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Into the Kitchen

As a child, we lived behind our store, Tele Sound. There was a sunken living room and a small kitchen. My mother prepared our food there and we had a table and chairs where we ate our three meals at 9, noon and 6, together, rarely if ever deviating from that schedule. Because the stove door never properly closed, my mother’s attempts at cake baking were never fully realized. As well, as soon as she attempted a new food combination, a customer would enter the store, her work interrupted. Foods occurred with regularity on specific days such as liver, thin and hard as shoe leather on Mondays, hamburgers plain, or if my sister and I were lucky, transformed by Bravo Tomato Sauce into spaghetti on Tuesdays, heavenly roasted chicken surrounded by potatoes and carrots Friday, etc. Our kitchen and her preparation were plain and functional, informal. Today many kitchens are beautifully decorated and coordinated, some with stoves that appear to be able to heat the entire house( in colours previously never visited in a cooking space), marble, granite or Caesar stone for counters, islands on which food can be arranged and contemplated, stools at the edge for conversing, lolling.

Recently I realized that in spite of having a beautiful living room, when we have guests over,I draw them into the kitchen to chat over hors d’oeuvres, welcoming them into our kitchen where the heart of our home exists. Although there is no fireplace around which to warm ourselves, that idea of a primal spot still pervades. Our table like a fire pit is round and our leather nook surrounds it, enclosing our guests and ourselves in an unending circle. Perhaps this is a relic from my own childhood because in our first house before the store, we did in deed have a small nook.

Elsewhere in the house there is a formality of individual chairs, side tables not exactly aligned for placing drinks or nibbles and before dinner conversation. But later of course, the formal dining room is the spot where dinner will be served. Years back I would ready the eatables in the kitchen, but with age and greater ease, I invite people directly into the kitchen that is surrounded by large windows that open brightly onto the garden. It is here I am most relaxed, even adding last touches to the evening’s fare, deciding on an additional desert, fretting over a sauce that is not velvety or meringues that are too chewy.

When we were young and entertained a lot, I followed Julia Child’s cookbooks with most recipes requiring over three days to perfect, I always believing( still do) in developing from scratch entire symphonies of food. One particularly frantic day, having decided on a spanakopita dish, I rushed off to the butcher shop and purchased lamb ground to perfection on the spot. Here my memory fogs slightly as I cannot recall where the glass shards that had fallen into my preparation had come from! Had I precariously positioned wine goblets too close to my elbows, were they everyday glasses I had jostled in my hurry, but In my mind’s eye, I observe helpless – unable to freeze stop the action in slow motion -the breaking of glass into the mixture.

Of course I could not serve fragmented bits in my dinner. Kids thrown back into the car, more frantic and more upset still, I returned to the butchers to purchase more ground lamb. Realizing I had spent my last dime and did not have any more money to spend, I began to weep before the perplexed man behind the counter, explaining my plight through gaggled sobs in a store full of curious patrons. The kindly butcher provided me with the meat and I left in a haze of tears. Still in a flurry, I retraced all of my steps to formulate my dinner, exhausted by the travails, my own sloppiness and frustration.

And as always my mind darts to the Holocaust when even in the worst of times, women scrounged bits of paper onto which they secreted recipes of home to share with other inmates, endeavouring to resurrect the normalcy of their prior lives and invoke the family meals where all beloved members conversed, engaged, once sharing in quiet, calm food loving created by who those who cared deeply. These written fragments hidden in the recesses of clothes or corrupted corners stimulated memories of smells, tastes, environments, freedoms and the recalling of a life in which food, now savagely missing ,conveyed a world once cherished.

Conversely, some of my favourite reminiscences also revolve on backyard parties where food was the star, expertly designed cakes, carefully chosen and concocted recipes, flowing wine, to the backdrop of widely blooming flowers, always white, in the backyard, our kitchen extended beyond the limits of the walls and doors to enfold the yard, the grass, the guests, the out of doors.

But still it is the kitchen, the centre of the cooking activity that pinpoints where we come together, to talk and to be. In the den, we may sprawl, read, relax, even doze from time to time, but in the kitchen we sit , attuned to one another, upright, listening attentively , even pausing over mouthfuls to interact, respond, disagree , nod heads.Our children recall inviting their friends to dinner, our lively discussions on diverse topics, volleying back and forth, each participant at the meal, waiting for a hesitation or tiny gap into which to insert their opinions, voices rising, heads turning from speaker to speaker, lively, committed talk.

Here in this kitchen, too, are photographs of my parents with my children when they were young, and at the window ledge, other pictures of the grandkids, especially Thing One, Two and now Three, to bring them close , especially as they live far away. We, pretending, they are actually at the dinner table,chortling, turning to gaze out of doors, requiring a bib, a napkin,overturning glasses of chocolate milk, faces smeared with leftovers- like their cousins who come both Monday and Thursdays. Those stand-ins, sacred totems, those photographs presiding , watching, combining in the kitchen .

How to describe what happens in the kitchen. With a desk and a computer, the kitchen has become the brain of the house- and it is not surprising to find me here writing an article in the morning, or Howard working on his cases in the evening, or the grandkids involved in puzzles, constructing with Lego, attempting circuit manipulations, cutting, pasting… On our kitchen table, we work at things, building, relating with both our minds and bodies, forgetting we literally feed ourselves in the same spot, physically fortifying our intellects and souls.

From the enclosing windows I can watch the cardinals pose on the ledge or dig for food in the gutters. I can observe the robins preside over the thickening grass, I can catch sight of the ducks who fly into the pool at winter’s end and I can gauge the season’s change with the parade of flowers from tulips to clematis to lilies and dahlias, each signalling the end of spring, the beginning of summer or the cool dawn of autumn. I can make a mental note regarding the lilac tree that has twisted reaching for the sun in a shady backyard, the textures of green as they differentiate leaf from leaf, bush from bush, or ponder why some plants have not returned even though their identical twins have.

In deed the kitchen is the monarch, the governance of the house. Although showing some evidence of time and the yearly onslaught of ants now, it endures much as my granite island is symbolic of the rocks that are at the core of the earth: the kitchen, the hub of our home and my life.

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Snapshot

I read in the obits two weeks ago of the passing of a girl I knew. It seemed to me she was part of a snapshot of my youth.

There were three girls who lived behind their stores, each adjacent to the other. The fathers’ stores reflected a range of professions: one a pharmacist, the other an upholsterer, and my father, the hi fi guru. People from all over the city came to ask him the really tough tough questions regarding electronics, the next wave of music or particularly to probe the depth of my father’s intellect. Whether Bay Bloor or Clairtone, their head hanchos would make their way to our store on Eglinton. But this tale is not about my father, but the girls who lived on either side of our shop, Tele Sound.

In each of the girls’ families, there were two children, perhaps in accordance with the times and the parents of boomers who having survived the fear of an atomic bomb anticipated better secure days for their families cautiously hoping for safer futures. All were hard working, my mother and the upholsterer’s wife supporting their husbands while. working with customers in their stores. They were intense dedicated women with tall and handsome husbands.

The upholster and pharmacist had each, an older child a son and their daughter who were, closer to my age and these girls played together in the lane behind our stores.

Three is not a comfortable number, “ a crowd, “ some would say, so my relationship, particularly with H., the pharmacist’s daughter was more of convenience. Living at the very edge of the borough, We walked to school together, and she, of course, had access to great amounts of chocolate bars and comic books sold in her father’s store so with the after school anticipation of candy and reading material just next store, I posed as her friend. Because we lived behind our stores, we were not considered equal to the rich girls who went to posh summer camps or lounged at the pools at their country clubs so we tended to hang together in solidarity.

The daughter of the upholster was a year ahead of us and at school moved in another circle, but after school or early evening when kids played till dusk fell, she and H. could be found bouncing balls, skipping or darkly chatting in the lane. Often I would observe them from my pink bedroom that overlooked the lane, forced to bed early, sometimes before the stars were out twinkling.

Interestingly all three of us became teachers. H ‘s parents being the most traditional felt pharmacy was the right path for their son. So he unwillingly pursued that path- at least until his future wife motivated him to follow his heart into medicine, where he flourished as a cancer doctor. My parents encouraged my brilliant sister into medicine . My friend’ss parents were intent that rather than following her dream of going to university, that she marry young. Someone’s cousin from the States arrived to fill the bill-although I recall H, days before her marriage grieving he was not “ the one”, but the die had been cast and she felt she had no choice but to marry, barely over 21 years of age. I was off traveling the summer she asked would I be a bridesmaid. With no remorse or particular affection, I packed up my bags and headed off for California.

Back in the 60’s, one might take a year to attend Teachers’ College and viola, you were pronounced ready to teach in an elementary classroom. Poor H, not an exemplary student, pined for higher learning. But a mere female and a gentle compliant soul went along with her parents’ plan..

In the upholsterer’s home,, both daughter and son did go to university, both thriving, although the son veered from his love of athletics to buy a day camp. The daughter became a history teacher, married ,had children and grandchildren. I never saw her again.

I was unsure what path I would follow. Although I had a passion for art. I was never really sufficiently talented to follow that route and my parents had their eyes set on university for me to widen my horizons. I thought I might be a social worker, but took the path of least resistance and also became a teacher. As my interest in art persisted I completed a Masters in Art History. Thinking I might make changes to the educational system if I possessed more degrees, I wrote a doctoral thesis that combined both art and education, believing as I still do: that the visual marries well with all studies, providing a tantalizing perspective to studies that may be dry or heavily pedantic. I married, had three kids and grandkids.

Some time ago through my mother, I heard H and her husband had split up and she had returned to Toronto, to find a way to study teaching at university. We met briefly, and I noted she had gained a great deal of weight, her face looking lost in her body. And years later, my mother received a distraught call from her. Eventually I hear snippets of hormonal imbalance and emotional issues and prolonged stays in mental health facilities. I never saw her again, but I assume she lives- and hopefully well. At heart, she was a good and kind person with lofty aspirations.

From what I surmise , both the upholsterer’s daughter and I have had lead successful lives.

Brought up in a good area by a mother and a father, we fulfilled our roles in society. We went to school, were involved in a helping profession and added to the gene pool. We were typical role models perhaps for our generation. Interestingly, we all considered and engaged in teaching the profession, perhaps unsophisticated enough to veer towards others. We did not live with our spouses before marriage and all were married in a synagogue, although none of us did more than attend high holiday services. As our parents, we were all hard workers, not slackers although the gossip regarding H entwined her with a need for money to subsist as her desire to end the marriage did not provide her with alimony.

Reading the obituary of the upholsterer’s daughter caught me off guard. A small paragraph reduces a life to a handful of sentences that outline 70 or a bit more years.Truly I barely knew those facts , except for my memories that she often was reading, had dark hair and what I considered “airs” back when I was a girl growing up behind a store.

It shook me that people of my generation, ones who had lived closed by, were dying although there had a few surprises earlier – like my first real male friend in high school, Billy Novak , a talented , writer who had gone to New York -along with the names of one or two other classmates. But these moments of epiphany appearing trite ( everyone dies, of course) call into focus the days of our youth, our similarities and our differences, our luck or misfortunes, with those with whom we have shared experiences. They reveal our ordinariness, our conformity ( more perhaps in the post war days), our trajectories, our accomplishments that a demographic alludes to. They are not bad, not good. They just are. That middle class girls of a specific time and place did what unexceptional girls of the time did. In the end, it is the measure of happiness and contentment and even security that speaks to a life fulfilled or not: facts known only to an inner circle of family or friends  who truly knew the deceased.

I cannot say about poor H, whether her life was finally acceptable and pleasing to her. In contrast the sketchy details of he upholsterer’s girl suggests- at least outwardly, that she was. And for me, I too, have few complaints.

Some of us are fortunate to ride the ashes of our parents’ exhausting work, to know the unflinching love of the people who raised and cared for us, dreaming a better world for their offspring. But as a parent and grandparent myself these days, I’ve learned not all of our desires are compatible with our children’s, and there are uncontrollable events that can hinder the course. Our lives, our pursuits, our dearest relationships are fragile, gossamer, at the whim of chance and fortune. Here today and whisked away tomorrow. Rest in peace Faygie. I hope your life was sweet, full of happiness, and rewards…

Why I Hoard

 

I’m not sure if all baby boomers hoard, or if hoarding is just another one of my traits. Maybe now it is called being thrifty or possessing eco or green-consciousness. As children, boomers certainly heard tales of The Great Depression, or of the fear of atomic blasts when people stockpiled their bomb shelters with canned goods and other necessities of life. Just watch the news of a tornado-sightings and view the long snaking lines in grocery stores and the empty shelves. But my hoarding is not presently based on real events that may cause one to ravish the shelves, it’s much more psychologically-driven.

I squeeze the last drop from toothpaste tubes; I keep university notebooks full of information that I will never use and when I purchase something, frivolous or not, I absolutely have to ensure that I have retrieved its value before I toss it.

 We were in China some years ago and after touring the silk production plant, I decided that a prudent and lovely investment would be a duvet. I slowly wandered among the cover choices, eventually deciding on a yellow reversible, tone on tone pattern, congratulating myself that it would last twice as long and provide a variable accent to the bedroom.

 Not so.

 For if you ever purchase a silk bed cover, you will discover that the silk slips right off your bed- because it is silk. However, in spite of my husband’s pleading to get rid of the damn thing, I insisted that as we had paid out quite a bit for it, and that it was actually quite beautiful and complimented the décor in the room: that we must endure chilly nights when our duvet had found its own resting spot on the floor as it wiggled to the floor like the silk worms who must have hypnotized me into believing that this purchase was a wise one! For two years, we put up with the silk duvet until I finally decided that we had retrieved our money’s worth from it. Do not enquire why two years is an acceptable amount of time. Perhaps it must vary from object to object as there are pieces of clothing in my cupboard that have returned to fashion from twenty years ago and are still being held hostage with cedar balls to keep them fresh.

 As a child, we did not have much money, my father having had polio; and we lived frugally behind our store. My mother was very careful with her spending, saving for special occasions. I think of the worn red wallet my father had crafted for her in Rehab during the polio epidemic, the wallet living in the drawer in the kitchen where my sister and I were allowed to pilfer nickels for treats at Louie’s en route to West Prep. We were never told we were poor, but my parents like most of their generation saved until they had funds for a purchase. Visa, the grandchild of Chargex, was not even on the horizon. My mother an able bookkeeper and balancer of monies once even delegated funds she had painstakingly stashed for a fur coat towards a baby grand piano for my sister. The piano although used every day still sat much like some lost child among the clutter in our living room. And somehow, my ingenious mother put away enough money to pay for all of her own caregivers and apartment expenditures until she passed away recently at more than 91 years of age.

 Although I considered our home the equal of my classmates who lived in Forest Hill ( our store was at the edge of the boundary) , and although I did not expect more than sale items, my sister coveted expensive clothes on Yorkville and at Holt Renfrew. One famous story recalled her invitation to a bar mitzvah, and our Saturday visit to a store called Potpourri in that posh area. Here my sister fell in love with a stunning brocaded turquoise dress. My mother, wanting to please my sister, purchased this luxurious extravagance. However, once at the festivities, the silly bar mitzvah boy suggested she was wearing sofa material and my sister refused to ever put it on again. 

If I buy something that is expensive such as a Red Valentine dress, even at 80% off, it will, for the most part, hang in my cupboard. From time to time, when searching for  an appropriate outfit for a Saturday date with my husband, my special garments peek out, lost children in the dark, perhaps wondering why they rarely see the light of day or dark of evening. I pause, touch the sumptuous fabrics, linger a minute, smile with pleasure, and return them to their enclosures. I have so many lovely things: rich silks, delicate satins, exquisite laces, soft velvets, but sadly, their home is a closet. I know why they are confined and not permitted to frolic with the ordinary monotone tee-shirts from Jacobs or the torn pairs of Gap jeans: they are too good to wear.  I fear that if I spill a glass of wine or inadvertently catch the precious fabric on a rough surface they will tear, be ruined or spoiled.

Again it may be a throwback to living at the edge of Forest Hill where the adolescent girls shone in their navy poodle skirts and luminescent pearls. Standing at the bus stop one Channukah, I overheard a conversation describing how the eight days of the holiday would be celebrated: with bounteous presents such as magazine subscriptions, jewelry, trips to exotic places… I had been hoping my mother would give me the same red angora hat and gloves that she was busily knitting for my cousins. I was so drawn to the texture, the hot red colour, the shape of the garments that even 50 years later, the softness of that yarn my fingers can still touch. The passing conversations of the girls at my school opened my eyes to an entirely frivolous and strange standard of living.  

I was never jealous, just in awe, but something in me must have thought “ one day, I will be able to have so many beautiful things”.  There must have all ready been the seeds of embarrassment in me because on our monthly or so traverses down to Honest Ed’s on Bloor and back home, I would insist that we turn the store’s plastic bags inside out. Little did I know that Value Village and second hand clothes would be the attire of choice for teenage girls years later. But at that time I was ashamed of the undershirts and socks balled up in the bottom of the bags, fearing one of the haughty girls might pass by, giggle and point at me. Still, there is a difference between choosing to look poor and knowing there are limited funds so certain choices need be made.

That is not to disparage all that I had. We took trips to Buffalo quite often, and my mother would allow us to purchase Susan van Heusen blouses ( only $2.98), considered the desirable shirts of popular girls at school. My fashion-conscious mother even identified a shop in the downtown area, Robinson’s ( I think ) where she purchased for herself a plum suit with a short trendy jacket that I swear could have rivalled a Chanel number. She would regale us with her tales of having had all of her clothes handmade as a girl and even prompting her dressmaker to add hoods to her tops.

On our fast jaunts to the States, we also drove to a special store in Rochester to select one incredible toy each for my sister and myself, a toy that was as yet, unavailable in Toronto. Imagine an hour to peruse, touch and decide on your own enchanted goodie in a location only accessible by several hours drive away from home. I remember a leather kit with multicoloured laces and various shaped holes and numerous items with which I could create back in my own living room. It must have been an extravagance for my parents to offer us such diversions: toys being beyond the pale of necessities that my father’s very hard- earned cash might allow for. Yet I recall he enjoyed these sojourns along with us, investigating new puffing trains, mathematical-based games, new trends in building or erecting constructions. I think we were being given a protocol of values: that things that stretch the mind by play are worth the cost; that education in all forms is valuable. With my own grandson, I try and delight him- to the consternation of his parents- with what I call “ interesting things” on Thursdays when he comes for supper and to play. A throwback to what I treasured about my growing up.

We had subscriptions to magazines from Disneyland( also before they were available in Canada), and had even flown on an airplane to Los Angeles when we were five and eight to see family. We had after school lessons, ballet, piano, unfortunately religious school three times a week where I stared out at the free children playing marbles in the laneway. My parents never ever talked to us about their dwindling finances. But, little did I know how my mother scrimped, being so careful with the few dollars my father garnered from the work he would have done for free; an avocation more than a vocation. He called himself an audio engineer, brilliant in his quest to create perfect sound emitted by tubes, circuits and amplifiers. Peter Munk, Sol Mendelsohn, all the glitterati of the television and hi fidelity world came to our store Tele Sound for help, advice, insight into the workings of electronics. Passing my guru father in conversation with these men, I noted him relaxed, smiling, knowledgeable and happy: characteristics not always associated with his taciturn, quiet and introverted personality.

But the Channukah conversation opened a window on excess for me, more than anyone might need, but what a person, a silly adolescent girl might want: if they were able to manage it. I’ll never forgot that day, waiting at the bus stop, the girls flaunting their greed so nonchalantly. I, the bystander, looking askance towards the apartments across the street, pretending I was enveloped in my own deep thoughts, and affecting a scornful, haughty, self-protective downward stare, indicating that I did not care. Hah. No doubt they had no more awareness of me than the pole that designated the bus ‘s arrival.

I rationally know that my present day hoarding, particularly of expensive goods, is ridiculous because garments should be worn-enjoyed and given their place in the limelight, combined with other goods so that they can dazzle or give delight to their owner-ME. Truthfully, they are shut in, but not forgotten. They contribute to my notion that I am the equal of any socialite and should I decide they deserve an outing, I am able to command their presence. In truth when I wear something that has a label that I have fancied and finally succumbed to buying, I do feel good: the curly hair tamed, the makeup well applied  and I walk taller, more erect, feeling the equal of any rich girl who sneered at my nose cozy so many years ago. But all thoughts are not rational.

Like Sharon Stone who combined a Gap shirt and a designer skirt at the Oscars one year, I can put together on my body the expensive and the less so. As my mother wisely did, I, too, look for sales. 

We are so much a product of our parents’ ways, our contexts, good and bad, ourselves. It makes us unique, special, fearful, sensitive, wise and strange. Maybe years later we are able to examine the pieces and attempt to rearrange the jigsaw. Maybe not.

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