silence was broken.  The Boogeyman was released and he wasn’t all that scary.  I felt free.  I wanted to liberate Ma as well.  The call went something like this.

‘Ma, a strange thing happened when I tried to get my passport.’

‘What’s that dear?’

‘I got this letter from the government saying I don’t exist.’

‘That’s impossible.’

‘G told me everything Ma.’

Silence followed.  By a pregnant pause.  By more silence.

‘Ma why didn’t you just put The Old Man’s name on my birth certificate?’

‘I didn’t know I could.’

A common law marriage and an illegitimate child.  More secrets that consumed my parents.  Filled them with shame.  Followed by years of silence.  Humiliation.  Heads hung low.  I look back on their situation and my heart breaks for them.

By the time I was old enough to get married things were so different. Common law marriages.  People living together.  Shacking up.  It was happening all around me and no one cared.  Hippy chicks were having babies and wearing daisies in their hair.  Feminism had arrived.  Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan were inspiring young women everywhere. Myself included.  There was nothing illegitimate about any of it.  More options and choices.  No judgement.  Different strokes for different folks, as Sly and The Family Stone sang.

What a burden my parents carried in their hearts all those years.  In the end, it was a relief to have the truth spoken.  Confession is good for the soul they say.  This held true for my parents, especially Ma.

I can’t think of anything more soul destroying than living in shame.  The joy that it robs. The dignity that it steals.  The humiliation it perpetrates.  The things we teach our children without even knowing.  Nor intending.  Passed down from one generation to the next, along with Grandma’s handmade quilt.  I understand the shame Ma felt.  Intimately.  I too carry this pain in my heart.  Sometimes I don’t even know why.  It’s like the elusive butterfly.  Impossible to grasp.

My passport awaits. I just have to fill out the forms.

After the birth of my son I experienced a fleeting moment of shame.  I thought I was beyond reproach, yet this stung.  He was only hours old and he filled my spirit with such wonder.  A Nurses Aid, who was old enough to be my mother, entered our room to check on us.  I was engaged in a gripping one-sided conversation with my son.  As she was adjusting my blankets and plumping my pillow, she referred to me as Mrs. M.  I immediately corrected her and explained that I wasn’t Mrs. M.  That was my mother.  Then as carelessly as she tossed a crumpled Kleenex into the wastebasket, she responded with, ‘That’s what we call girls like you dear.’  She wasn’t being malicious.  Nor did she intend to hurt me.  Just stating the facts.  Telling the truth.  Yet there I was.  Drowning in a puddle of shame. Maybe we hadn’t come a long way Baby.

But the hand of God touched me that day.  The hurt didn’t linger.  Thankfully.  Besides, I had a beautiful brown-eyed boy to love and protect.  I had to toughen up.

I still don’t have a passport.  I haven’t been consumed by wanderlust these past thirty years so it hasn’t really mattered.  Acquiring one fell off the to do list years ago. My life has been full and adventurous despite traveling abroad.  Yet a part of me often wonders if I’m stuck.  Fearful that if I apply for my passport I’ll be told I still don’t exist.  At least not as me.  The girl with the unpronounceable Finnish last name.  I have an official Birth Certificate containing Ma’s first husband’s surname.  I look at it and think, ‘Who is this person?’  Not me.  I look at the ancient tattered Registration of Birth that the Old Man altered and think, ‘Who is this person?’  Me.  Not sure how he did it.  But somehow he removed the official legal surname and typed in his.  It always looked right to me.  You see what you want to see I guess.  I never wanted to be anything but the Breadman’s daughter.

And with God’s grace I am.  Always will be.  Passport or not.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Countdown to Summer Vacation.

We loved to sit on our front porch in pedal pushers.

I like countdowns.  Especially ones that lead up to a happy event or special occasion.  Like Christmas.  The birth of a child.  A wedding.  On New Year’s Eve I like to watch the ball drop in Times Square.  All that glittery optimism and brilliant expectations for the year ahead.   A fresh new start in ten New York seconds.  Which could be 11 or 12 in the rest of the world given the speed with which a New York second passes.  Regardless, it’s out with the old.  In with the new.  A reason to celebrate.

Even though it’s been decades since I was in school, one of my favorite countdowns still remains that to the start of summer vacation.  There’s nothing else quite like it.  For me, it even trumps counting the days until Christmas. Despite all the caroling and egg nog drinking.  There’s no strings attached.  Just easy breezy eagerness.  And the joy of looking forward to lingering carefree days and laid-back leisure time.

Gretchen Rubin in her marvelous book “The Happiness Project” talks about the four stages of happiness, with the first one being anticipation.  This notion really resonates with me.  Because it goes hand in glove with countdowns.  As I am counting down, I am also anticipating and picturing that some kind of wonderful about to take place.  This in turn releases a bucketful of endorphins.  And those make me grin like a five year old coveting an ice cream cone covered in sprinkles.

Little back story.  The last month of school was both terrific and torturous.  By June in Northwestern Ontario, summer had fully arrived.  No longer lurking around the corner.  It’s presence was fully felt.  From the early morning dew to the humidity that blanketed everything long after the sun had set.  The heat was relentless.  Refusing to retreat.  Even in the darkest hours under a cheddar colored moon.  It was ever present.  And after a long cold winter, we welcomed it with open windows and screens on our doors.

This time was torturous because no one wanted to be there.  Not even the teachers.  Everything you really needed to know was already behind you.  If a teacher was bold enough to introduce something new, no one was listening.  We were a clowder of cats.  Completely disinterested.  We may have seen her lips moving but we heard nothing.  Attention spans were short.  And the intake valve to our brains even shorter.  There was no way anything education related was crossing the threshold to our brains.  Being inside was unbearable.  Being inside a classroom even worse.  The sun was shining.  The birds were singing.  The flowers were blooming.  We were all itching to get outdoors and be a part of it.

The fantastic part of that last month was the relaxed easy-going attitude of everyone.  The teachers did their part.  Classroom windows were flung open wide to allow summer in.  The sweet smell of heat infused with intense humidity, the divine scent of freshly mowed lawns and ubiquitous odor of freshly tarred roads settled over our desks, the blackboard, the books, the collection of potted pea plants on the windowsill.  It was a potent elixir that made us all positively giddy with happiness.

I like to see the world upside down and with a split.

In elementary school it was also the month of outdoor gym classes.  Track and field events.  Baseball games.  Red white and blue hard rubber balls bounced and boinged off sun drenched brick walls.  Hula hoops in neon colors sashayed around tiny waists.  White chalk hopscotch art filled the sidewalks.  Cartwheels.  Headstands.  Skipping ropes and Double Dutch.  Play of all sorts was extended.  And clothes were lessened.  Bare legs and bare arms showing off the beginnings of suntans.  Sandals and rubber flip flops.  Pony tales and new summer haircuts.

In high school every opportunity to be outside was embraced. It was a time to start working on the tan.  The goal was to be beach-ready when the final bell tolled.  Lazy lunches and spare classes were spent languishing on the grass.   P.E. classes were all about the outdoors.  It was track and field season and whether you liked it or not you were out there.  Running or dragging your butt around the track. Horse laughing with your friends.  Good nature teasing.  Disgusted by the sweating.  Complaining at every turn.  But secretly loving every moment.

Breakfast at one of the campsites on our Circle Route trip.

I don’t think Ma and The Old Man counted down the days until my school year ended.  But they too welcomed the lazy hazy crazy days of summer.  Relished the longer days and warm evenings.  This meant more time for The Old Man to tend to his vegetable garden.  Or umpire Little League games after supper. More time for Ma to pause and relax with a cup of tea.  Go for walks or simply watch us kids play from our front porch stoop.

We weren’t big travelers.  Especially going anywhere that required a plane, train or boat.  But we did have an automobile. A Ford.  This was all we needed to get away.  The Old Man got two weeks off in the summer which was a big deal back then.  During that time we’d often go camping or drive down to Duluth for a few days of shopping and sightseeing. One time we went as far as Minneapolis.  And another time we drove and tented our way around Lake Superior.   Doing the Circle Route was considered quite the adventure to our family.  I’ll never forget the thrill of traveling the Soo Locks.  Another favorite summer pastime was driving to Sibley Park, Boulevard Lake or Chippewa for a Sunday afternoon picnic and swim.  Oh the picnics.  How we loved those.  Some planned and some spontaneous.  On muggy evenings, Ma would pack up a basket of food and we would drive to Boulevard to cool down and have dinner.   Who needed a pool or a summer cottage when one of the best places to swim and hang out was just twenty minutes from our house.  We were blessed.

Evening picnic at Boulevard Lake.It’s been said that the family that prays together stays together. That could very well be true.  But I also think that the family that plays together stays together.  At least that seemed to be the case for ours.  Especially in the summertime.  Everyone just seemed to get along better.  A bit like the way we were around Christmas time.  Only the rosy glow lingered.  For two solid months our spirits were raised and uplifted.  Happiness hovered in the clear blue skies over Lake Superior.  Washed over us in Boulevard Lake.  Splashed us from behind at Sibley.  Shone over the Sleeping Giant with a big yellow smile.  Echoed across Ouimet Canyon.  Shouted from the top of Mount McKay.  And giggled inside a tent pitched in the backyard at 204.

It’s June and summer beckons.  Calls me back to that place.  I count down.