My Not-So-Merry Christmas

McGill campus

When I went to McGill I was poor. Oh I was not wretchedly poor or chronically poor. I just didn’t have any money at the time. (I lived in the women’s dorm, so I didn’t go hungry.) I expected that one day I would have enough, so it was okay.

I was at McGill because of a fourth grade teacher whose name I don’t even remember. She had sent a letter to my mother asking her to come to the school for a conference. My mother never went to conferences for me. “Why should I go to the school to see Margaret’s teacher? She never gets in trouble.” But the teacher informed her that I had done well in some standardized tests and, when I got older, I must go to a university.

“Seems like an odd reason to call us to the school. Just to tell us she’s smart. We don’t have the money for university.” And so they said to me, “Margaret, your teacher says that you have to go to university when you get big. We don’t have that kind of money, so you’ll have to figure out how to pay for it yourself.”

Years passed and their order stuck. Luckily colleges were still giving out big academic scholarships at the time. I got one that paid for tuition, books, and room and board—but not much else.

The first term was especially hard. I’d gone to the Banff School of Fine Arts to study university-level French (handy if you plan to go to university in a French-speaking province). Fun, but it meant that I didn’t have much time to earn spending money.

Harry+Belafonte

Sad. Missed Harry Belafonte.

A girl wants to go out with friends once in a while, share a pizza, or buy a coke from the coke machine, and there was usually not enough money for any of those. Most tragic in my young heart: Harry Belafonte came to Montreal, all my friends went to see him, and I could not. (Actually, I still feel sad about that.)

Many years later, when  she was dying, my mother scolded me. “You never told us you needed spending money in college. If you had told us, we would have sent you something.” Too late Mom.  I was a literal-minded kid who never knew that there was some flexibility in our family’s budget. I’d never forgotten what I was told in the fourth grade.

My friend Emily, from Loudonville, near Albany, was determined that my relative poverty would not interfere with our friendship. We would find things to do together that didn’t cost money. On Sundays the university library was closed. Most everything was. But Emily  was Jewish and there was a Jewish library in Montréal, open on Sundays. We could study there. We’d catch a city bus and walk a couple of blocks in a nice residential neighborhood.

chicken soupLunch time, we’d walk to a little Jewish restaurant nearby. Emily, the tiniest girl in the women’s dorm, would order a gigantic lunch: a tall glass of milk, a hearty sandwich, dessert. I would always order homemade chicken noodle soup (at twenty-five cents the cheapest thing on the menu) and a glass of water. I’d open the two packets of saltine crackers and put both in my soup.

The middle-aged woman who waited on us watched this routine for a couple of weeks. One day, after serving me soup, she came back to the counter with her two hands full of saltine crackers. She dropped them beside my bowl.

“Take them,” she said. “They’re free.” I did.

By early December of my first year, my lack of money was a problem. I was expecting the next installment of my scholarship money, and it hadn’t come in. I had exactly thirteen cents to my name. I couldn’t afford to buy Christmas gifts for my family.

“Let me lend you some money,” Emily said.

I refused. I was determined to be poor but proud.

nylons

I had only thirteen cents to my name, and I had runs in my stockings. Not nearly enough, even then, for a new pair of nylons. I wasn’t permitted to wear slacks. At McGill, at the time, women living in the women’s dorm could only wear slacks on Sundays or to go skiing. We wore skirts, nylons, heels six days a week.

“In the States, everybody wears bobby socks,” Emily told me. She implied that Canadians were more than a little behind the times. No matter. Skirts, heels, and nylons with runs would have to do.

Then came my holiday miracle. I got a formal letter, on letterhead, from the Masons of Montreal. It seems that every year they gave a scholarship to a deserving student and that year, they were awarding it to me.  What luck! Remarkable since I had never applied and knew nothing at all about the Masons. But if ever an award came in handy, that was it. Fifty dollars. Enough to buy gifts, stockings, and tide me over till the installment came.

Christmas break came. Everyone in the dorm went home except for me and the eight girls from Hong Kong. They always sat at a table for eight and spoke only Chinese and only to each other. I sat at another table alone. My parents never found out that everybody else went home for the break; I never told them. I had no money for the long train trip home to Alberta.

On Christmas morning I was alone in my wing of the dorm. I unwrapped my presents, walnutsdumped the contents of my stocking—the nuts, candy, orange, apple, fashion magazine, and fingernail polish on my desk. My mother had forgotten that I didn’t have a nutcracker, so I smashed the walnuts with my shoe and felt very much alone.

snowy montrealThere were no meals served Christmas day. The dining staff had been given the day off. Most of the restaurants downtown were closed for the holiday. I bundled up and plowed through a bitterly cold wind, with my boots crunching in the snow, and ate lunch in a deli on Saint Catherine’s Street.

I’d been invited to a woman’s house a long walk away for a traditional dinner. Every Christmas she invited international students to her home. A mix of young men from around the world—and me. I was terribly shy, but not so shy that I had to walk home alone.

480px-NYSCapitolPanorama

After Christmas my friend Emily had invited me to spend a few days at her house in Loudonville, near Albany. I was nervous. I didn’t know whether it was polite to let her parents pay for the treats she’d planned for me: a make-your-own sundae at Stewarts, a trip to the State Capital to hear Rockefeller, a trip to a shoe store where, unlike old-fashioned Canada where salesman brought shoes for one to try on, hundreds of pairs of shoes were lined up on racks. So much more up-to-date, Emily assured me.

I’d brought what I hoped was an appropriate gift for Emily’s mother, a bone china cup and saucer. At least in those days, every Canadian woman I knew collected cups and saucers and they didn’t have to match. By some extraordinary coincidence, Emily’s mother collected that very pattern. I was relieved. Maybe my gift was ok.

Both of Emily’s parents were lawyers and her mother was also a novelist. Apparently her mother’s hobby was sewing bathrobes. Privately I thought it odd. At the time, I didn’t own one. Emily’s mother opened up a trunk and inside were twenty-four bathrobes she hadn’t found anyone to give to. I was offered the bathrobe of my choice. I thought about it. It seemed okay to take one because she had so many. They were all made from the same pattern: a roomy kimono and not, I noticed, particularly well-made. My mother sewed very well, and she’d taught me to sew too. For a bathrobe, it didn’t really matter. The bathrobe I chose was a many-colored horizontal striped corduroy bathroom with two huge pockets. I wore it for years and years and years. It was practical and comfortable and colorful.

masonsThe evening before we left to go back to college, Emily’s dad showed us some special memorabilia in their basement family room. It seems that  Emily’s father had been active in the local Masons for a very long time. What a coincidence! It was the Masons in Montreal that had given me the money that had taken me through the month of December, that had let me buy gifts for my family, a smoked meat sandwich in a Jewish deli for lunch on a bitterly cold Christmas day, nylon stockings and more.

For years I didn’t make the connection between Emily’s father and the Masons of Montreal. I suppose it was too embarrassing for me to think I’d been the object of Emily’s family’s charity.

Now, of  course, I am certain that Emily Champagne’s family found a way to give me the money that I badly needed but was too proud to accept. What extraordinary kindness.

 

**********************************

Copyright December 11, 2017

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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

Corn and Watermelon

Intro: I love the fancy traditional meals that we’ve been enjoying over the holidays.  Here’s a story about expectations  related to food.   And just maybe, it’s a longing for summer foods, in this, the coldest month of the year in Saratoga.

Good stuff.

When I was nine, my family moved to Calgary, Alberta. Horse country. Big cattle ranches. Rodeos. In Calgary, you can saunter down the street wearing a cowboy hat and fancy cowboy boots and not feel foolish—even if you happen to be a teacher or a construction worker or a poet.

In Calgary, my father made a new friend, an ex-bronco-riding, calf-roping cowboy named Slim. Dad bought two horses from him, a big feisty buckskin and a gentle bay mare named Talullah, a horse for him and one for me. Why just me, you say? Well, my little brother was a toddler. My older brother came down with polio and couldn’t ride. My sister thought that horses were smelly and disgusting, and my mother didn’t care to ride. So it happened that my father and I rode together, almost every day, for several years. Good years.

Every once in awhile, our horses needed shoes. And he and I would ride on paved streets around the edge of Calgary to the blacksmith’s shop. I loved everything about the shop. The strong warm smell of the horses mixed with the burning smell of the fire. The flames that lit up the room, casting shadows on the plank walls. The massive iron tongs, hammer, and anvil. The hiss when the hot iron shoes hit the water. I even liked to see him pare the hooves and nail on the horseshoes, reassured by my Dad that it didn’t hurt.

When I was not quite thirteen, my father was posted again, this time down East. Before we left Calgary, the blacksmith and his wife invited us to their home for a farewell dinner.

Their house was next to the shop, but I had never been inside. I wondered—I worried—that the house would be the same as the shop and the lot. I liked the look of the place, but what would my mother say? The blacksmith’s shop was a dilapidated, ramshackle place in need of paint. It always reminded me of the Ma and Pa Kettle movies I watched on Saturday mornings. Outside, in their dandelion field of a yard, was a shed with a purebred stallion that the blacksmith put out to stud; another shed with cocker spaniel puppies for sale; stacks of wooden crates, in case he wanted to start a mink ranch some day; and goats. I was quite sure this was all irregular, something my mother would not approve of. I also wondered what kind of meal they would serve. I have always been a person passionately interested in food. And, even then, I gave much thought to the meal we would be given, and I worried…would this eccentric couple come up with a meal my parents would find acceptable?

We didn’t eat at other people’s houses very often, but I knew what was normal, expected, and proper in a meal in my world in 1956. There must be some kind of meat: roast beef, roast pork, roast chicken, meatloaf, hamburgers, pork chops, maybe ham. There must be potatoes: boiled, mashed, baked, scalloped, hash, or potato salad. And there must be some kind of vegetable, probably canned. Canned peas, canned green beans, canned wax beans, canned corn. Maybe canned corn with pimentos, something fancy. Maybe we’d have molded jell-o with grated carrots or celery. Maybe a salad with iceberg lettuce. And for dessert—well, my father might hope for pie—but as for me, I preferred cake. Spice cake, yellow cake, white cake, upside down cake, tomato soup cake, wacky cake, marble cake, blueberry cake, gingerbread are all good. But I was hoping for devil’s food cake–with sweet seven-minute frosting.

One August evening, we went to the house and were invited inside. I looked around. None of the rickety chairs around the dining table matched. Nor did the plates on the bare wood. And other than plates, knives-forks-and-spoons, glasses, salt and pepper, and butter, there was nothing on the table.

The blacksmith and his wife were both behind the kitchen door.

“It smells funny in here!” my kid brother blurted.

“SHHHHHH.” said my mother. And she whispered, “It’s the goats.” She sniffed in shocked disapproval: “And she used to be a nurse!”

I understood the message. Nurses, taught to be acutely aware of hygiene, should not have a house that smells of goats, even after they retire.

A few minutes passed. And then the blacksmith opened the door, and the blacksmith’s wife came in carrying a big galvanized steel tub, the kind people used to wash clothes in years ago, the kind people carry ice and beer in, to the patio nowadays. But this tub was filled with neither. She sat it down on the wooden table. It was almost full—of corn on the cob. And that was it. No meat, no potatoes, no canned vegetables. Just corn.

I like corn on the cob. We had it a few times every summer. My mother would give us one ear, one and a half, maybe two. Never more. But today we could eat as many ears of corn on the cob as we wanted to, all slathered with butter and sprinkled with salt. I ate many.

When we’d all had as much corn as we wanted, she took the galvanized tub away. I looked sideways at my parents, looking to see their reaction. Only a minute or two passed before she came back through the kitchen door, holding the door open with her hip, both hands wrapped around a huge watermelon.

I also like watermelon. And we had it every summer too, once or twice. And we would be given a big slice or maybe two. But as much watermelon as we wanted? That was something else. And that night I ate a lot of watermelon.

My parents said their good-byes to the blacksmith and his wife. I sat in my place in the back seat of the Ford, nervous, waiting to hear what my parents would have to say after they were out of earshot of the blacksmith and his wife. Would they be outraged? Mocking? Would my mother say,

“What kind of dinner was that? Ridiculous! Can you believe it?”

I hoped not. That would spoil everything.

My parents looked at each other. I waited.

“I told you they were eccentric,” my father said. They both laughed.

“Good corn,” my mother said.

“Good watermelon too,” my father replied.

I could relax. The meal would not be marred by their disapproval. I was free to enjoy it completely.

It was the best meal I ever ate.

*

Copyright by  Margaret French

The Story Walker

Kathleen Gill, the Story WalkerLong ago storytellers used to travel from place to place, telling and learning stories everywhere they went.  Come to think of it, they still do. But of all the storytellers I know, few travel quite like  Kathleen Gill, who’ll be the featured teller this month at storytelling open mic. (June 14th, 7 pm, at Caffè Lena in Saratoga, NY.)  Kathleen is an ardent hiker with a passion and a knack for sharing stories along the way. And it seems there are few trails she hasn’t followed.
When I mention Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, Canada, near the potato farm where my family had lived for generations, Kathleen replies, “Sure, great place.  I went to a fantastic fiddling festival there when I hiked the international Applachian trail.”  [A fiddling festival?  Who knew?] Believe me, if ever a place was off the beaten track, it’s Plaster Rock.  Think Cariboo, Maine.  Now head north.
When I mention heavy World War I casualties in Newfoundland, Kathleen jumps into the story of the night that the lights went out in St. Johns. Men went from house to house to tell families that 684 of their young men, 91% of all the Newfoundlanders asked to “go over the top” that day had died. It was in July of 1916 at the battle of the Somme. She heard that story hiking in Newfoundland.
Over several summers, Kathleen hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail–then wrote a book about it, Story Walking the Appalachian Trail. Look for it; it’s a good read.
Lately Kathleen has been coping with some major health issues.  For now, she’s limited in what she can do.  But amazingly, she tells me she still finds ways to go hiking.
I don’t know if she’ll tell hiking stories on June 14th.  Her repertoire is rich. But I know I’ll be there. If you’re in the area, why don’t you come too?

Saratoga Storytelling Open Mic
June 14th, at 7 pm at Caffè Lena, Saratoga, NY

Changing reality, one story at a time

This week I’ve been working on a story about a blacksmith and his wife who invited my family to a farewell dinner when we moved away from Calgary, Alberta. They served us a strange and wonderful meal. The story is for a program I’m doing on May 1oth with Betty Cassidy, another Saratoga storyteller, of stories about the 1950s and 60s. It occurred to me, as I thought about that bizarre meal and my parents’ unexpected response to it, that some of my notions about my parents must have been wrong. My parents would not have been friends with this couple if they had been as uptight as I remember them. They would not have handled the situation with such (relative) aplomb.

Maybe it’s time for me to adjust my reality yet again.  I’m pretty comfortable with a few solid facts.  2 + 2 most always equals 4. Gravity still seems to be in working order. Probably.  But most everything else seems forever to shift depending on my point of view. The older I get, the more I’m convinced that I’m sure of nothing. And the more comfortable I am with this uncertainty.  Oh well.

In this blog, I’ll write mostly about my storytelling, which I love with a passion.  And because my storytelling is always about my trying to figure out the people in my life and this shifting thing we call reality, I’ll write about them too.

Margaret