Saturday, 4 February 2012

Ode To The Men In My Life

(I have been saving this blog for a long time, trying to work up the courage to hit 'publish'. I have realized that there is no time like the present, which is why I have (shockingly) published my second blog of the day. Please forgive any spelling errors. Blame my blurred vision.)

I am going to be serious today.

Just today, I promise.

But there is a small, select group of people I need to thank, and as the years go by, I have started to lose some of them to age or illness, and the thought that I did not thank them while they were with us eats away at me every day. So I want to make sure that I express my gratitude to the rest of them while I still have the time. If you feel like this is not the type of blog you want to read, by all means, skip this one. It's not funny, or lighthearted, or amusing. But it needs to be written.

I have a hard time saying thank you to the people I really need to say thank you to from my childhood. I have a huge sense of shame (that I will never quite get past) for needing the help as much as I do, and it is so hard for me to tell these people to their faces. For years, I had a hard time even admitting it- it's hard for me just to think about. I am getting there, but it's taking time.

It's not that I am not grateful. Far from it. I am actually so grateful to these people that there are not enough words in all the languages of the world to make them understand how important they were. I need to say thank you in a very loud, very permanent way, and this is the best avenue I have.

Let me begin.

Some people, for whatever reason, because of outside factors, addiction, psychological makeup, personality, or mental illness, should not become parents. These may do well with smaller children, who are fairly pliable and easy to deal with, but when faced with pre-teens who argue, ignore, talk back and dismiss their opinions, are unable to make the adjustment. The caring, loving, attentive parent of a four year old may become the raging, angry, vindictive, unkind enemy of that same child at fourteen.

I had this type of father. I am past the anger now, and have come to terms with a horrible, horrible relationship. I have forgiven him (although I have not forgotten, nor do I choose to have a relationship with him), and I am doing my best to avoid the same pitfalls with my own children.

While my father emotionally (and, years later, physically) separated himself from his children, a group of wonderful, caring friends and neighbours stepped in. These surrogate fathers (and to no lesser degree, their families) are the sole reason I trust men today. They saved my sister and I when our mother was unable to do it all by herself, and they are the people who kept me from becoming an angry, bitter recluse.

In the last few years, three of these wonderful men have passed away. I wish to God I could say to their faces what I am about to say now.

Thank you. From the bottom of my heart and with every fibre of my soul, I thank you.

Grandpa. I can only remember once in my life that you ever raised your voice to me (and I REALLY deserved it!). You were the man who taught me that not all fathers scream. You taught me that an argument can be held without nastiness and unkind words. You stepped in when you knew I needed it, without being asked. You gave me away at my wedding. You WERE my father. I love you and I miss you. When you died, customers who hadn't seen you in fifty years wrote to tell us what a great guy you were. That's the kind of impression you made.

Joe White. You were the father of my best friend. You joked with me like I was a grownup, and actually listened seriously to my ideas. You picked up on the words I WASN'T saying, and you and Linda rescued me more times than I can remember. When my whole world was shattering (because, even with the misery of having him around, I preferred the 'normalcy' of knowing my father would be there in the morning when I woke up), and my mom was trying to hold herself together, your wife came to our house, brought me home with her (knowing that my mom was unable to help me herself just then), and you held me for hours as I sobbed. You taught me that recovery is possible, and that great men can surmount less-than-stellar pasts, and be wonderful people. I miss you every day.

Lorne Shields. You opened your home to my sister and I. When our space got just too horrible, middle of the night or not, you took us in. You heard the hideousness, and in a day and age where not a lot of people stepped up, you did your best to calm the storm. You and Maryanne fed us peanut butter and banana sandwiches (on WHITE BREAD!!!!!), let us sleep on the floor, and made us feel a little more powerful under powerless circumstances. You taught us to stand tall, and appreciate the tiny things. The hole you left behind is bigger than you ever could have guessed.

Chuck Faas. Your home was an oasis of calm in a world that sometimes seemed like it was spinning out of control. Although your children were older than my sister and I, you never lost your ability to relate to kids. You and Sandy took us in and told us the truth when our father didn't care enough and our mother was too heartbroken to do it themselves. You taught us to trust our guts and our intuition, and you taught us that safety was only 55 feet away. You taught me that chaos and eggshells were not the gold standard for fatherhood. I am grateful that I am able to tell you today how incredibly much you mean to me.

Uncle Dennis. When my father managed to alienate his entire family, and  left my mother, sister and myself drowning in a pool of loneliness, you made the first move to reconnect. You knew how important our relationship was, and how sorry we were to lose it. You inherently recognised how painful and embarrassing it was for us to come crawling back to a family so shamefully treated by my father, and you gave us time, and you opened your arms (and your heart), and welcomed us back in. You will always be my favourite. Although we don't see each other as regularly as we should, you have taught me that family is forever, and that anger and resentment doesn't matter. You are my only remaining connection to that side of the family, and I am deeply, deeply grateful for you.

Although other friends and neighbors, and the families of all these men, played a part in rescuing me, it is these few who hold a special place in my heart, because that was the role I so badly needed filled. When I am proud of my accomplishments, it is their opinions and respect that I crave. When I look at my family and think "Huh. I done good.", it is they that I picture standing behind me, smiling at my offspring.

I don't visit my old neighbourhood as much as I should, nor did I visit these men as much as they have deserved. It's still painful for me, and I tend to avoid these memories except on rare occasions, even though I live mere moments away. Sometimes I am lost for words, and sound silly and unimportant, and can't convey the depth of my feelings. To all of you, please know that it is not forgetfullness or uncaring that keeps me away, but the depth of my love and appreciation (as incredibly odd as that may sound).

But when I think of 'home' and 'childhood', your faces are the prominent ones in my mind's eye. You made me who I am today. All my successes are due in equal part to each of you. I am thankful for all of you every day. God knew what he was doing when he sent me to you.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you.

How My Mother Ruined My Life (Part 1 Of 7,000,000,000)

Mom didn't like cooking.

That's not to say she wasn't great at it. When my sister and I were little, she canned beets and made homemade jams. She saved the carcasses of various fowl for soup bases, and her Yorkshire Puddings always rose perfectly. She had four hundred and thirty-three uses for a canned ham (including the can), and I still make her Foo Yung salad when we need to bring a dish to a potluck.

She threw incredible dinner parties with ridiculously good food. Remember the late '70's and early '80's??? THOSE dinner parties. The ones where the men wore their best fabric belts on their pleated pants, their wives showed up in their most colorful scarves, (elaborate knots faithfully recreated from the pictures in 'The Knaughty Look'), and you and your siblings got up real early the next morning to finish all the half-drunk Vodka Gimlets and Mai-Tais before your parents crawled out of bed.

Some of her recipes are legendary. Her crab quiche is PHENOMENAL, and people actually ask for it for Christmas (not for dinner, because then you'd have to share, but as a gift), and there have been actual physical fights (perpetrated by my husband and my cousin Connor) over the last scoop of her potato bake (which she will ONLY serve with ham, not turkey, which effectively halves the number of times we get to eat it, and therefore causes some serious holiday depression).

As wonderful a cook as she was, she didn't enjoy it so much that she wanted to spend each and every day cooped up in a kitchen, slaving over a hot fondue pot. As my sister and I got older, the Nanking Cherry Jam production slacked... then slowed... and then disappeared altogether in favour of Smucker's Strawberry. She started working (as she no longer needed to be at home during the day, ferrying small children to and from school), and began buying her boullion at the grocery store. Crab quiche (with the rising cost of seafood), became a delicacy served only on special occasions, and (insert trumpets and choirs of angels here) Friday liver and onion night disappeared right along with the no-good husband.

There were a few dishes that mom kept up with on a regular basis, because they were both incredibly tasty AND cost effective. Her chicken wings (she did something ridiculous to them that I STILL can't get quite right), her hamburger soup (a third generation of our family is now learning to ask for it for birthday dinners), and, of course, (oh, sweet memories of childhood), her pork chops.

They were amazing. Succulent, seared the PERFECT amount on the outside (she always used the thin ones so the fat would get extra crispy), with the smell making the entire neighbourhood salivate. Oh, my God. I'm pretty sure that's where the term 'better than sex' came from. They tasted mom's pork chops and nothing else ever really measured up again.

So after Jason and I moved into our (skanky) apartment after high school, I decided that the very first time we had someone over for dinner, I would make mom's pork chops (this had the added bonus of not requiring us to entertain for MONTHS, because we had to save up for the cost of the ingredients). Sure, every once in a while we would serve some unsuspecting coworker Safeway brand macaroni & cheese, or a bag of stale-dated chips from Liquidation World, but when we actually invited someone over for a MEAL, that's what I would serve.

And then it finally happened. We saved up enough money to invite a friend we'd had since junior high over for dinner (the requirement was that the dinner guest be single- we only had enough money for 6 pork chops). For confidentiality purposes, I will not name said friend, but he had almost the same name as an a.a. milne character. Let's call him...... Pooh the Winnie (If this seems confusing to you, don't worry- he'll get the joke. So will his parents. It's not about you.).

We cleaned up the apartment (super easy when you own 3 sticks of furniture and next to no clothing), went ingredient shopping, and I started to cook (following mom's handwritten directions on the recipe card with near-religious zeal). By the time Chris- er- Winnie showed up, my meal was perfect. It looked like mom's. It smelled like mom's. And oh, glory, best of all, it tasted like mom's.

I was ecstatic. I watched as Winnie lifted a forkful of pork chop, (slathered in gravy and served over rice) to his mouth, and nearly quivered with glee as he chewed, swallowed, and looked at me.

"That's awesome Heather," he said, "tastes great."

"Thank you," I trilled (in my very best 'shoulder pads and melted Velveeta' dinner-party voice), "it's my mom's recipe."

"Yeah?" asked Chris. "You know she got it off the back of a Campbell's soup can, right???"