Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Snapshot of Ma in the Driveway at 204.

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Ma stood in the driveway waiting for her sister Hazel to come and pick her up to go shopping at Intercity. I sat in the orange plaid swivel rocker and watched her from the living room window.

The sky was clear and blue and the snow was crisp and clean. The snow banks were so high on either side of the driveway entrance that they dwarfed Ma’s already small frame. She was wearing her gray fake fur coat. I don’t know what animal it was imitating. Her purse was draped across her chest. She wasn’t wearing a hat.

While she was waiting, she traced the snow in an arc with the toe of her boot. Like a windshield wiper. Back and forth. Every now and then she would pause and look down the street for my Auntie Hazel’s car.

Her cheeks were blushed red from the cold air and her dark eyes were so bright and alive. I had to remind myself that she was well into her seventies.

I will always remember her that way. The image of her at the end of the driveway, with the winter sun shining its pure radiant light on that particular spot, in that particular solitary moment, and on that particular woman, just for me to see. To bear witness.

And in that sacred, intimate and private moment, my heart was overflowing with tenderness. And love.

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Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Depression.

Face of DepressionThis morning I woke up.  Thank God.  As I was making the bed I thought about my plans for the day. Making a cup of cinnamon coffee. Writing my blog. Banking with E.  Shoe shopping with M. The first two items on the list made me happy.  The third, not so much.  The fourth delighted me.

Then I had this thought.  My two daughters are my best friends.  Then I had this thought.  I wonder if they’d find that pathetic.  I know I’m not theirs.  Nor should I be at their ages.  Then I had this thought.  My mother was my best friend.  Then I had this thought.  When she died I not only lost my mother, I lost my best friend.  Then I had this thought.  That blows.

Then I started to cry.  Bawled my fucking brains out as I was making the bed. The whole nine yards. Messy tears and snot all over my face, the pillows, sheets and my new shabby chic comforter.  Which by the way, was incapable of providing neither the degree, nor the depth, of comfort required to stop this sorrowful eruption of muck and mournfulness.

Then I had this thought.  I’m sad.  Probably even depressed.

I come by this melancholy honestly.  Not that he talked about it.  Not ever.  But I think The Old Man was depressed, most of his adult life.  Maybe it was because he was Finnish.  Their suicide rates are high, especially in the winter, which is long, cold and dark.  Much like Northwestern Ontario, where he lived his entire life.  I got out when I was twenty-four.  It was too dreary for me.  On so many levels I can’t even begin to describe.

What caused his depression?  Who knows. I can only speculate.  One part environment.  One part DNA.  One party magical mystery tour. The Hammond Organ

The Old Man sought refuge and relief from his misery in alcohol, watching sports on TV, buying new shoes, eating anything laced with sugar, swearing at inanimate objects, going to church on Sundays, shoveling snow in the winter and digging in his garden in the summer, umpiring little league games, taking long Sunday drives, scratching our dog’s belly, and sleeping. The older he got the more he slept. He was often antisocial, spending long hours alone in the spare room, behind closed doors watching TV or reading the daily newspaper.  There was a Hammond Organ in that room that he tinkered with but never really learned to play.  (However, he was an accomplished spoon percussionist.)  The memory of that room, and his self-imposed exile and isolation, makes me sad.

People didn’t talk about their feelings back then.  Men especially, kept things under wraps. Stiff upper lips and pulled up boot straps. The Old Man stuffed his sadness inside a profusion of plaid flannel shirts, only to unleash it every three months like clockwork, after a long night at the neighborhood saloon. The Crest on Red River Road.  Instead of manifesting in tears, his hurt took a far darker, menacing form.  He’d come home seething with anger.  Uncontrollable rage.  He never hit anyone because he was like a small yapping dog.  All bark and no bite.  But he ranted relentlessly and bullied the shit out of Ma and her kids. He was an unholy terror. It was one hell of a time.

During those dark nights of the soul, I hated him.  Wished him dead.  Prayed to God to strike him down with a bolt of lightening.  A precise and explicit message from heaven.  But that didn’t happen.  Thankfully.  Because the truth is, The Old Man was a good man when he wasn’t drinking. He had a kind, tender and sensitive heart, and he loved his family fiercely.

And he was ill.

An alcoholic.  But the alcohol was merely self-medication.  The deeper illness was depression.  It makes me sad now to think that we didn’t know that.  I mean, we knew intimately the subject matter of his rum and coke induced rages.  The things that angered and tormented him.  But we never understood why. Our family knew very little about the pathology of alcoholism as a disease.  And even less about depression.  Back then depressed people were crazy.  Plain and simple.  It was far better to be a self-pitying miserable alcoholic.

Over the years, I’ve often wondered if while I was praying to God to strike him dead, if he was doing the same thing. He went to church every Sunday.  What were his prayers?  Did he pray for help?  Beg for healing?  Did he seek forgiveness?  Did he find comfort there? Did it any of it help?  I hope so.

So here I sit.  Years and miles away from Northwestern Ontario.  Daylight is breaking.  How do I deal with my sadness?  This depression?  The tears that stain my cheeks and cover my shabby chic comforter? I do this.  I write.  I run.  I do yoga. I take long walks along quiet country roads.  I take photographs.  I play with my dogs.  I love my family fiercely. I eat well. I take vitamins. I talk to my wise girlfriends about deep dark feelings.  I pour my heart out to my husband.  I listen to my children and look for clues on how to live a joyful life. I laugh my guts out.  I pray.  I meditate.  I write letters to God. I count my blessings. I get up, go to work and give it my very best shot.  I play my guitar and my clarinet. I read books. Listen to music. I dream. I hang out. I waste time. I watch TV. The Old Man Hipster

But I don’t drink alcohol. I don’t do drugs, except for the occasional ibuprofen. I do my best to stay away from sugar, especially white. I don’t give myself pep talks. They don’t work. I also don’t scold. Engage in self-pity, self-loathing or self-flagellation. I watch my inner dialogue. I try not to spend too much time alone in this room.  Although that’s challenging because one of the things I love to do most requires that I spend long stretches of time in isolation.

Over the years I have found solace in motivational books and tapes, teachers, preachers, the wise and the enlightened. I’ve learned acceptance. Of what was.  And what is.

Will I ever be completely free from depression and sadness?  No. The truth is, I don’t want to be fully extricated. It’s part of who I am.  Like my hazel eyes and crooked smile.  It’s the fuel that fires some of my richest writing. The fountainhead of a few of my best ideas.  My literary wellspring. It’s what allows me to feel things deeply. Not just my suffering.  But yours.  And yours.  And yours. I shed tears for all living creatures. Even the dead rats I come across on the country road I walk.  I like that about me.

Depression reminds me of my humanness.  My weaknesses and strengths.  It dictates that, in order to stay healthy, I must stay connected.  It opens the eyes of my heart. And unleashes love, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, hope.  And above all.  Empathy.

I get it Dad.  I get your pain.

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: The Orange Swivel Rocking Chair by the Window.

Pregnant with Daughter Number One. Great expectations in the tweed version.

I like to stare out the window.  It’s a relaxing and meditative diversion.  Some people experience this by looking heavenward to the stars.  Or by sitting in front of an aquarium filled with exotic tropical fish.  Others like to watch the tides roll in.  But I’m a window gazer.  A peaceful tranquility washes over me whenever I sit in front of a window.  And look out.

Little back story.  In our house at 204 there was always a chair in front of the living room window.  Or at least from the time the house was renovated and a large picture window replaced the small wartime paned version.  This window cried out for a comfy chair and a place to watch the world outside.  With this in mind, Ma arranged the furniture so that there was always such a chair. And within arms reach, the treasured pedestal table with its sundry potted plants over the years, and always a coaster conveniently placed to support a cup of tea or coffee, glass of milk or Pepsi.

Daughter Number One liked to window gaze too.

It wasn’t exactly a big world to gaze upon. Not like looking up at the infinite sky on a clear August night.  But it was my world for many years.  This was the cherished spot where I honed my observational deftness.  Even long after I had flown the nest I loved to return to the chair by the window.  To daydream.  To reflect.  Or rest.  Often to recover from the battlefield of life.

Over the years, several different chairs occupied the space next to the window.  They all had a few things in common.  First and foremost, the color orange was represented in them somewhere.  Solid, tweed, plaid or striped.  Ma used to say that she loved color and she wasn’t kidding.  And when it came to decorating our living room, orange was undeniably her color of choice.  Something I never fully appreciated until I looked at Ma’s albums filled with scads of photos of family and friends taken on the various chairs.  Not only orange chairs.  But Curtains.  Lampshades.  And wall to wall carpet.  It was a dizzying sea of riotous color.   Autumn lived perpetually in our living room.

On the outside Ma was a quiet, soft-spoken demure woman.  But if a person’s color preference reveals anything about their true character, than Ma’s interior spaces were filled with fire, passion and fervency.  She was a courageous artist fearlessly expressing herself in the boldest of possible ways.  Orange.

The First Born having a snack in the striped version.

This common thread of orange aside, these chairs all rocked and swiveled.  This made them very practical because you could position them in any direction depending on the need.  They provided a 360 degree panorama of our downstairs.  Swivel slight to the left for television viewing.  To the centre back and you could watch all the kitchen activities, in particular Ma cooking up something spectacular.  To the right and you could engage in lively conversation with whomever was on the couch.  And centre front, there was the view of our street.

These chairs were also enormously fun.  Swivel and rock in a full circle. One way and then the other.  They turned us all into whirling dervishes.  Spinning tops.  Every bit as good as the old leather and chrome stools at the food counter in the basement restaurant at Eaton’s.  Giggles and glee.  Tee-hee!  Plus, they were all so comfortable you never wanted to leave.  No matter what was going on in my life, whenever I sat in the orange chair  by the window everything was right with the world.

In truth, there wasn’t a whole lot to see out of that window.  Mostly just the houses across the street.  The mauve lilac that grew on the edge of our lawn next to the lumpy sidewalk and the Manitoba Maple on the boulevard.  I watched it grow from a tiny sapling to a magnificent old sentry watching over our little wartime house.  In summer it shaded our front yard.  In fall it graced us with glorious red, orange and yellow leaves that danced and quivered in the wind.  In winter it held strong and steady while the snow collected on its barren branches.  In spring came the buds of hope and great expectations.

One summer the city added cement curbs and paved the street.  We were delighted to say goodbye to the pot holes and annual tarring of our road.  I have to admit though that the smell of tar triggers happy memories of childhood summers.   It’s right up there with the scent of Coppertone, freshly mowed lawns, wild roses and hot rubber hoses.

The First Born sharing the plaid version with The Old Man.

One of my fondest memories is from the winter.  I was home visiting over the Christmas holidays with my two older kids in tow.  It was a large blue sky afternoon.  The kind that only Northwestern Ontario can produce.  Nothing quite like it anywhere I’ve been.  On this particular afternoon Ma got a call from her sister Hazel to go over to the mall for the afternoon.  Ma rarely turned down an opportunity to go for an outing.  It didn’t really matter where.  I sat in the orange swivel rocking chair by the window and watched Ma as she stood in the driveway waiting for her sister to come pick her up.  The snow was crisp and clean. The snow banks were so high on either side of the window that they dwarfed Ma’s already small frame.  She was wearing her gray fake fur coat.  I don’t know what animal it was imitating.  Her purse was draped across her chest.  While she was waiting she traced the snow with the toe of her boot like a windshield wiper.  Back and forth.  Every now and then she would pause and look down the street for Auntie Hazel’s car.  Her cheeks were blushed red from the cold air and her dark eyes were so bright and alive.  I had to remind myself that she was in her seventies.  She looked like a young girl.  Full of life and eagerness.  I will always remember her that way.  And how the sight of her touched my heart with such tenderness.

Ma enjoying a moment of relaxation in the solid version.

In my room, the place where I write and dream, my computer sits in front of the window overlooking our beautifully imperfect garden, which is green and lush at the moment. Teeming with birds, squirrels and dragonflies, the occasional deer, raccoon, duck or heron.  When I window gaze here I also see another time and place.  I’m transported to an orange swivel rocking chair that sits by a picture window.  It hugs me.  It holds me when my heart is heavy.  It comforts me when I’m full of fear and lost all hope.  It rocks and swivels me to a place of peace.  I see the street where I grew up.  Played scrub ball.  Rode my bike. Scraped my knee.  Ran under the sprinkler.  Sat on the neighbors front step and shared a first kiss.  I see the place under the maple tree where I sat in the shade and drank Pepsi.  I see the tarry road and the dreams of other roads to travel.  I see The Old Man tending to his garden.  Raking leaves.  Shoveling snow.  Blowing his nose in a big white cotton hanky.  I see Ma waiting for Auntie Hazel.  I see God’s hand reaching out and touching all of it with wonder and grace.  I see love in the large blue sky.  I am cradled in my mother’s arms.

Diaries of the Breadman’s Daughter: Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

Hitting one out of the park.

I can feel it.  Spring is definitely in the air.  But even better, summer is just around the corner.  And with that notion comes all the paraphernalia of summer.  Lighter brighter sweeter clothes made from cotton and other carefree fabrics. Red toenails and colorful rubber flip flops.  The summer toys are brought out of the  basement, back shed or garage.  Things with wheels and pedals.  Things designed for the water and hot sandy beaches.  Games that are synonymous with sunshiny days and long warm evenings are played.  Racquets, bats and balls of all description.  This is the season when my favorite sport is played.  Baseball.

Let’s make something perfectly clear right up front.  I am not the athletic type.  Sporty Spice I am not.  I don’t gravitate towards playing team sports of any sort.  I’m a loner when it comes to anything even remotely athletic.  Running.  Walking.  Yoga.  Skip to my Lou. That’s about as close as I get to being an athlete.  But there’s just something about baseball that I like.  And I think it has something to do with The Old Man.

Little back story.  I never thought of The Old Man as terribly athletic either.  Despite what the black and white photos of his younger self reveal.  I only recall a man with a round girth and skinny white bowed legs.  But he did love sports.  In particular, hockey and baseball.   Back in the day, when homes had one television set, Saturday nights were  Hockey Night in Canada, and nothing but.  You could always count on him to be sitting front row and centre, glued to the television set for the two solid hours the game was televised on the CBC.  A bag of Old Dutch potato chips, sour cream and onion dip, and a large bottle of Pepsi at his side.  It was loud.  Raucous. And grating on the nerves.  Ma would often busy herself in the kitchen.  Some Saturday nights I would take refuge in the bedroom I shared with my older sister, if she happened to be out for the evening.  Otherwise, I would sit in the living room in the cozy chair next to the fake fireplace and read.  It was like Ma and I were held captive for those two hours.  Prisoners of Hockey Night in Canada.  But in a strange way, I think I actually wanted to be close to The Old Man on Saturday Nights.  Figure out a way to share his passion and excitement for the game.  Or maybe I just wanted some chips and dip and a tall glass of Pepsi.

Four things came out of those Saturday night sessions with The Old Man.  A lifelong craving for junk food.  A preference for Pepsi over Coke.  An ability to block out ambient noise.  And a love for reading, especially fiction.

On Saturday nights, while lost in a book, I learned to filter all those shrill sounds, the extraneous racket and cacophony blaring from the television set.  I retreated to the world of make-believe and fiction.  I became a mental escape artist.  A cerebral Houdini.  This ability has served me well over the years.  It has been particularly helpful when working in open-concept environments where you can hear everything and everyone. Including the pin drop.  But when necessary, I can press the mute button.  And hear nothing except the sounds within. I’m grateful for this gift, compliments of The Old Man and Hockey Night in Canada.  To this day, I hear the Theme Song and my mind goes to another place.  I switch off.

Baseball on the other hand, is a different game all together.  There is just something about the understated elegance of this sport that appeals to me.  Whereas the hockey nights were filled with shouting, cursing and bellowing at the television set, watching baseball was much more civilized.  Baseball wasn’t intrusive and never monopolized an entire night.  There was no such thing as Saturday Night Baseball, at least not back then.  Plus, during baseball season I could go outside and play with the neighborhood kids while The Old Man watched the game.  I wasn’t trapped inside a small wartime house in the dead of winter with nowhere to run.

Another redeeming quality of baseball was that there were no theme songs that involved a full-on brass section.  No trumpets blaring.  Drums pounding.  Chests beaten. The only baseball song I knew was Take me Out To the Ballgame.  That charming little ditty was universally loved, and whistled, for its sheer unpretentious and innocent hokey corniness.  That’s what I loved about it.  Then and now.

Music and civility aside, there are a few other reasons I preferred baseball over hockey.  First of all, it was warm when you played.  You didn’t have to wear tons of clothing and balance yourself on lace-up boots with blades.  A spontaneous street game could start right in front of your house, at any time on any given day. It was uncomplicated with straightforward rules. All you needed was a ball and a bat.  If you had a glove.  That was a bonus but not necessary to play the game.  And everyone was welcome.  Including girls. Today girls play all kinds of  team sports. But that wasn’t the case back then.

Aside from the friendly neighborhood scrub ball, I played on our school’s all-girl softball team.  I didn’t have to try out to make the team.  We all got in.  It was part of the grade eight P.E. curriculum.  Most of us weren’t very good.  But we enjoyed ourselves just the same.  We played against the other grade eight teams in our town.  And lost most of our games.  But that wasn’t the point.  What mattered was, we got to play.  There were some girls on the team who actually knew what they were doing.  And I recall we had a pretty good pitcher.  They admired them from afar.

I performed badly under pressure.  If I even caught a sniff that the opposing pitcher could actually throw the ball I was a goner.   And if it turned out they could throw like a boy I was dead in the water.  Struck out.  One, two, three.  I was okay in the outfield though.  It was pretty quiet and safe.  Not a lot of action but it offered an interesting outlying perspective.  Mostly I chewed gum and spat.  It was fun being a Tomboy.  And at the end, win or lose, it was glorious to be out there with the other girls playing this beautiful inclusive game.

The Old Man receiving his Bicentennial Medal for community dedication and service.

The Old Man shared his love of the game with me.  And it didn’t even necessitate consuming junk food.  For years, he had been deeply involved with Little League in our town.  In fact, he was one of the guys who got it started.  In 1984, in celebration of the Ontario Bicentennial Year, the Minister of Northern Affairs Leo Bernier awarded my father, along with 42 other folks from our town, a medal for Exemplary Community Dedication and Service.  The medal was given to me after he died.  I never realized at the time, the significance of his contribution to the game in our little town.  I never thought of him as the kind of guy who had a positive and worthwhile impact on the lives of others.  At least not to this degree. He was The Old Man for God’s sake.  A medal?  But now as I look at it, hanging from the red, blue and yellow ribbon, I am proud.  Very proud Dad.

I have fond memories of going to the ball field with The Old Man.  He used to Umpire the games.  I’d sit in the weather-beaten wood bleachers and watch.  Girls had come just far enough to be able to play ball at school and on the street, but not in the Little League.  There weren’t many fans or spectators.  Back then parents didn’t go to watch their kids’ games.  The boys would walk or ride their bikes to the field and play.  And when the game was over they took their gloves and went home.  It was so poetically simple.

I watched as The Old Man leaned in behind the batter at home plate.  Proudly wearing his Ump’s mask and black vest.  To me, he looked just like the real thing.  A pro.  This was a whole other side to him that we rarely saw.  He was confident. Tough. Spirited. And oddly athletic.  This experience was nothing like the Saturday Night in Hockey nights.  It was the complete opposite.  I was fully engaged in the game.  Lost in the warm sunny evenings.  The smell of dusty canvas base bags and chalk powder.  Green grass and young boys covered in dirt stains and glowing sweat.  Snap.  Crackle.  Pop.  Wood on leather.  Cheers and shouts.  You’re safe.  You’re out.  Strike.  Ball.  Batter up.  Batter out.  Loss.  Or victory.  Always good sportsmanship.  Handshakes all around.  Better luck next time Buddy.

The last game I remember going to with The Old Man was during the summer between grade eight and high school.  Everything changed after that.  He continued to umpire games for years afterwards.  In fact, the same year that he received the Bicentennial Medal, my first marriage ended.  Badly.  I was a hot mess.  And that’s putting it politely.  We separated in April and by May I had packed up my two kids and travelled a thousand miles  to that little wartime house in the west end of town.  Ma and The Old Man welcomed us with open arms, unconditional love and above all no judgement.

It was the start of Little League Season when we arrived.  My son, who loves sports just like his grandfather, embraced the idea of playing.  The Old Man got him onto a team, and what could have been the worst of all possible summers, was made enjoyable by his participation in this sport.

All decked out in his green and white uniform and ready to play.

I don’t remember a whole lot about that summer.  Some memories are better left unearthed.  But I do recall going to watch one of my son’s games and thinking how marvelous he was.  How he looked like the real thing in his little green and white uniform.  A pro.  Just like his grandfather.  Then I remember how grateful I was to The Old Man for taking him under his wing.  And for putting some fun into a young boy’s  summer.  I was also grateful that The Old Man got to do something with my son that he was never able to do with me.  Umpire one of his games.

Footnote: My son told me today that he remembered two things about that baseball summer with his Grandpa.  He hit a home run out of the park.  And his grandpa called him safe at home when he was obviously out.  I love that The Old Man couldn’t be impartial when it came to his Grandson. I think he was that way when it came to me as well.