A Life Lesson
There is a beautiful children’s story titled, The Hundred Dresses, written in 1944 by, Eleanor Estes.  It is the tale of a poor Polish immigrant’s daughter and this young woman’s illustrations of the one hundred dresses she wished to own. It also depicts the cruelty of peers, and the optimistic spirit and strength of the young character. If you have never read this beautiful, humbling tale, you must. With a few tweaks to the setting, Este’s story caught my heart and I remembered a story my mother shared. This was the beginning of our personal Cold War period, we were drifting apart. However, our wishes were similar. We wanted to fit in with peers, we wanted to be accepted, and we both wanted a pretty dress.
It was another episode of teen angst and a teen’s foolish desire to fit in. I continued to needle away at my mother, pricking at her with my demands and words, “I don’t have any nice clothes! I wear the same things all the time! Everybody else has nice clothes, I have nothing!” Which was partly true. I had hand made clothes, refurbished silks and damasks, cut and stitched. My mother, an artistic, creative, inventive woman, could artfully combine textures, patterns, and colours of fabric. My mother delighted in the process of combining satin and silks to form a Japanese inspired kimono complete with frog closures, Grace! Mother found pleasure sewing beautiful dresses for me. Always seeing with a brilliant, artistic eye, mother had undeniable flair and style. Tops were colour blocked, shifts were embellished with rickrack or ribbon at the neckline and hem. Christmas dresses were luxe velvet with Peter Pan collars. Money was tight so mother would source unusual and beautiful fabrics, remnants from the fabric stores along Dunbar Street. On a whim, mom would pull the curtains down and remake them into outfits for the girls. My mother chose Vogue patterns for their clean, elegant lines. There were several years of Christmases where my sister and I would choose our choice of coloured velvet, “I’d like green velvet. Please, put a Peter Pan collar on the dress.” Always, my mother would oblige and delight us with a stunning dress. I recall one beautiful dress my mother made for me to attend my Grade Seven Graduation in. It was the 60s and op art was the rage. Mother found a green, yellow, lilac and turquoise blue, Pucci inspired print, which she fashioned into a sheath style dress.  Next, she attached a sheer lilac fabric overlay. It was haute couture for a rural Coquitlam elementary school graduation. Shoes, you need the right shoes, Grace. We’d hop on the local bus and head to the Army and Navy Department Store, in downtown Vancouver, to source out lilac suede shoes. I admit, my mother had a flair for design and she created gorgeous pieces of clothing for us to wear. Suddenly, mom’s efforts weren’t good enough for me. I wanted a store bought outfit and I was determined to berate and wear her down, eventually into submission. I wanted a pretty dress! Crying, slamming the door to my bedroom, flouncing around, quite certain that the world was going to end if I didn’t get a new store bought dress. After awhile, my mother flung open the bedroom door and harshly reminded me to, “sit up and stop the damn nonsense!” Never gentle in her approach when harried or cross, mom preferred to bark out words. I knew to stop the nonsense.
My mother proceeded to share a personal experience. The setting was a classmate’s birthday party my mother had been invited to attend. “ I owned two dresses, one for church and one for school. I wore my school dress practically every day. The old man didn’t care. One day, a girl in my class invited me to her birthday party. I was so excited to be invited to a party. Arriving at the hostess’ house, gift in hand, I couldn’t wait to play with the other girls. They were popular girls and they had more pretty dresses than I did. I was flattered and surprised to be invited to the girl’s party. Afterward, one of the girls told me I was invited because they wanted to see if I would wear the same old, school dress. The girls were laughing at me.” My mother had tears in her eyes.
I felt ashamed when mother left the room. I recalled a time mother had a party to attend. Up late, sewing until after midnight, mother spent hours reworking and fashioning a gilded empire waist number, with a bronze satin sash, only to toss it. I don’t like it; people asked if I was pregnant!
My mother’s words, the tremor in her voice, the shame, mirrored in her lowered eyes, as she retold the birthday party disaster, pacing back and forth in front of my bed, haunted me. I vowed that I would behave better, demand less of her. I felt sorry for her. I decided that I would find a way to earn money; beginning to appreciate that money would be helpful if I wanted to independently shop. I also vowed that I would never see my mother ashamed again and it became my mission to find a way to please her.
Many years later, I was wandering the Children’s Section of a local bookstore for a book to give my daughter. I discovered, Eleanor Este’s heart rendering story. Turning the pages, my eyes skimming the print, I realized the book paralleled my mother’s story. My mother is 84 and life has not always been kind to her. Insecurity and anxiety resurface. Frugal, my mother subsides on a government pension and savings; she exists in the subgroup, titled, below the poverty line. Mom no longer sews, however her eyes light up when she receives gifts of pretty tops and the occasional colourful, Vera Bradley tote. The designer, painter, and seamstress in her automatically comments on the pattern, the colour, and the workmanship. Always, there is gratitude in my mother’s eyes, as, child like, she hastily opens the gift, I’ve always liked a damask print. My it’s a bit bright, Grace! Purple and blue are per-r-fect colours. They chintz out on the button threads, don’t they?
I want my mother to feel pretty for her remaining moments in time and to know that I recognize the efforts she went to, designing and sewing my clothes, trying to please and protect me, hoping I would fit in, safe from the cruelty of taunts and comments. I want my mother to realize that I caught her pain and observed her strength. I want my mother to know that only now do I fully appreciate the life lesson she taught me, many years ago when I wanted a pretty dress.
Like the arbutus
She stands tall, magnificent
Facing the ocean, fiercely rugged
The wind howls, poised to fight
Beating her, whipping, pushing her back
Like the arbutus
She stands strong, magnificent.
Like the arbutus
She stands strong, resilient
Facing the wind, a survivor
The gusts bending her frame
Hitting her, pounding, pushing her back
Like the arbutus
She stands strong, magnificent.
Like the arbutus
She bares her soul, beautiful
Facing the beast, bowing to the pain
The elements challenging her soul
Splitting her, peeling, pushing her back
Like the arbutus
She stands strong, magnificent.
Like the arbutus
She clings to the cliffs, determined
Facing the pain, her heart pounding
The bark peeling to reveal an inner beauty
Surviving, smooth, sensual
Like the arbutus
She stands strong, magnificent.
It’s time for another tip from Alice’s Cookbook, Us Two~A Collection of Personal Recipes Adapted For Two Persons, Jennie B. Williams-1909. This particular prized piece of advice comes from the back of a scrap paper tucked into the cookbook for obvious safe keeping.
To those of you who have gilt frames and are wondering how to shine them, Alice suggests rubbing the frame with the white of an egg. LOL! Who knew?
Alice and Grace
This is Alice’s recipe for, trifle, as found in her cookbook~ Us Two Cookbook~ Jennie B Williams, from 1909- Gaskell-Odlum-Stabler Limited, Thomson Stationary Co. Limited, Vancouver, BC.
Any kind of stale cake, sponge or pound cake preferred, one tablespoon of wine (sherry), one tablespoon of brandy (Alice loved a shot of brandy!), strawberry, or raspberry jam, one half-pint of cream, one and one-fourth cup of blanched almonds. In a dish put first a layer of cake, then a little brandy, then jam, then cake, wine and nuts, also a little cream whipped; begin again as before, then add a few macaroons and make a wall of lady fingers. After all the cake and wine are used, over the top put plenty of whipped cream (stiff).
Alice and Grace
When I recall my father, it is always winter. I’m not sure why that is. Upon calling forth memory, I visualize his smiling face, then, a postcard-screened scene of the perfect winter appears. Snow, blanketing the ground. Frosty shades of blue, the softness of the scene, like peering through mohair. Sunlight streams through the dancing flakes of snow. Evergreens dusted, branches bending, sunlight streaming through the limbs, frost glistening, sparkling diamonds upon the earth. A deer standing behind the tree, alert and frozen on the landscape. Perhaps, winter evokes a memory of fragile beauty, frozen in time, a precious beauty that will fade and disappear. Some of my fondest memories are of times spent together, shared during the coldest winter months. My father died on winter’s cusp. My sister was born as winter peeked through the window, nature’s gentle touch, leaving a dusting of frost on the windowpane to prepare her for the cold nights ahead.
I recall one particularly harsh, relentless winter, unusual for the West Coast. The snow piled halfway to the roofline of our house. High banks of snow massed at the sides of the driveway, the endless shoveling, forming mountains of snow, standing fort like in front of the house. My father decided that the conditions were perfect to create an igloo, for you girls to play in. My sister and I waited impatiently for him to finish carving out the igloo’s entrance into the perfectly shaped dome. Wind swept snow compacts well and interlinks the ice crystals. Perfect conditions, girls! My father dug, shaped, and carved away at the mountain of snow until the rounded pile was formed into a perfect dome. We lost track of time; it blurred from morning to evening as we created our snow ice masterpiece. Finally completed, my sister and I crawled inside of the structure. The solid white walls, smooth and damp to the touch, leading upwards to the rounded roofline, the cold air inside, chilling our rosy cheeks and little noses. Our pure delight in the simple beauty of the snow house. Awed by the effect; we discovered that we could almost stand inside the structure. Inside the dome, my father placed two small, wooden crates for us to sit on. We collected a plastic tea set, apple juice, and a sleeve of Saltine crackers to dine. Bundled up in snowsuits, scarves, and mitts, we played inside our frozen playhouse from dawn to dusk. It was if we were miniature characters, enclosed within the simplest of snow globes, frozen in time.
My sister and I were the friends of choice for the neighbourhood hooligans who scampered into the yard, just to get a “pass” into our wonderful world. We had a small window to peek out of and through it we could view the twinkling stars in the inky sky. We rolled snowballs to keep handy incase of a rogue attack. Protection. Our snow house would endure that winter. Finally, slowly, deliberately, the sunlight warmed and melted our magical world away, until we were left with pieces of dirty bits of snow, reluctantly melting on the ground.
Another memory. The temperatures dropped below zero for a prolonged period, causing the local lake at the end of our street to solidly freeze over. Some of the neighbourhood children were taking advantage of this gift of nature, skating on the lake’s frozen surface. We longed to join them. One evening, my father arrived home, earlier than usual. Inside the Sears Roebuck shopping bag was two brand new pair of skates. Gently, touching the soft, chalk-white leather, my fingers slipping over the surface of the boot, I could imagine wearing the skates, twirling pirouettes upon the lake’s surface. The steel blades, shiny and sharp. Aching to try the skates on, would they fit? They’re a bit big, Grace. Wear an extra pair of socks. You’ll grow into them. A perfect fit! Driving the short, never-ending distance, to the edge of the lakeshore, headlights shining onto the icy surface to light our way, my father tested the thickness of the ice. Never walk onto ice, girls. Ice must be thick and tested by an adult. Pushing the snow shovel, dad cleared a patch of ice. Smooth as glass, I wondered, could we see the fish below the frozen surface? Carefully, dad tied our laces, giving the slightest tug at the beginning of the skate boot to offer support to our wobbly ankles. Next, my father held our hands and walked us onto the ice. We were apprehensive, What if I fall, Daddy? Will the ice crack? Coaching and encouraging, Hold your arms out like wings, Grace. There you go! Holding us, gliding us along the slippery surface. It’s all right, Grace. I’ll catch you if you fall. The car’s headlights illuminating the surface, under a moonlit night, stars as our witness, we learned to skate on the arms of our father. We learned to be brave, to fear less, to fall down, to get up, and to try again. More than that, we learned that the man we called, dad, was kind and gentle, a man who enjoyed spending times with his little girls, our hero, a man who would catch us if we fell. It was a magical moment in time and if I had the power, I would have conjured a lifetime of magical experiences. Alas, as with all that is magical, there is an elusive, fleeting quality, that in the end leaves the audience wondering, What happened?
On a chilly December morning, earlier than usual, I would awaken and go to the window. It was as if a conjuror had stepped forth to create a beautiful, magical show to delight my sleepy eyes. The perfect postcard picture of winter. Transfixed, I watched the sunlight’s brilliant rays streaming through the window, illuminating the sleeping garden. This morning, there was an unusual clarity to the view. The winter colours, brilliant in nature, a staggering beauty to behold, more than an everyday occurrence. Tumbling snowflakes perfectly spaced apart, falling to earth from a cloud placed overhead. For a moment I was transported into a magical kingdom of beauty and light. Standing in the middle of a snow globe, a magical space, the flakes like glitter raining down upon us, my sister delighting in the scene, my father holding her close. In that moment it felt as if we were connected by a mystical love or energy, interconnecting and binding us together for eternity. Later that morning, the telephone’s ring and the words, Dad passed away early this morning. I already knew.
For many childhood summers, always during the month of August, our family would pack up the car, tossing in the bright plastic buckets and shovels, oversized towels, a large, loaded cooler, dented and scratched from use. These items crammed into the trunk of the Wagon. We would head to the ferry terminal to sail across the Strait of Georgia, to Kaye Bay Lodge, on Vancouver Island. My sister and I cherished this time, as it was an opportunity to spend uninterrupted time with our father, in what could only be described as our Camelot. Fortunately, those were the days before cell phones and computers; we were completely disconnected from daily life, as we knew it. Dad would relax, explore the beachfront, and swim in the chilling Pacific Ocean with us; we knew where he was and that fact comforted my sister and me. My sister would hang seaweed and kelp from our father’s head and shoulders. Our Prince of Tides. If the tides were right, we would dig for clams. My father taught us how to look for the tell-tale bubbles, barely visible under the low puddles of seawater. Other times, we would walk farther out, our tiny feet feeling the damp, cool sea floor, to pick oysters for supper.
Freedom to play for hours on the warm, sandy beachfront and opportunities to mix with others awaited us. This vacation was the highlight of our year and became a wonderful family tradition, especially when my cousins began to join us. My sister and I would compare it to taking a peek into heaven, imagining that if we could actually do so, we would be blinded by the brilliant rays of sunlight, multi shades of blue from turquoise to azure, and an earth below us, that sparkled like diamonds in the light. The white, fluffy clouds, cushioning and carrying our tired, little bodies. On the beach, there would be precious moments of love and laughter, children and adults spending time together, singing around a campfire, the sharing of meals, and arms encircled, as we held one another close, allowing nightfall to curtain the scene, bringing another beauteous day, to an end.
A peek into heaven, it truly was. We couldn’t wait to rise at dawn, arguing over who would get which, Kellogg’s mini cereal box. Our cabin was rustic, made of sturdy logs, one of the original structures on the property. There was a small front step to rest on. Yellowed, wild beach grass grew on either side of the structure. The occasional shell would find itself relocated to rest just outside the cabin walls. We never explored the backside of the cabin, too afraid of what we might discover. At night, in our tiny room, we would draw the curtain to avoid looking through the thin glass window and to keep the night away. I still fear the darkness of night. The silence allows my mind to activate and I begin to remember memories, both happy and sad, however, then, the silence was comforting as the rhythm of the ocean’s waves, crashing to the shore, lulled us to sleep. We were content, dreaming of our beautiful days spent at the beach. A peek into heaven, it truly was, for my sister and me.
You asked me to describe my school lunches. What did I eat for lunch? This I do remember.
Queen Elizabeth School was a mere three blocks from the first home that I lived in. My mother believed in “hot” lunches and children “home” for lunch. It was the 60s, a decade of social and cultural change. JFK, sexism and racism, people were breaking free. I hardly recall a child that stayed at school, on a regular basis, for lunch. There was stability in the west side neighbourhood. Picture this, manicured front lawns, solid, tall oak trees, their boughs reaching out, protecting and canopying the children that played on the boulevards beneath, moms inside, domesticating the home. Occasionally, I would lunch at school. On those days my mother prepared my lunch, carefully packing my new silver thermos into the plaid, tin lunchbox. “Now, be careful with the thermos, Grace! One drop and it will shatter.” The thermos intrigued me with its fat, torpedo shape, gleaming silver shell, catching the rays of sunlight. The lid tightly turned, protecting and chilling the liquid milk inside. It appeared solid, indestructible.
Those days, “lunch children” would be sent to the school’s cafeteria, located in the basement of the school. Nervously, I would join the short line and as silent as mice, we would tip toe to the cafeteria, behind our beautiful teacher, Miss MacVicker. Cardigan sets, pencil skirts, kitten heels, she was a fashion icon. I would sit next to my neighbor, Bruce, a scientific, little fellow. I imagine him as a research professor now, searching for another galaxy or discovering a cure for autoimmune disease. Bruce loved dinosaurs and could recite any and all details of their existence! He read encyclopedias. In his basement, Bruce had every model of dinosaur, from ferocious Tyrannosaurus Rex to the smallest of raptors and he could tell you every fact about each type along with every detail of the Jurassic or Triassic period. However, the best thing about Bruce was his chameleon!  Imagine living next door to someone who owned a lizard that changed colours! We spent hours experimenting, trying to force changes, the chameleon flicking its long, pink tongue in disgust. Once, I actually thought I saw the reptile-changing colour; its feet turning from green to blue, as Bruce held it captive, wrapped in my mother’s turquoise scarf. “It’s getting angry,” Bruce would declare. Bruce was fascinating, smart and curious, traits I admired. Besides, he had a chameleon!
We were children of the Wonder Bread era. Lunch children sat in rows ordered chronologically; youngest students to eldest, tin lunch boxes or brown paper bags, placed in front of our little crossed legs. Napkins placed upon our laps. Quietly, unfolding our wax paper wrapped, Wonder Bread sandwiches, silently acknowledging the day’s fare. “Oh no. Egg salad, again,” would be the lament. Then the sniffing, as we raised the item first to our noses, then to the light, inspecting it with our sharp eyes, looking for bits to toss or avoid. Trades were encouraged. “I’ll trade you a peanut butter for a plain jam.” Buttered bread with sugar and cinnamon sprinkled on top was a coveted delicacy among the young lunch crowd! Tapioca pudding, oh no! “Ugh! Grace eats frog’s eggs!” I would flush with embarrassment. “Fish!” The disgust was audible. We little ones quickly learned that fish was definitely frowned upon. Homemade cookies and a thermos of milk rounded out the meal. Carefully, I unwound the lid and poured the white liquid into the small silver thermos lid. Sipping carefully. Quietly watching the other children.
One afternoon, running home from school, my lunch kit came unfastened. The silver thermos rolled out and hit the ground. “Test it,” Bruce declared. “Shake it and listen.” When I picked it up, I knew. When I shook the thermos, I heard the chinking sound of shattered glass tinkling inside the base of the thermos. My mother’s words, “Be more careful! I just bought you that one. Now, you’ll have to do without.” My thermos shattered! The solid, strong, steel like exterior, a false front, so easily broken. Insides made of glass, broken and fragile. Shattered.
I preferred to walk home to a hot lunch. It was a reprieve, an escape from the classroom. I took comfort in knowing that I had a house a ‘waiting my return, like a familiar blanket held close to the body, the house wrapped its walls around me, protecting me. Even then, I would imagine returning and the house would have vanished. The panic welling up inside as I pondered my next move.
Entering the kitchen, my lunch would be placed onto the table. Campbell’s Tomato Soup, Chicken Noodle, Alphabet, Saltines, grilled cheese, simple fare, repeated throughout the week. Delicious! Sometimes Playbox biscuits! “Howdy Doody”  would be on the radio and I would listen with delight when Princess would sing my favourite song, “High Hopes.”  I could picture that little ant pushing that big rubber plant, as I’d sing along with Princess Summer, Fall, Winter. That show was responsible for nightmares for years to follow. The thought of Howdy, Uncle Bob, and Princess actually seeing me through the radio was disconcerting to say the least. Bruce thought that they were probably lying to the children about the seeing part.
You asked me to describe what I ate for lunch. It really doesn’t matter. My mother made my lunch. I had a home, my mom, a little sister, and a friend. This much, I do remember.
“There is no stranger under the cherry tree.”- Issa
There is a tree I love. The circumference of the trunk thick and wide, so broad, that I cannot circle my arms around it anymore. Knotty, the bark rough to my cheek’s soft touch. The trunk, darkened, blackened, and browned with touches of gray. Gnarled. Leaves that are a dark green, jade, larger near the top to kiss the sun, forming a canopy to shield me. When spring returns, the tree I love awakens to life, its pink blossoms changing from crimson to a blush shade as the petals unfurl. The tree I love. Home to squirrels, chipmunks, ladybugs. Butterflies pause to rest their fragile wings for a brief moment. Bees drone and circle the blossoms, briefly alighting to dust their legs with pollen. The tree I love, a home and nurturer of life. The robin builds her nest in the uppermost branches, a safe haven for the turquoise eggs, the broken pieces of shell float to the ground when the young birds take flight. Collected by the child who gently wraps the remnants into a Kleenex. The tree I love.
It is impossible for me to walk past the Cherry Tree. Its presence alluring, pure beauty as it commands the ground. The tree I love has roots that spread and twist as they deeply anchor and nourish. Steadfast. I pause to stand under the majestic canopy and close my eyes. For a brief moment, I can summon back the memory of a little girl and her younger sister. A memory of love.
The winds begin to blow, gently teasing the tree. Dancing together the wind embraces the pinks, twirling and whirling them about before slowly releasing them to the ground. Carpeting the earth, a pink quilt, covering the ground. Fragile beauty. A memory of love, fleeting.