To Say Goodbye

October 29th, 2013

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When are you going to write something new
said The Scrabble Player. I check your blog every day.

You do?
I asked incredulous. And then: I think I’m done.

Scrabble Player nodded in her mild, earnest way and added, quite seriously Maybe. You. Need. To. Say. Goodbye.

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We’ve both been dealing with good bye, The Scrabble Player and I. Goodbyes can be good and bad, can comfort, can send pangs through your whole body. But goodbyes are necessary. Not saying goodbye (or not having the chance to) can tear your heart apart.

It seemed to me the Scrabble Player and her partner, who died last January had a long and detailed goodbye. I wonder if that makes a difference, if it gives grief a different, smoother texture.

I want to ask the Scrabble Player (I guess I’m asking her now) how was it, that good bye? For her? For you?

But even though we are strangely paired in grief and time we cannot find words to connect her experience to mine. At least not in a literal way.

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I’ve said for the longest time (I wrote it in a book): the end isn’t necessarily when you say goodbye.

Forget those autumnal months I was away from her, not cooking for her, not reading to her, not by her side. Forget that snowy day when her head fell onto her chest and a kind doctor tried to resusitate her but as he did she just faded away (remember that there was a loving presence beside her as she breathed her last).

Remember the gold-lit September afternoon, when she held my hand and looked at me, our blue eyes recognizing each other. Remember her words: I love you and I respect you. She said it twice. Why twice, and why respect and not just love?

The last time I saw her. Her blessing. Her good bye.

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The Poet, who is exiled from her country and thus from her mother who is now too old to travel, said to me, with casual courage: You can love someone from far away. I’m used to it. It’s OK. Remember that I loved her from afar.

Remember the time, last August. She was in hospital, again. We did our daily walk around the ward but that time she wanted to push herself so we went as far as the atrium. We sat in the pale hospital light and I read to her from a draft of my novel, Truth. I had run out of conversation, and she wasn’t interested in magazines or TV that day. It was all I had left, to entertain her. Remember the wonder of her small pale face, illuminated with strange delight, as I read.

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So this, too, is good bye. Almost seven years. Hundreds of entries. Friends and strangers from around the world who followed this blog. A reader in Ireland, after not seeing any new posts for awhile, contacted me to see how I was doing. When I told her I’m ending the blog, she responded so tenderly:

I’m sorry to hear that you’re finishing up the blog ; I very much enjoy your writing. So many blogs, food or otherwise, are so perfection driven (sorta like beauty magazines, I spose?) that your frank acknowledgement of very human imperfections is a relief to read. I think I’m trying to say that your blog contains posts of such truth and vulnerability they have stayed with me long after I read them.

The mandate of this blog was to write about food and relationships: I never thought I’d actually form relationships because of it. People I met through the blog: a chef, a writer, a cook, other bloggers, even a romantic interest, The Blue Eyed Stranger, who courted me, in the language of food, after she’d read every single entry (Don’t worry, she wasn’t a complete stranger). Kindred spirits who lurked,for years, acquaintances who’d start a conversation about something I’d written, at the coffee shop or on the street. (There were fewer of us, seven years ago and so were a kind of village, we could find one another).
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A writing practice. A long , rich conversation with people all over the world. The miracle of blogging, the ease of it, the difficulty (the guilt!) that constant narrativizing of meals and relationships and seasons of food. The taking of photos, like a blessing, before each meal (when I began, I was still using an analogue SLR camera!). The self consciousness of it.The expanded sense of self that comes with writing and being read. I am so grateful.

I may start another blog (more photographs, less words). I may publish a new collection based on entries from this blog. I may just hunker down and work on the new novel, the new memoir. I’m going to travel, quite a bit this year ( maybe a travel blog, who knows). I’m going to keep writing, writing through the pain and the joy the frustration the boredom the wondering if anyone is even listening. I’m going to sit at my desk or in a cafe or on airplanes or at the dining room table. I’m going to write as though my life depended on it. Which, as a matter of fact, it does.

Thank you for being part of my writing life, the readerly part that gives it meaning.

Namaste. Good bye

And, for those of you in or near Toronto, I’ll be doing a reading – “Recipes for Trouble: An evening of food stories” – named after this blog (a more personal goodbye) on Wednesday November 4, 7:30 p.m. at Cafuné Café , 145A Carlton. It’s free! Drop by and say hello! Come early for dinner – Brazlian and other food, and killer cocktails…

The Absence Fills

March 2nd, 2013

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Sometimes there are no words that can comfort.

Instead, friends bring flavours, smells, textures. They bring pastry, and chocolate mousse cake. The Animator cooks me fish and rice. Others bring a fruit tart in the depths of winter. Mangoes. A casserole.

The Queer Colleague drove all the way to her favourite bakery uptown to bring luxurious quiche and a chocolate mousse cake that floated down our throats (my mom would have loved that cake).

The Poet brought me chilaquiles on Saturday, for brunch. She was offhanded about it, in her hipster-ish way, but I could tell she’d thought carefully about what to make and how it would comfort: food from home.

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Where is my mother? I asked The Spiritually Inclined Colleague, over tea and the lemon squares she brought. I’ve been looking for her everywhere. She’s inside you, she said, quite confidently.

I’ve been wearing my mom’s slippers. I’ve been cleaning out my cupboards in a way only she would do. I’ve been chatting with strangers (I don’t usually do that), feeling the warmth of their humanity.

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My mother is with me. And yet I also feel that some enormous, essential part of me is missing, having been violently wrenched away. It is a confusing paradox. Contemplating this is exhausting.

The days tick by. Ten days, then two weeks and now over a month since she died. The absence of her is deafening. Where did she go?

Friends call, email, drop by. Condolence cards arrive, with carefully-written inscriptions.

For some small moments, the absence fills.

My Mother, My Muse

January 20th, 2013

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For the past six years, in this blog, I have written quite frequently about my mother. Her perogies, her love for ice cream, her dignity in the face of illness. My mother is my muse.

My mother Vera died last Friday January 11.

Mama has appeared in all of my 5 books. When visiting, I habitually read drafts to mom, her feet in fuzzy slippers up on the coffee table, a bowl of chocolate ice cream on her lap. She alternately sighed with pleasure or caustically corrected me various details. She knew the drill: she’d come to the book launch and she’d sit in the front row and listen to these sweet slightly embarrassing stories. Sometimes she’d tell me when to stop reading via the international windup sign, and then she’d pass around her baking. In a deep, proud way, I think she felt she owned my stories too.

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I asked my friend Chrystia, Why did I write about her so much? She said, she was your nemesis and your inspiration.

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Mama was rather formidable and often quite maddening in her stubbornness as we grew up. She always pushed for the best– in us, in herself. She came here as an immigrant from a hard-scrabble village in Ukraine in 1932. The frame of her life was conventional: married, raised six children, was active in the church. But she was always of her time, never one to languish in the past.

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In the early 1970s, at age 40, mama enrolled at Carleton university to study French literature. She told me she did it because my father didn’t think she was smart. She proved him wrong, read dozens of books (I’ve seen them and their heavily annotated margins). She read all the classics but decided to major in Quebecois literature – an unusual direction at a time when Canadian , let alone Quebecois studies, were barely recognized.

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In the late 70s , thousands of Vietnamese of Chinese descent were fleeing Viet Nam because of persecution. The people of Ottawa responded with offers of shelter in extraordinary numbers. Before we knew it mama was dashing off to buy mattresses and bureaus for newly arrived families – I think some of our furniture went missing too. She volunteered, then was employed by Ottawa Immigrant Services for many years. A Chinese woman – Suey Hing – became one of her closest friends and they cooked together while their young daughters played. Chinese stir fry became a regular item in our kitchen, alongside the perogies and cabbage rolls.

Mama was a mix of traditional and modern. She rarely sat still. She was all story.

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The Ukrainian community also got the benefit of her energy and vision. There’s a big, relatively new church in Ottawa, the St John’s Ukrainian Catholic Shrine. I always called The Church My Mother Built. She was a major fundraiser. In her years of service in (and as past president) of the Ukrainian Catholic Women’s League, she helped keep several churches running – in Edmonton and Victoria, too.

She was, after all, as I said in one of my stories, ‘one of the last of the ladies, with manners and dress sense to kill.’

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Through it all, right to the end, mama exercised great creativity and artistry. In the kitchen, that is. You should see her recipe journal, her files of clippings. She loved to pleasure us with flavours and aromas from all corners of the world. And, the flavours of home.

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In a deeply feminine, way my mother created an oral history of food, updating and hybridizing it, preserving our family’s and our culture’s history This was her gift to the world.

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In the last decade of her life, her food sent a very important message. It said: “I’m so not giving up.”

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Mama was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx in the 1990’s. It was hard to see something overpower her like that, at least physically. You can either close down or open up in the face of tragedy, it can go either way. She took the open road. Buddhist thinker Pema Chodron says, “When we don’t close off…we discover our kinship with all beings.” My mother set about making three generations of her family, her kin, feel individually loved. And made meaningful connections with doctors, nurses, homecare workers, pharmacists and even taxi drivers.

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We began the long process of caring for her – how hard it must have been for her to allow this! My brother and sister in Edmonton bore the heaviest burden. They made soups, took her to medical appointments, managed her finances, sat vigil during various hospital stays. Visiting from away, I felt guilty, scared. I talked to homecare workers, did laundry, washed dishes, rented DVD’s, took her to the farmer’s market, made mushroom sauce, picked up kleenexes off the floor. “Here comes boot camp” mama would mutter with dry humour, as I strode in with bags full of organic veggies and nutritional supplements. Still, I savoured those fragile, final few years with my mother after so many years of being estranged.

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We said goodbye to my mother this week,through prayer, song, food, and just being with one another. We celebrated her life.

But it is a hard long process, for a daughter to let go of her mother, her muse. I am distraught. I feed hungrily off her energy, her grace.

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A friend who is dying wrote recently: “I believe, and am surrounded by others who believe, that this moving towards death is full of meaning and keeps providing us with extraordinary exchanges with each other — from deep in our hearts, one of the places we believe God to be.”

In fact, our final rituals for my mom were full of beauty and lovely connection. This week, she was a muse for us all.

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Vichnaya Pam’iat / Eternal Memory

This posting is adapted from a eulogy I gave on January 17th in Edmonton.

These Small Things

November 26th, 2012

I’m up at 7 this grey November morning, making muffins. I’ve got a latte at my side, early morning radio turned on. The determinedly cheery CBC hosts are prattlling on about football, weather and our country’s newer, more-racist-than-ever refugee laws.

My roommate comes downstairs and sniffs the air warily. Hmmm. You baking? She never knows what’s going to happen next in this kitchen of mine. Weeks of no cooking while I’m in weeds with marking, and then, a sudden dawn baking binge. She shakes her head.

Meals. On. Wheels. I say. For my friend who has cancer. The Roommate looks thoughtful. How. Does. It. Work. she asks. How. Many. People. Are. Involved.

I fold the pureed pumpkin into the batter and tell her I have no idea. I get emails from someone who updates me on my friend’s culinary needs, how she’s handling the latest round of radiation, whether she can eat salt, that kind of thing. My friend gets 3 or 4 meals a week delivered to her. There could be a dozen, or two dozen, or fifty people involved. Once a month, I make the tastiest healthiest meal I can think of, and M.E., a woman I don’t know at all, comes to deliver it.

It’s a small thing. It makes me happy to help in some way. I wish there was more I could do.

M.E. arrives promptly at 9 a.m. She’s in her 60′s, pale, no-nonsense, kind, with a gravelly voice that has done its share of living. I’m just finishing packing the food. I hand her a muffin to try. She holds it like it’s some rare treasure. It’s still warm from the oven. Oh. Wow. she says.

Cancer. It is the plague of our time. I have five people in my life with this horrible disease, this environmental scourge. Fuck the pink ribbons, we should be storming parliaments and legislatures and corporations. A study published last week in the journal Environmental Health, showed that women in certain jobs – mainly agricultural and industrial – have double the risk of cancer. (And, with the stats as high as 1 in 2 Canadians getting cancer, the risk is already sky-high).

“Nobody is paying attention to this,” said James Brophy, one of the leaders of the study, in an interview with the Vancouver Sun.

In the meantime, we do these small things: a network of queers and women and friends across the city, passing food on, like a bucket brigade, hand to hand to hand.