Polio Summer

Fearing Polio

That summer, none of us kids in Calgary were allowed to go to the movies on Saturday mornings. Nor were we allowed to take the shortcut to the school playground past the shallow pond that people in the West call a slough. And even if the day was a scorcher, we couldn’t go swimming in any of the public swimming pools.

It was 1953. And that summer, not for the first time, polio was lurking in crowds, in water, in god knows where else. All our parents were afraid, and we were too.

Everyone knew that polio mostly affected children. Lots of kids got sick. Some died; even more were crippled. Just down the street from us, David, a boy younger than me, had fallen sick. Now he wore a heavy metal brace and lurched when he walked.

Even scarier were the pictures of iron lungs. We kids imagined ourselves spending the rest of our lives inside a huge iron cocoon, with nothing but our heads sticking out, our bodies trapped inside, helpless, forever. The thought terrified me.

The iron lung. The braces.

Then one evening, my older brother Vance, fifteen,  fell desperately sick with a high fever and a stiff neck. And before we three younger kids understood what was happening, he was gone–to the Red Cross Crippled Children’s Hospital. He had polio too.

For a few days my parents were afraid that he would die. They barely left his side. A doctor came to our house–we were quarantined if I remember rightly–and gave us shots of gamma globulin. I knew it wasn’t a vaccine, that we might get polio too, but I gathered it was better than nothing.

In the first few weeks Vance was at the hospital, the staff used the Sister Kenny method to treat him, the most promising and newest treatment available, so our parents told us. Nurses placed hot, damp, flannel packs on his body and stretched and massaged his muscles.

Even though I was only ten, that method sounded primitive, like being treated with mustard poultices or castor oil. And this was the best modern medicine could provide?! Apparently it was. Before Sister Kenny, polio victims might be immobilized in plaster casts. That treatment was worse.

The first good news was that my brother was going to live. The second was that he could breathe on his own. He wouldn’t have to go inside an iron lung. The bad news was that he was paralyzed from the neck down. We could only hope that he would improve.

We kids couldn’t visit him. In those days, kids were never allowed to visit hospitals. Everyone knew that we carried all sorts of nasty germs in our little bodies that we might pass on to the sick.

Vance was in the hospital for sixteen months. I saw him once, at the other end of a long hallway, safely out of reach, sitting in a wheelchair. And once my father and I rode horses to the lawn outside the hospital to amuse the kids inside. Goldie, the horse I often rode, could stand on her hind legs, like Roy Roger’s horse, Trigger. Underneath the windows, I made Goldie stand on her hind legs, over and over again. My brother was one of the faces at the windows, too far away for me to see.

When Vance finally came home, he was a pale, skinny, slightly lopsided teenager. Forever after, he would lean in the direction of his cane. His chest looked oddly caved in. Polio had affected many muscles in his body.

He would need a cane for the rest of his life. He would always have to pick up his leg to get into a car. He coughed softly and oddly, his damaged chest muscles never letting him cough thoroughly. He couldn’t attend high school sports events: he wasn’t strong enough to sit through the games, and the benches were too hard for his skinny butt. My father had a special leather book bag made for him that he could sling over his shoulders so he could carry his books.

But he was lucky. He could walk and he didn’t have braces.

He never talked about polio and I never asked. Once I reached in a drawer to get a bottle opener for him and my gentle brother snapped at me, perhaps for the only time in my life.

“Do you think I’m a cripple? Do you think I can’t get it for myself?!”

He had a set of barbells in his bedroom, and he worked out almost every night, striving to become closer to normal. It seemed unfair to me that he had to work so hard but could never be strong again. I couldn’t see that all his work made much of a difference.

He and I sat in the kitchen most evenings and played chess. I hated chess, but I loved him.

He went to university, studied engineering. After he graduated, he became a patent examiner and then a patent agent. My parents worried about him–he seemed too lonely. They were happy when he married Nora, a very nice woman. They never had children of their own, but he was a loving stepfather to her two girls. He was always kind, but always quiet and a little remote. I suspect he was never quite happy.

In the last years of his life, his back became more and more bent. Post-polio syndrome made life more difficult than it had always been.

One night, in his sixties, he suddenly died. He’d had the flu. The doctor suspected a heart attack. But I wondered whether or not his weak chest muscles, so incapable of coughing, had just not been strong enough to deal with a bad case of the flu.

It still seems ironic to me that on March 26, 1953, just months before my brother got sick, Dr. Jonas Salk had announced that he’d successfully tested a vaccine against poliomyelitis. The vaccine wasn’t approved and an inoculation campaign begun until 1955–too late for Vance.

Finally a vaccine for polio

I remember hearing the news that an effective vaccine had been developed. I felt elated and relieved. A dreadful killer and crippler of children had been conquered.

In the years since then, polio has been almost eradicated, but not quite. The numbers are creeping up a little in Africa and South Asia from an all-time low. People’s fears and resistance to vaccination are part of the problem.

No case of polio has been reported in North America for years. Still, a report by WHO, the World Health Organization warns that

As long as a single child remains infected, children in all countries are at risk of contracting polio. In 2009-2010, 23 previously polio-free countries were re-infected due to imports of the virus.

We should be vigilant. Diseases that were almost unheard of in the States for awhile, like mumps, measles, and whooping cough, are on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly forty per cent of parents have delayed or declined one or more of the shots recommended for their children.

Frankly, I have trouble understanding this. I suppose none of today’s young parents who choose to spare their children from improbable dangers, their fears fueled by shaky science and internet rumors, had a brother who suffered for a lifetime after one polio summer.

***

Copyright by Margaret French, September 2011

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Lady White Snake, a Chinese Folk Tale

Image from the Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Several years ago, Jay and I visited China. At the Summer Palace, near Beijing, our tour guide took us to a long covered walkway beside a beautiful lake. The inside was entirely painted with colorful traditional scenes.

“During the Cultural Revolution.” she told us, “this walkway was painted white to hide its beauty, so that the Red Guards would not destroy it. After the bad times, the paint was washed away to reveal the pictures beneath.” She stopped beside one painting.

“This represents an ancient and popular tale called Lady White Snake.”

She paused to tell a haunting story. When I returned home, I looked for it online and found a hundred variations. Here is mine.

In ancient times, a snake and her companion studied diligently for centuries and centuries to become both good and knowledgable in the use of magic. They had even learned how to change into human beings. Lady White Snake was now an extraordinarily beautiful woman, but scarcely less so was her companion, Miss Green Snake.

But Lady White was not content merely to assume a human shape. She longed to experience the joys of human love. One autumn, when the leaves of the willow tree were changing color, the two were walking beside West Lake near the town of Hangzhou. A young man was standing, umbrella over his arm, waiting for the boatman to come and carry him across the lake. As soon as Lady White saw the handsome young man, such violent feelings of love consumed her that she had to lean on her companion for support.

Miss Green glanced at her friend and smiled. She used her own magic to cause it to rain. (After so many centuries of study, this and much more were easily possible.) Loud enough to be overheard by the young man, she said,“Please forgive me, Lady White, I’ve forgotten our umbrellas and we’ll soon be soaking wet, waiting for the boat to take us across the lake.”

The young man, whose name was Xu Xian, heard her and offered his own umbrella. During their short boat ride, Xu Xian and Lady White talked of many things. He was a student of healing potions and herbs. Once across the lake, they would soon have parted, for the rain had stopped, but Miss Green again caused the rain to fall and again, Xu Xian offered his umbrella.

“Only if you promise to come to tea tomorrow so we may return it to you,” said Miss Green. “You’ll find us easily enough. We live in the red mansion.” (The mansion that she would create before morning.)

The next day, the lovers talked for hours in the red mansion until Miss Green grew impatient. “Look at the two of you. Can’t you see love on your faces? Marry straightaway; marry today.” And with only minor blushing and downcast eyes, they did as she suggested.

Miss Green bid them farewell for a time and, for many months, their lives together were happy. They opened a shop selling medicines. Lady White already knew which herbs cured every disease, how best to prepare them, and how often the patient must swallow them down. If someone could not afford to pay, they offered their services with a generous heart, free of charge, so they were soon beloved by almost everyone in the town. Soon Lady White was expecting a child, which added to their happiness.

In every tale, there must be a villain. In this case, it was Fa Hei, abbot of the Golden Mountain pagoda. He too had studied diligently, but his heart was filled with envy and spite. He was determined to learn more about these female strangers and spent long days reading arcane signs. When he was certain, he approached Xu Xian.

“What have you done, you fool? Do you know whom you have married? You think her a pretty woman? No. Lady White is a venomous snake who has disguised herself to seduce you and soon will devour you whole. You have not been chosen as husband but as a tasty morsel when her deadly hunger returns.”

Xu Xian was outraged at the abbot’s suggestion. He felt certain his wife was loving and good and entirely human. But Fa Hei persisted and pointed out the indications and read from the ancient texts.

Finally Fa Hei said, “If you are so sure of your wife, test her at the Dragon Boat Festival.”

It was the the custom at that time to drink wine infused with bitter realgar to fend off all spirits. Fa Hei gave Xu Xian a package wrapped in silk.

“Here is wine and realgar. Let her drink and prove herself true.”

Xu Xian angrily defended his wife, “Lady White could drink a thousand cups and withstand every enchantment that you cast upon her.”

But, truth be told, in his heart a spot of icy doubt was growing.

When the Festival came, Xu Xian longed to throw the wine in a ditch and trust his wife. He dreaded hurting her with the outrageous, nonsensical claims of Fa Hei. Nevertheless, Fa Hei was known for his scholarship. Could he be right? No, never!

Still…

The evening of the Festival, Xu Xian still battled his doubts. Finally he thought to prove himself right. If she drank just once, he could expose Fa Hei as a scheming charlatan. Even a single swallow would prove Fa Hei wrong. And the happy life he had known would return. He offered her the wine. He pressed it upon her.

Lady White turned pale. She resisted. “You know I’m pregnant. This is not good for the baby.”

But Xu Xian persisted, tormented by his poisoned thoughts.

“I am strong,” she thought. “I can handle a tiny sip.” And she raised the cup to her lips and let one drop pass down her throat. It scorched her lips and throat and she felt like retching. She ran to the bedroom, saying as she closed the door,

“I am ill. You must leave me alone for awhile.”

In the bedroom, despite herself, she lost control. When Xu Xian ran after her, he saw not the beautiful Lady White, but an eight-foot long white snake coiled upon their bed, an ugly, loathsome creature, head raised, eyes fixed upon him, ready, he feared, to strike. He imagined himself sliding down that dreadful gullet. He felt the horror of imagined betrayal. In that dreadful instant, Xu Xian fell dead on the floor.

Soon Lady White resumed her human shape. She saw her beloved husband, lover, father of her child lifeless. Wild with grief, she flew to Kunlun Mountain. Only there could she find a cure for death. A magical plant, the galanga, grows under a giant tree on an island in the center of a lake on top of the mountain. The mountain is guarded by the keepers of this herb: the brown deer and the white crane. They led their battalions against her in a battle which raged for days. All her magic was pitted against the powerful guards. Boldly she fought, sword in either hand, leaping from rock to rock. She grew tired, weaker because she was soon to give birth to her child. Her body crumbled in exhaustion. From the clouds appeared the ancient god of the mountain. He had seen her courage and resolve. He pitied and pardoned her. He granted her a single stem of the galanga herb to take home.

And there, slowly, Lady White was able to draw out the magic of the herb. Slowly her husband was restored to life. And in those long days her child was born.

When Xu Xian saw his wife again, he trembled. Was she truly a vile beast that had tricked him into loving her—as Fa Hei claimed? How else explain that dreadful form he had seen lying on his bed?

Lady White struggled to explain away the change. He had not seen her because she had hidden under the bed when the white snake appeared. It had been sent by Fa Hei to trick them. Xu Xian wanted but wasn’t quite able to believe her.

Sadly he took up his child and went to consult Fa Hei.

“Fool! Do you doubt your own eyes and your own reason?” Fa He’s words lashed Xu Xian. “Have you never heard of the deceitful cleverness of the serpent?”

Xu Xian still wavered, so Fa Hei imprisoned both man and son in the pagoda. “For your own safety,” he said. “Because you cannot see the evidence of your eyes. Because you would mock the laws of nature.”

Lady White called Miss Green to her side. She was determined to free her husband and child. United they stood against the cruelty of the powerful Fa Hei.

“What wickedness separates those who love each other?” Lady White demanded.

Fa Hei retorted, “What perversion leads a snake to desire the love of a man?”

Battle lines were drawn. Fa Hai called upon the forces of the skies, and Lady White on the creatures of the sea, the crabs and the fish and the giant sea creatures, to come to her aid. She caused the waters to rise to swallow up the pagoda of Fa Hei, but he used his own magic to raise the ground below the pagoda again…and again…and again.

Her magic was not sufficient to destroy the hard-hearted Fa Hei and the cruel forces that supported him. “You will never,” he vowed to Lady White, tempt Xu Xian, or any man, again. From this moment on, you will spend the millennia buried under Thunder Peak Pagoda. And Lady White vanished beneath the ground.

Miss Green fled to her home but never stopped trying to free her friend. She studied the art of battle and recruited a huge army of animals. Centuries later, she was finally victorious over the forces of Fa Hei, and Thunder Peak Pagoda crumbled into dust. Lady White was free at last.

By this time, of course, Xu Xian, a mortal man, had lived the remainder of his life, grown old, and died. And his son had died too.

*

copyright by Margaret French

Angeline Tubbs, the Witch of Saratoga

Intro: In an earlier post I mentioned the strange story of Angeline Tubbs, the witch of Saratoga. Here is the entire story. Some of it is true.

She came from England as a girl of fifteen. Engaged to be married, she was, to a British officer.  He came to fight the rebels in America, and she was beside him on the long voyage over and during the hardships of wartime.

She was beautiful then, with piercing black eyes and long flowing hair.  And summer or winter she wrapped her red shawl round her. Maybe it was her British officer who gave it to her.

After the Battle of Saratoga, he jilted her.  When the British troops marched south towards Albany, she was left behind in a foreign country. She walked alone from Stillwater, where the battle had taken place, through the forest to Saratoga Springs. Back then it was not a city, just swampy, rocky places, with wolves and bears all around and never a man to protect her or a woman to keep her company and give her comfort.

She lived off what is now route 9, north of Saratoga, at the bottom of a hill they call Mount Vista–or Angeline’s Hill.  She built herself a miserable hut, not fit for any decent creature to live in.  And she trapped and shot wild animals and ate them for food.  Summer or winter, sun or rain, she scrambled up the hills and over the rocks like a wild goat.  And she kept stray cats for company, twenty or more.

Some say she was never the same after she was jilted.  She was certainly not a beautiful woman when the townspeople of Saratoga knew her.  She was a wrinkled crone with a hooked nose.

Some said she had been arrested early on and sentenced to be hanged. They said the hanging failed, and the noose left its dreadful brand on her forever, robbing her of beauty. But no newspaper I could find said it ever happened.

Some said she was touched in the head.  Others claimed she was a granny woman, a witch.  But she said nothing at all.

She was in Saratoga when George Washington visited High Rock Springs though he never came to call on her.  And she was in Saratoga when Gideon Putnam, the founder of the city, built his tavern.

Mrs. Putnam, Gideon Putnam’s daughter-in-law, befriended her.  But most respectable people shunned her and laughed at her and pulled their little children away from the muttering old woman in the red shawl.  Once the townspeople mocked her and laughed at her when she came to a prayer meeting, and she ran away, shamed.

When she got too old to trap and hunt, she started coming to town to beg or tell fortunes for a few pennies.  Lots of the fortunes came true, some said.  And those same people believed she truly was a witch.

One time, William Stone and the Reverend Francis Wayland stopped at Crabb’s House at Bear Swamp, east of town.  Crabb had drawn the signs of the zodiac on the floor with a piece of charcoal.  He was standing in the middle holding a skull in one hand and a witch hazel rod in the other. He had little fires burning all around him.  Nearby, Angeline Tubbs was on her hands and knees cutting open a frog.

Old Crabb was saying, “You see?  You see?  It’s plain as day if you know what to look for.  That there quivering in the frog’s hind leg?  Well, that’s the sign we was waiting for.  You’ll live as long as every last one of your cats.  And if I was you, I’d take good care of them, cause when the last one dies, you die too.  And I ain’t got nothing more to say except you owe me what you promised.”

William Stone wrote about it in his diary in 1826, so I expect it must be true.

And Angeline Tubbs grew old and older and older still.

She saw the town grow rich, and she saw the wealthy tourists in their fancy carriages.

Seems like she cared nothing for the scorn of the townspeople.  Once a traveling photographer took a picture of her, called it “The Witch of Saratoga.” She sold copies of it to the tourists and earned herself a little money.  But whether she was ashamed or proud, no one knew.  No one asked.

Folks often claimed they’d seen a woman on Mount Vista, Angeline’s Hill, standing tall on the very edge of a cliff, arms stretched out, hair streaming in the wind, red cloak flying in the middle of dreadful storms, lightning all around her. She seemed to be talking with the spirits of the storm.  And the woman was surely Angeline Tubbs, herself.

One by one, her cats died, all twenty or more.  And when the last cat died, she died too.  Not in her own home, but in the poorhouse, in 1865.  By her own accounts, she was 104.

It was years later, in 1932, when the gilded age was a memory and only local historians remembered Angeline at all, that a man named Ben Carradine spent time in Yaddo, that special retreat for writers and other artists just on the edge of town.  By the little lake thereabouts in the early evening, he was terrified to see two ghostly spirits, one a young woman and the other a man walking beside her in a bright-red military jacket.  The young woman looked dreadfully unhappy.  Others there just laughed at Ben Carradine for being a darn fool, thinking he saw ghosts.

Years later, in the spring of 1955, he was visiting Saratoga once again from his home in Ohio.  He was driving north of town and stopped to admire a sunset.  He even got out of his car and started to climb a hill, Angeline’s hill.  Halfway up, a fast moving thunderstorm moved in.  He sought shelter under an overhanging rock.

He was in darkness in the rain when a flash of lightning lit the top of the hill on which he’d sought refuge halfway down.  A lone figure was standing on the stone ledge at the top, silhouetted against the sky.  She stood erect, arms stretched out to the raging sky.  Her long hair and wet cloak streamed out behind her. And he heard her piercing scream above him.  Another lightning bolt illuminated the woman.  She screamed again and again as the lightning flashed, the thunder cracked, the rain fell, and the wind howled.  Finally the clouds moved away, the screaming stopped, and the woman vanished.

You may believe that Ben Carradine was just a crackpot would-be writer, that he probably invented the whole thing.  Maybe so. But many of us in Saratoga suspect that Ben Carradine had seen the ghost of Angeline Tubbs, a woman more at home with the raging elements than in the town that failed to comfort or protect its own lost soul.

Copyright by Margaret French

What to Read When Lady Chatterley’s Lover Has Been Expurgated

When I was growing up, the novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence was banned most everywhere. But by the time I went to McGill University in the early sixties, the battle for freedom of the press was won forever, or so I thought.

In 1959, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that the novel was not obscene on the grounds that it had “redeeming social or literary value.” On November 2nd, 1960, Penguin had won the case brought against it in Great Britain. On that day, all 200,000 copies of their edition had sold out. In the next few years, millions more would be sold.  The ban had even been lifted in Canada.

I had not exactly read any of Lawrence’s novels, but I planned to read them all–in their entirety.

Imagine the collective undergraduate shock when the McGill newspaper reported the scandalous news that the prissy librarian in  Royal Victoria College, the women’s residence where I lived, had taken scissors to the novel. The racy parts were all gone!  Who did she think she was to presume to protect the innocence of the young ladies living in RVC?  We were, after all, sophisticated adults, a few of us even old enough to vote. Censorship?! Outrageous!

Royal Victoria College was a large building with a huge statue of Queen Victoria dominating the front steps. It had once been the women’s college affiliated with men-only McGill. Because it had once been a self-contained college, it had great facilities–like its own swimming pool and its own small library.

I  worked in that very library. It was a great job. I loved not having  to brave Montreal winters to go to work, and I loved hanging out in a library, always have. Shelving and checking out books were easy enough, and I worked only evenings–after our uptight librarian went home for the day.

One evening I happened upon an unusual new acquisition.  Surely our librarian would never have chosen to add that particular book to the collection if she had realized what it was about. After all, she had expurgated Lady Chatterley’s’ Lover! Our little library  had acquired a copy of the classical Hindu book, the Kama Sutra. The cover was dull. It looked like some kind of spiritual/theological/mythological bone-dry book from India. But when I started to flip the pages, I realized it was a book of sexual positions.

Although I was pure as the driven snow at the time, I checked out the book and read it cover to cover.  Could human bodies even do such things?! I mentioned it to my friends, all of them. Over a period of many months, every girl I knew checked out the book, evenings, after the librarian had gone home. I doubt it spent even one night on a cold library shelf.

Without a doubt, most of us read the book because we believed it had been acquired by accident by our librarian. We wanted to thumb our noses at her and anyone else who would tell us what we could or could not read. Without a doubt, the book was infinitely more delicious because that year the librarian of Royal Victoria College had cut out pages from Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

****

PS. In 1965 Tom Lehrer, a singer and writer for That Was the Week That Was, a television show satirizing social and political issues. recorded a song you may enjoy. It’s called  “Smut.”  It includes the lines

“Who needs a hobby like tennis or philately?
I’ve got a hobby: rereading Lady Chatterley.”

*

Copyright by Margaret French

My Mother’s House

My Mother's house now. The giant spruce is gone.

“I’ve always taken out the garbage myself. I don’t intend to change now!”

But an instant on an icy brick sidewalk shattered my elderly mother’s fragile, sponge-porous femur.

“Put on a cast and let me go home! It’s just a broken leg. People get them all the time. I’ll be fine once I get home.”

Instead the doctor had a serious talk with us. He explained why he couldn’t operate and added, “If her leg heals–a big, big if–it will take many months, and she’ll be very weak. At her age–she will almost certainly never walk again–or go home.”

Her months-long hospital stay began. For awhile, she was sundowning at night, lost in elderly delirium. She lashed out at nurses and us, disinherited my brother and me often, repented in the morning. My sister-in-law, my brother, and I sat beside her nights to prevent her from unstrapping her splint to get out of bed. Her plan was to call a taxi and go home.

“Brace yourself, “ she once warned my brother. “You’re about to hear some language you might not have heard before.” He waited, looking forward to choice new words.

“DAMN!”

He smiled wryly: “Heard that one already.”

Once she asked, “Why did you let them lock me in this dark, dank basement with rats everywhere? I want to go home.”

“Mom, You’re in the hospital, the Royal Alec. The sun is shining through your window.”

“I’m on a dirty old scow. And you know how I hate boats. See the people scowling at me? Get me home.”

Another time she said, “Margaret, last night I heard a terrible ruckus in the middle of the night, outside, on the grass. A little girl, maybe six, climbed through my window into my bed. She was afraid, so I let her stay all night.”

“That was kind of you,” I said.

When her delirium was under control, my sister-in-law, brother, and I took turns at the hospital. Evenings I went to her home: the home of a woman forgetful, legally blind, and never much of a housekeeper anyway. I needed to be busy, so I cleaned out her refrigerator, threw away the jars of jam with the blue mold on top, the dried out cold cuts, the casseroles with the funky smells, the stale lemon cookies. She’d always objected to my re-organizing her belongings. Now she’d never know.

Every morning I drove back to the hospital, and she begged to go home. She swore the hospital would be the death of her, and she would not go anywhere, except home. Once an orderly came to take her for X-Rays, but she stuck her good leg out sideways to prevent him from getting the stretcher through the door. It took several aides to gently force her leg close to the stretcher. At the elevator, she challenged the orderly:

“So, where are you taking me? The morgue?”

It was pretty funny. But the orderly looked away because he didn’t know what to say to a cranky, funny, very old woman with a huge cast on her leg.

The leg refused to heal, despite excellent care and a succession of splints, a brace, a cast. The doctors and social workers recommended a nursing home.

“But she wants to go home. Can we possibly take care of her there?”

“No.” They explained why not.

I knew they were right. It took three aides to get Mom from her bed to a wheelchair. Her cast was unwieldy and she was rarely cooperative.

The social workers promised to help her accept this decision, promised to play the heavy so she could blame them, not us or our failing resolve.

“We want to take you home, Mom. But they won’t let us.”

Her house in Edmonton had been the first she’d owned since she was a young farmwife in New Brunswick. One day, so long ago, she’d had to run to her neighbor’s house, carrying my older brother in her arms:

“Get help,” she’d said. “Our house is on fire.”

She’d left her baby, rushing home to salvage what she could. It wasn’t much. Later she’d joined the line of neighbors passing buckets of water from the well to the flames. But the house had burned to the ground and they’d lost most everything.

“I miss the photographs the most,” she’d said.

She and my father had built a new house, board by board. But then came World War II, and my father enlisted in the army. They never lived in a house of their own again until he retired. Instead, we lived mostly in a series of PMQs, permanent married quarters. Houses she was not allowed to paint. Houses where she wasn’t allowed to plant flowers more than eighteen inches from the foundation. Houses that looked just the same from one coast to the other.

After Dad retired, my parents bought a little three bedroom, white ranch. Dad moved hundreds of wheelbarrow loads of topsoil and compost to prepare a bed for the lawn. He planted an apple tree in the back yard that produced bushels of tart green apples every year, and a blue spruce in the front yard that eventually grew huge and shaded the house too much. The rugged yellow and pink rugosa roses that he planted in 1962 were still blooming decades later. Mom’s raspberry bushes outgrew the narrow strip between garage and fence. That house was her refuge, and it was there she planned to die.

Almost a half century after they moved into the house, my sister-in-law and I were visiting nursing homes for whatever life Mom had left. We found a beautiful place, near enough for her friends to visit. We moved in her favorite recliner and her red comforter,  bought a flat screen TV and cheery houseplants for her window. But she never bothered to watch television, never remembered her plants.

Come evening I began to sort everything else she owned. My sister came from her farm and together we emptied and cleaned the huge freezer in the basement where freezer-burned hamburger was nestled beside years-old packages of homemade applesauce and frozen raspberries.

I emptied the cold room in the basement where Mom had stored canned goods and staples. Many labels looked quaintly old-fashioned, some from a grocery store out of business for a good fifteen years.  I emptied cans, rinsed them, put them in recycling. When I opened one, it exploded and sprayed pumpkin over me, the kitchen walls, the ceiling—even into the dining room.

Daytime, at the hospital, I took her to hairdressing appointments, to cooking classes, to the Friday afternoon parties. She begged me to take her home instead.

Evenings I created piles of sheets, tablecloths, pillowcases, napkins, dishes, and frying pans. The basement and the garage had their own piles–of Christmas tree decorations, fabric remnants, gardening supplies.

How could I wait? Afterwards, I’d be flying home to my husband. My brother and his wife worked, and my sister and her husband lived on a farm a hundred miles away. This was my job to do.

I joked that if my mother knew what I was doing, my life wouldn’t be worth a plugged nickel. If my mother knew–it would break her heart.

Mom’s leg didn’t heal and was always unmanageable and excruciatingly uncomfortable. In the end, the doctors amputated, knowing full well the risks, but hoping to relieve her discomfort and lack of mobility. Sadly neither her body nor her mind accepted this last assault.

In her last days, she continued to ask to go home. But the home she talked about was a different place, a two-story house out of her past that I had never known, perhaps the house that had burned to its foundation so long ago.

She died two weeks after the operation, shockingly sudden, much too soon.

Soon after the funeral, we all gathered at her house, surveyed my neat piles, chose the things we wanted. I flew home.

The people who bought the little house cut down the big spruce tree, dug up the roses in the front. Now the sun must be shining inside the living room. They have young children who may be playing on the old apple tree. I am happy that life has come back to the house that my mother loved.

As I remember my weeks of sorting and discarding the belongings in her home, I ache over my sad necessary betrayal. And, more than I expected, I miss that contrary, stubborn woman who was my mother.

*

Copyright by Margaret French

Stop by Five (a road trip gone wrong in Maine)

Image by porbital, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I held onto the steering wheel like death.  It took all my strength to turn the car into the Dairy Queen parking lot.  Something was seriously, dangerously, sure-to-be expensively wrong with my ancient red Dodge Colt.

I ‘d been driving South on Route 1 in Maine, on my way home from Canada.  It was a fun ride, past blueberry stands, clam shacks, fishing boats, and souvenir shops.  But the fun had just vanished.  I took the first cross road I came to off the highway.

I’d gone and done it–broken my number one rule about driving alone on road trips far from home. That rule was to stop before 5 p.m. when the service stations in small towns close for the night.  It was almost seven.  I didn’t know exactly where I was, but I knew I was still many hours from my home in upstate new York.

The girl at the takeout window of the Dairy Queen was bored.  If she noticed or cared that I was desperate, a single woman stranded  in the early evening in a car that couldn’t travel another mile, her concern didn’t show.

“Excuse me, miss.  I’m having car troubles.  Any service stations nearby that might be open?”

She shrugged. “I dunno.”

“Where is the nearest service station.”

She paused and looked at me.  “I dunno.”

“Is there a motel nearby?  Maybe something within walking distance?”

She thought about it for a long time. “I dunno.”

“Do you  have a phonebook—or a phone?”

She showed more animation: “We aren’t allowed to let customers use the phone,” she said emphatically.

I was on a local road off the highway.  Modest homes, but no other businesses.  I might walk aimlessly for miles, never passing a gas station or a motel, or a phone.

A man walked towards me from a rusty pickup that looked even older than my defunct vehicle.  He was wearing worn jeans and sneakers.  He needed a shave.

“Lady, something is dragging on the ground under your car.  Come look.” I followed him back to my car.

Sure enough, a long metal bar was dragging on the ground.  I had no idea what it was, but I was pretty sure it was supposed to be attached at both ends to the car.

“Is there a service station around here that might still be open?”

He looked at me, surprised at how little I knew of the ways of the world.”

“Nah.  It’s almost seven.  Service stations close at five. Besides, you can’t drive anywhere. I got a mechanic friend lives up the street. If you can get your car there, he could take a look at it. I’ll drive in front of you.”

Well, I thought about it, but not too long.  I was somewhere in Maine & my car was broken.  It was dusk. This guy promised me a mechanic just up the road.  The man went to talk to the woman sitting in the passenger seat of his truck.  By the time he’d come back, I’d made my decision. If I could get my car to move at all, I’d follow the man, the woman, and the pickup truck.

My car started up.  I clutched the wheel & it groaned up the road to the fifties ranch house a few doors away.  By the time I parked, my rescuer was on the front door ringing the bell.  Again and again.

“Not home,” he said. I’ll leave him a note,”   And he went to his pickup for paper and a pen.  I saw him talking to the woman but I couldn’t  hear what he said, and couldn’t read the expression on their faces.  He walked back and stuck a note in the door. Then he and his wife came to me.

“Dave’s not home.   He’ll call me when he sees the note. Could be awhile. Why don’t you  come to our place and spend the night?  You can sleep in our daughter’s room.  She’s sleeping at a friend’s house.”

Well. I thought about it. My car  was dead on someone’s driveway. He wasn’t even home, and the service stations were closed. I didn’t know where the motels were.

“Thank you,” I said. I got my suitcase. I took out the car keys.

“Dave’ll probably need your keys,” he reminded me.

“But how will I lock the car?”

Both looked at me, puzzled.  The wife spoke up, “You’re not in New York now. You’re in Maine.” That seemed beyond refuting, so I got in their pickup leaving my keys in my unlocked car.

The couple’s house was tiny and worn, like their pickup. It occurred to me  that leaving my car somewhere (I didn’t know the address) with a mechanic whose last name I didn’t know and whom I’d never met, to spend the night with total strangers (whose names and address I also didn’t know) in some unknown town in Maine—had some elements of risk. Suppose these people were psychopathic ax murderers?

Just in case this was the last night of my life and I never left this little house,  someone should know the names and address of these people.

“Do you mind if I call my friend, Judith?” I asked. “We have a routine. Whenever I’m traveling, I always call and let her know where I am.” I held the pencil poised over a piece of paper, with a sweet, trusting, sincere expression stuck on my face, waiting for them to tell me who they were.

When Judith answered, I said, “Hi, Judith, checking in, as usual. (I’d never called her on a road trip before; I was hoping that she would now be listening intently.) My car broke down, but don’t worry.  A lovely couple has asked me to stay the night.  Let me give you their name and phone number.  WRITE IT DOWN.”

On the other end of the line, Judith’s voice sounded odd. No doubt she was surprised to hear from me. She’d certainly be writing down their names and addresses.

To be honest, in the past, she had expressed reservations about my common sense and judgment. No matter: my children would know what happened, should something happen.

The three of us sat and chatted until bedtime. Seems they were members of a religious group. They talked about it for hours. “Not a church, exactly,” they said. Their leader had seemed inspiring at first, a real holy man.  But lately he was getting suspicious and domineering, trying to control the behavior of everyone in their group. They gave me scary examples.

“It’s no religion. It’s a sect!” I thought.  Stories of crazy sect leaders and mass suicides crossed my mind.  “The thought of dying before morning resurfaced, though I wasn’t sure why members of a sect would want to murder stray women travelers.

That night I went to the bedroom, thinking about self-preservation. I tried to move the dresser in front of the door, but I couldn’t move it—at least not silently. I looked at the open second floor window.  I wondered if I could drop to the ground safely and decided I could not.  I got ready for bed & lay gazing at the ceiling. The night seemed endless.  I wished I were anywhere else. I finally fell asleep and  slept late the next morning.

When I awoke, the sun was streaming through the window.  I noticed for the first time the ruffly curtains and a couple of girlish stuffed animals & knickknacks on the dresser. I washed and dressed, packed my things, tidied the room and went downstairs. I could smell coffee brewing and something baking.

Good news. Dave had arrived home the evening before and fixed my car.  He’d found a used part to replace the crankshaft or driveshaft or whatever the heck it was.  The car was now sitting in the driveway.  I owed him $50 for parts and labor.  I knew this had to be less than the going rate.

We shared breakfast in the little dining room. Turns out the wife had baked three different kinds of muffins while I slept.  I felt foolish and ashamed of my suspicions.  I hadn’t even been thinking of them by name. Beth had cooked blueberry, cranberry, and bran muffins while I slept.  Jim asked me how I’d slept. They flatly refused to let me give them anything. I left Maine, and headed home.

Later, Judith gave me a stern lecture about my stay with strangers.  To her dying day, she believed I’d acted like a darn fool and that it was not human goodness that saved me, but dumb luck.

I think she was wrong, and I’m glad. I’d  reclaimed a measure of trust in human goodness.

*

Copyright by Margaret French

Photos, Rafting Trip Through the Grand Canyon

Here are photos of our Grand Canyon adventure to go with my last blog: “Imminent Death and Bathrooms.” Click to enlarge. Enjoy.

Imminent Death and Bathrooms (a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon)

Jay rowing in rapids.

When my husband Jay and I were dating, we had the first great adventure of our lives together, a twelve day rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, an improbable adventure for two middle-aged people who had never rafted before.  Jay had never camped before either—except when he was in the army.  And he hadn’t liked it.

It had come about by accident. George, a geology professor at Union College where I worked, spotted my friend Sigrid and me buying lunch.  Apparently we looked especially gullible that day.  He was planning another trip through the Grand Canyon—he’d made umpteen trips already—but was looking for a way to finance it.  That’s where we came in.  If he could inspire a few colleagues to become fellow adventurers—and if he rowed the supply raft—he could travel for free. We said we’d think about it. After all, it was a year and a half away.

In the end, ten people had a Union connection, half the people on the trip: John, an engineer; Dave, a chemist, and his wife and teenage sons; Sigrid, who taught German; George the geologist and his daughter; and Jay and me.

We women had our worries, mainly about how we would go to the bathroom and about sudden death.  George, the geologist, assured us that everything was easy, safe, and great fun. We’d love it. Dave, the chemist, had done the trip once before.

He warned, “If your raft capsizes, be careful not to get trapped underneath.  You will die.”

He explained other ways people die on the Colorado River.  He described near escapes. He told me his family would sleep in their own tent, the better to be safe from the snakes and scorpions. And he told me the truth about going to the bathroom. (I will spare you the ungodly details.)

Before the trip, we had to buy stuff, all indestructible, most of which I’d never owned before:  water bottles, river shorts, Teva sandals, kerchief, flashlights (preferably the kind that attached to one’s forehead), dangling things you hang from your glasses so they don’t fly into the river, carabiners so your water bottles and other belongings don’t fall into the river either, a sunhat with a flap on the back that makes everyone look dorky. We clipped our hats to our tee shirts, so—I have a theme going here—they didn’t fall into the river either.

We met the guides and the other members of our group at Lees Ferry, just down river from the Glen Canyon Dam.  The river flowed gently enough with little hint of the drama we’d face ahead.

All the guides loved the canyon and the river, hated dams that changed the environment, hated the motorized rafts (so did we), and hated people who didn’t respect and take care of the river.  Most on our trip were women: tough, crude, gutsy, funny, and smart.  They peed standing up; I hadn’t known it was possible.

The guides gave us little metal boxes to store the things we’d need during the day and two big, heavy black rubber bags each, one for a sleeping bag and ground cover, one for our clothes and other personal belongings we’d need when we camped each night on shore.  They showed us how to wear our life jackets and assured us that they would prove utterly necessary for survival. Our bags were stowed in various rafts, many on the one that our Union colleague George would be rowing. If we didn’t roll the bag tightly, properly, they warned, our things would get wet if the raft carrying it overturned.

When George’s raft went sideways, backwards, and upside down through one of the monster rapids, it turns out I had not packed one of my black bags carefully enough. Everything inside was soaked with muddy Colorado River water. My  camera and my shrink-wrapped tins of curiously strong mints were destroyed. I spread everything else, including my underwear, on big rocks at our next evening stopping place.

Twelve days and not one man shaved.  In fact, all were all darned proud of their scruffiness.

“Are you going to shave?”

“Nah. Are you?”

“Nah, Me neither.”

None of the women brought lipstick. We did nothing with our hair except comb it down in the morning.  We were not a stylish lot.  We crouched in the river in the morning and washed as quickly as we could in the cold water, craving only a smidgen of privacy and warmer water. Once or twice, in the warmer shallow water of a tributary, we poured water over each other, shampooing our hair gleefully.

Jay was the oldest person on the trip.  To my pleasant surprise, since we hadn’t yet traveled together, he was a trooper. It was he, not I, who took the oars going through one of the rapids, small rapids, but rapids to be sure. At sixty-five he had more reason to be concerned about the exertion and the heat.  And he had to make more trips than most to the river in the dark of the night. (It was on one of those middle of the night trips that he injured his leg and got the infection—but he was ok, eventually, a few weeks after we got home.) Jay was facing surgery for prostate cancer after the trip, and he was determined to enjoy every minute of our adventure.

We became part of a different world of deep cold river and hot canyon walls. We swam in pools in the streams that flowed into the river and slid on rocks behind waterfalls. We hiked up canyon trails that scared me half to death. I hadn’t known I was afraid of heights until I stood at the edge of dizzy-making, rocky precipices overlooking the river below.  Once Matt, one of the guides, had to take my hand and talk gently or I would have spent the rest of my life somewhere on a ledge jutting precariously near the river and the jagged rocks. The teenagers on our trip scrambled up and down as if born to the life.

Twelve days on the water. Twelve days to float past mile high, ever changing canyon walls, punctuated by brief, laugh-out-loud, oh-my-god thrills of unimaginable drops of twenty-five feet and more into churning water.  Once I found my body stretched out in the rapids in the Colorado River, my only connection to the raft my fingers clutching the rope that circled the top.  I had made a resolution that if the raft remained right side up, I would remain attached to it.

In calmer waters, Matt, the same guide who talked me down the canyon trail, taught me how to yell out loud.  Yee haw doesn’t come easily to me.   He called on me to perform at our farewell get-together, and in my opinion, I did well. I may have forgotten how, one gets rusty.  If you ask, I’ll say no.

At night we’d scramble onshore, drag up the rafts, help unload the supplies and search out soft sandy spots for our sleeping bags. Once while we were setting up camp, a small rattlesnake slithered three or four feet from the head of my sleeping bag, the second snake we’d seen in five minutes.

“Don’t worry. They’re not aggressive; they won’t hurt you,” the guides assured me, too quickly.

I knew those guides.  They also thought the daily canyon hikes were a piece of cake.  But if I were fumbling for my glasses and flashlight in the night, preparing for a trip to the not-to-be-discussed bathroom facilities, and if I accidentally whacked that snake on the head, he’d strike, and I would die far from medical facilities.  We were still days away from the possibility of a helicopter rescue.  I slept in a tent that night. (My friend Sigrid later admitted to me that she had wanted to sleep in a tent too, but didn’t want to be thought a wimp.  I didn’t care.)

But other nights I slept under the stars, a zillion stars hanging in the sky between the dark canyon walls while below, benign shadowy bats darted above our heads.

Each morning a guide would walk around our camp, yelling that it was time to get up and drink coffee. By the time we had washed up a little, rolled up our sleeping bags and ground covers tightly enough to fit into our waterproof rubber bags, dressed in our shorts, tee sheet, Tevas, and sun hat, breakfast was ready.  Lots of it, laid out on folding tables. Juices, fruit, eggs, french toast, pancakes, bacon, sausages.  We piled our plates.

I was amazed the rafts could carry enough food safely for a twelve day trip. George’s raft held the food cold below the water level.

Lunch was usually make your own deli-style sandwiches.  Salami and cheese and ham. Two or three kinds of bread.  Fruit.  Pasta salads.  Cold drinks.  Hearty cookies. My most memorable lunch was served on tables set in the middle of a shallow stream flowing into the Colorado River.  We stood in the scorching sun, up to our knees in cool water.

Dinner was salmon or chicken or steak or pork tenderloin.  Once the guides cooked upside-down cakes in cast iron skillets over the grills.

One night, after dinner ended with watermelon, and the guides had probably downed too many beers, they stuffed a watermelon with oily rags, set it on fire, and sent it down the Colorado river, a magnificent sight.

We ended the trip on the Havasupai Indian Reservation, We pulled the rafts out of the water and helped load them onto the trucks that would carry them away.  We were a mess.  The cotton tee shirts we wore on the trip were never clean again, dyed brown from the sand in the river.   Bedraggled though we were, we were presented with a feast of a brunch, fit for people far spiffier than us, brought down the canyon by other, cleaner rafting staff.  Salads. Fruit. Cold cuts.. Cheeses.  Pastries. Wine. All beautifully laid on tables with tablecloths and wonderfully free of sand.  We had never seen such a meal or enjoyed a meal as much, the pleasure tinged bittersweet. These were the last moments of a mind-boggling, life-changing, and, for most of us, once-in-a-lifetime trip.  We had come to feel intimately connected with our dirty fellow-adventurers.  And this lovely meal was the last time we would break bread together beside the river.  When we’d eaten our last fresh perfect strawberry, it would be time to climb into the four-wheeled vehicles and go back to motels in Flagstaff and then to our other lives.

In Flagstaff, Jay and I took our clothes to the laundromat, washed them several times, and threw most away, too stained ever to wear again.  We flew home happy with the trip and with each other. Jay’s leg healed. His cancer was successfully treated. And soon after, we married, confident that this would not be our last happy adventure together.

Tam Lin

Neidlpath Castle in the Scottish borderlands

Intro: This story has its origins in an old ballad (with many variations) from the Scottish borderlands. I think of it as a fairy tale for grownups.

Long ago in Scotland, in the days of castles, and knights, and fair young maidens; long ago, when fairies were commonly seen in the countryside; there lived a girl named Janet, daughter of the lord of a great castle. She was beautiful, with her golden hair in a braid down her back–but proud and impatient. Too proud, some said, for her own good.

One hot summer day, Janet was bored: with needlework, with her music lessons, with the gossip of the other maidens in her father’s castle.

She announced to the others: “This afternoon I’m going to go walk on the cool green grass of Carterhaugh.”

The other maidens were shocked: “You can’t go there. No, never! You can’t have forgotten! In Carterhaugh, Tam Lin, the fairy, walks about. He will steal your gold rings. He will steal your green cloak. Likely as not, he will steal your maidenhood.”

But Janet only laughed at their fears. “I am afraid of no man, nor fairy either. And I will go wherever I choose.”

And soon enough she was there, bending over the path to pluck a fragrant red rose. She stood up to find herself looking directly into the eyes of Tam Lin.

Quietly he said, “You dare to steal a rose without asking my permission?”

“How dare you suggest I need your permission?” she stormed. “Carterhaugh is land that belongs to my father. One day it will belong to me. I ask no man’s permission. And no fairy’s permission either.”

Tam Lin didn’t answer. He just looked long into her blue eyes with his eyes of gray. He touched her green cloak. He held her milk white hands. And he laid her down on the cool green grass. And she didn’t say no. And when she went home much later that day, she was a maiden no longer.

Before long, it was plain for all to see that Janet had changed. She was moody and often ill.

An old knight guessed the reason and laughed.

“It seems to me that Janet is with child. And which one of us will be blamed for it, I wonder?”

Janet heard the old knight gossiping. “It was none of you and never could be.” And she paused only a heartbeat before she added, “The father is the fairy Tam Lin.”

Everyone was silent. Finally, the old knight spoke frankly, “What good to a woman is a fairy baby—or a fairy husband, and him away in fairyland all the time? Better you should eat the white berries that grow in the rocky places of Carterhaugh and lose the little baby growing inside.”

Janet spent many days in mournful thinking. And then, sadder then she’d ever been, she returned to Carterhaugh.

She searched among the rocks. She found the small white berries, enough to fill the palm of her hand. Just before she could bring them to her mouth, there before her stood Tam Lin. He was furious.

“How dare you pick the white berries to lose the child that is mine–that is ours?”

“Who are you to tell me that I should not?” “What good to me is a fairy baby? And what good to me is a fairy father–and you lost to me always in fairy land?”

But Tam Lin looked again in her blue eyes and spoke softly.

“My Lady, I am no fairy. I am a mortal man, born of a mortal man and woman, no less than you. I was only a child of eleven when the queen of the Fairies found me sleeping on the grass and carried me away to her kingdom. I have been held by a spell ever since.”

“You could release me from my spell, Janet, if you would, if you dared. Tonight the fairies go riding at Miles Cross, and I ride with them. Hide in the bushes near the path. First will come the Queen of the Fairies, on her black horse. Let her ride past. Then will come the troop of fairies on their brown horses. Let them ride past as well. I will ride last on a white horse. I will wear a crown on my head with a golden star because my father is an earl. I will wear a glove on my right hand, and none on my left, so you can know me. When I am close, pull me down from my horse, Janet, and do not let go, whatever dreadful thing may come.”

That night Janet hid near the path at Miles Cross. When the moon was high, she saw the Queen of the Fairies coming on her black horse, and she let her ride past. She saw the riders on their brown horses, and she let them ride past. Last came a rider on a white horse with a crown on his head with a star. He had a glove on his right hand and none on his left, and she knew he was Tam Lin.

She waited until he was close beside her, then leaped up and pulled her lover down into her arms. And she did not let go.

The fairy queen wheeled her black horse around to face them and shrieked in dismay,” The girl has taken my Tam Lin!”

Straightaway, Tam Lin was changed into a writhing snake with poisonous fangs. But Janet did not let go.

And then he was changed into a wolf with long, sharp teeth and claws. Again she did not let go.

And then he was changed into a red hot lump of coal that seared the palms of her hands. Still she did not let go.

Finally Tam Lin was changed into a mother-naked man, and Janet drew her green cloak around him.

Bitterly the Fairy Queen spoke,

“Oh, Tam Lin, if I had known yesterday, what I know tonight, I would have taken your heart of flesh and turned it into a heart of stone so you could not feel. If I had known yesterday what I know today, I would have taken your two gray eyes and turned them into eyes of wood, so you could not see.”

Turning to Janet, she said, “You have stolen the best of my company.”

In the next instant, the Queen, all the other fairies, and all their horses disappeared, leaving Janet and Tam Lin alone, in the darkness, together.

Nanaimo Bars, Canada’s Contribution to World Cuisine

Nanaimo Bars

Intro: I’ve forgotten most of the names of teachers, schools, and childhood friends.  But I vividly remember almost everything I’ve ever eaten.  I suspect it might mean I’m shallow. For example, I still feel nostalgic about a chocolate cake that my mother cooked–once–when I was nine years old. It was made, surprisingly, with spices and mashed potatoes and baked in a 9” tube pan. Gone forever, like the names of my childhood friends.

For those of you who are not as shallow as I, it may seem odd to put posts about food in a blog about stories.  What can I say…lots of my memories are about food. This post is to honor one of my favorite sweets: Canada’s own Nanaimo Bars.

In 2006, Canadians voted to designate “Nanaimo Bars” Canada’s Favourite Confection. (Coffee Crisp chocolate bars came in second place.)

If you’re reading this in Canada, you are not surprised. A colleague of mine, originally from Toronto, called them “Canada’s contribution to world cuisine.” You can buy them everywhere in Canada: on the ferry going to Vancouver Island off the West Coast or in some out-of-the-way corner store in Newfoundland off the East Coast. Buy them from your neighborhood Tim Horton’s donut shop, pick up a mix from the grocery store, or use the recipe your mother handed down to  you.

If you’re American, you probably never heard of them. A pity. If you’ve always thought the the expression “can never be too rich” applies to sweets, these Canadian treats are for you. A bottom layer with graham cracker crumbs, cocoa, nuts, and coconut.  A middle layer of creamy butter icing.  A top layer of melted chocolate. They’re easy to make; they look hard; they keep well; and almost everyone loves them. What recipe is better than that?

When my son Raj was about four he was eating a Nanaimo bar and said, “Mommy, when I am very, very, very old and just about to die, give me one of these. I will eat it…quickly.” I don’t recall him ever being so impressed with anything else I ever made.

My son, Raman, in Kansas City has made them his specialty. I remember him trading some years ago with a colleague for a truly outstanding apple pie.

I first tasted them when I was in elementary school in the 1950s. My Aunt Dorothy got the recipe from her friend, Mrs. Layton, and passed the recipe on to my mother. And for most of my life we called it “Mrs. Layton’s recipe.” We liked it very, very much.

According to Wikipedia, Nanaimo Bars were invented in the early 1950s by a woman named Mabel Jenkins who lived just south of Nanaimo, British Columbia.  She submitted them to a fund raiser cookbook called the Ladysmith and Cowichan Women’s Institute Cookbook. Later the recipe turned up in other cookbooks, sometimes called Mabel’s cookies.

Since then, variations have appeared: mint nanaimo bars, peanut butter nanaimo bars, mocha nanaimo bars.

In 1986, the city of Nanaimo had a contest to find the very best Nanaimo Bars.  Out of a hundred contestants, Joyce Hardcastle won.  Find her recipe and several variations here at the website of the Buccaneer Inn, Nanaimo, B.C.

The only literary work I’ve found (so far) about Nanaimo Bars is called “Sex, Life Itself and the Original Nanaimo Bar Recipe.” It’s written by Kim Blank, a professor in British Columbia, who also writes about Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats. I haven’t found it on amazon or in Chapters (Canadian book stores). But I’ll keep on looking.

Finally, here’s my recipe, or rather, Mrs. Layton’s recipe. It’s not quite traditional: it doesn’t use custard powder or vanilla pudding and it uses unsweetened chocolate on top. Heresy, but equally delicious. Enjoy.

1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
1/4 cup sugar
5 tablespoons cocoa
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1 cup coconut
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup butter
2 cups icing sugar (confectioner’s sugar)
milk (as necessary)
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 squares unsweetened chocolate squares
1 tablespoon butter

1. Melt stick of butter.  Add cocoa and sugar..  Break in egg and cook one minute over medium-low heat.  DO NOT BOIL.

2. Add graham cracker crumbs, coconut, nuts, and vanilla.

3. Press down hard in 8” X 8″ pan.  (If you want thinner slices, use a slightly bigger pan.) Chill.  If this layer is well chilled, it will be easier to spread the next layer.)

4. Melt 2nd stick of butter.  Beat with 2 cups confectioner’s sugar and vanilla.  Add a little milk if necessary to make a spreading consistency,  Spread on first layer.

5. Melt unsweetened chocolate and tablespoon of butter.  Working quickly, Pour over squares, tilting pan to spread.

6. Chill in fridge.  Cut into squares. It helps to dip the knife in hot water before cutting each row.

Copyright by Margaret French (narrative)