The plum suit. Cinched waist. Skinny belt. Seventeen years old. My high school graduation. I like the photo even though it's an outtake. There's quiet in the closed eyes, expressive hands, and the creep of overexposure in the corner.
Chuck took my best friend Linda and me to the Red Pump in Bayfield for lunch. In 1980, the restaurant was a gem. We started with Kir Royale. I knew how to read a table — the glasses and cutlery each had a purpose. It was the first time a waiter put a napkin in my lap. An intimacy that left me breathless. The food was terrific. It felt adult.
I was trying to hold it together. Wanting to leave the small town on Lake Huron where I'd spent my teen years. But where did I belong? Home was a memory. My dad had left a few months earlier, and soon after, my mother and sibling went west. Friends took me in so I could finish high school. Divorce can cause massive levels of self-absorption in the adults involved. My needs were not a consideration.
Chuck's departure wasn't a death. It was cold-blooded murder. When I told a tender-hearted therapist the whole story, they talked of shock and rage. My experience was validated. But that was much later.
At seventeen, I was sure if I could be better, the people I loved would not leave.
I'd missed a lot of the final act of the marriage due to drugs and alcohol. The weekend everything began to change; my parents had gone away. I had a party in our beautiful home on Wilson Street — the kind that gets too big real quick. I was elated and worried about the living room's glass-top tables and crushed velvet chairs. Two guys I didn't know parked on my dad's beloved front lawn. They tried to start a fight and then fishtailed their car on the way out. A sweet neighbour came to the front door in her dressing gown to complain about the noise. The cops arrived a while later. It didn't slow us down.
But the cigarette burn on the custom-made kitchen table and the torn-up front lawn barely got a mention, given what was going down between my parents on their return.
I idealized Chuck at that age. Bought his side of the story without question, for no good reason. My mother thought we were co-conspirators. I believed he'd made a big break. Got a better life. Thought he had the kind of freedom I felt after the third drink.
Then I grew up. My perspective broadened.
In some circles, I hear the expression, "they did the best they could with what they had." It's something people say to appear fixed. To bring painful life stuff to a neat conclusion. Often I want to call bullshit.
What was good for Chuck was what went down. Some endings are messy. And a pithy saying can't explain it away.
And 'what he had' is my inheritance. Destructive patterns don't disappear with a generation. Dealing with them takes consistent effort. I've come some ways.
I played the grooves off this album. I was still likely listening to it around the time the photo was taken.
I was a child bartender. That smiling girl with the funky collar knew how to make a Manhattan. I could have used it as a talent for Show and Tell. Rolled into class with a bar cart. It was the 70s. I was hardly exceptional. Many of my classmates knew how to crack a beer and fill a shot glass.
The clink of the bottles in the cabinet. In the hour before dinner. The conviviality in the living room when family first came together — light and friendly. The way they looked at me when I brought their drink. Being part of them.
Sometimes I'd get the maraschino. My chubby fingers would fish it from between slippery spent ice cubes at the bottom of the lowball glass. The cherry cured in Red 40-dye had an amber hue from sopping up rye or bourbon. It tasted like the magic kingdom.
On the corkscrew spiral of my beautiful DNA is a spot marked for alcoholism. At 31, I did something about it. I quit the day before Dia de los Muertos. Life is poetry.
I got help through a program and maintain a modest commitment still. This does not make me "so fucking special." If done right, it has the opposite effect. I'm aware of how human I am — in good and bad ways.
Because I was a cook and loved restaurants, I learned to be gracious at the table and on social occasions — I did not want to be an outsider. Like the cocktails before family dinner, alcohol brings great pleasure to many. Abstinence does not equal aversion. And now there are so many things for me to drink that taste like belonging.
Saying more about recovery sounds like I've got it all wrapped up. And I'm not even close.
I celebrate choosing life in late October. It's been tenuous at times. But I want it, still.
I've always liked a shag haircut. Even at that age I had acute anxiety about being fat. Shame was a constant companion. Now all I see is the girl who loved food with blue eyes and a bright smile.
Billy Preston's been filling my heart this week. That suit. Those moves. The horn section. Ray Charles grooving at the piano. Chuck had a few of his albums. The sound of my childhood.
1967 (The Ed Sullivan Show)
I can't remember when Chuck started adding Chinese celery and ginger to chicken stock. He liked chef Kylie Kwong, and it wouldn't surprise me if the idea came from one of her cookbooks. Last weekend, I added aromatic pandan and culantro. I was craving the earthy savour of Hainanese chicken and rice. Because there's just me, I make stock overnight in the crock pot.
The apartment smelled like a cry in the morning. I got that out of the way. Then I made a soup with miso, shimeji mushrooms, gai lan, and pasta O's and garnished it with garlic chives. It tasted like the plaid flannel shirt hug I needed. I'm going to tinker with it over the winter. A cook on Twitter suggested I try it without pandan. That's next. And I'm going to use white miso. I found a copy of China Moon's Double Chicken Stock in my accordion recipe file. Barbara Tropp...of course.
Chuck would make that annoying slurp and sigh — Dad Eats Soup — sound while eating. A global phenomenon. Soup turns a lot of men into loud eaters. Do you know about misophonia?
I have to make his Russian borscht with short ribs and cabbage. The recipe is in an email dated April 12, 2010. He thought it came from the Time-Life series, Foods of the World, but had checked, and it didn't.
"What follows is the currently made version sans quantities as they will depend on the quantity of soup being made and your own propensity for particular flavours." He liked parsnip and cabbage in the winter. I do too. I'd tolerate the racket to eat a bowl of it with him again.
Also, I've got questions.
I wrote the first draft of this longhand in my journal, sitting outside Moonbeam Coffee Roasters in Kensington Market, enjoying the last slice of patio season. They make a proper cortado.
There's been a minor renovation since I'd last been. Inside was a bit more congested (in a neighbourly way). But out front, the plastic teal patio furniture from the 90s was reassuring. My bag of stock ingredients plunked in the chair opposite — leafy tops of Chinese celery flopping out the top.
There's something about being out, undisturbed, and writing in cursive. I also use a voice memo and notes app on my phone to capture ideas and sentences. Over the last few months, I've been wandering one day on the weekend. It's a good new thing.
Will I find a way to continue in the cold and snow? It's coming soon. Have I mentioned that?
These songs came back-to-back in explore mode. I immerse myself in the music during the week while writing. Connecting the two is a pleasure. Songs are parked at the bottom of the 'today' playlist waiting for stories. Some I'll never tell.
Look at that Black Keys album cover. According to Wikipedia — the first source on Google — the minivan is a replica of one they used to tour early in their career.
The faux wood panelling stage of artistic development is poetry. When you are fucking hungry.
I am a family of one. Flying solo on this Canadian holiday weekend. The plan is to have fun.
I love your company. But I have no problem taking myself out.
Maybe I'll see a movie, go to the Denyse Thomasos show at the AGO, or walk along the Humber river. I'm cooking a bunch — stuffed shells one night and roast chicken with all the sides on another. There were Italian pole beans at the market on Friday night. I can never walk past them — the attraction feels ancient. I'll either make fasoulia or have them steamed with too much butter.
Three days of nothing but me. Super Bon!
My family lives mainly in the West and the U.S. on both coasts. We have not seen each other in a while. Some of them since my father's memorial.
I was on the Queen streetcar today, texting with my dad's youngest brother in B.C and my aunt at her home in St. Helena. I love them, and they love me. That's what's important. I hope soon our knees will be under the same table. Turkey's tolerable with the right company.
I was walking by Famiglia Baldassarre one morning this week at 10:00 a.m., their garage door was up, and this song was blasting. Thirsty Joe Cocker first thing Tuesday. An early morning reminder of life's pleasures. I busted out a smile. Shared a thumbs-up with the guy behind the counter.
I drew this picture on September 5th, 1967, the first day of kindergarten. The Tuesday after Labour Day. I was four years old. It's in terrific condition because my mother had a career in record keeping. I inherited her talent.
Conceptualizing a slide — the stairs and descent — was a lot for a wee brain. And apparently, some men look like angry caterpillars (paging Carl Jung). I hope you have this kind of childhood stuff. Unfolding a yellowing page of newsprint and bridging an almost 56-year gap is sweet.
From the start, being at school made me happy.
I've been thinking about creativity and the winter ahead. About a project I mostly parked over the summer. It seems pressing to crack on this season as an antidote to the bleakness. Staying connected to what's happening in the world and being a good, vocal citizen mean a lot to me.
And I have to feed the spirit to tip the scale toward hope — essential for my survival. I spent years attending meetings where the joy of living was a mandate (sometimes, I hated that).
Making time for self is a hard concept for a lot of cooks. Because our work compass is fucked up, sometimes beyond all recognition.
I am conscious of having art in my life. I went to see the Bowie documentary, Moonage Daydream. It's fabulous. There's a clip of an interview where he talks about shifting his mental disposition toward the positive and being of service to others. He's speaking several years after his Berlin transition.
This week I watched Museum Town on Kanopy (with my Toronto library card) about North Adams, Massachusetts and the MOCA Mass. The Nick Cave exhibit "Until" was captivating. The shimmer and tinkle of crystals and the crank of chains as the great cloud ascended toward the ceiling. The size of the community it took to create. So many believers. I want to stand under it, and have my vision blur from the coloured foil weapon whirly gigs.
On Friday afternoon at work, there was preparation for pork hocks cooked in sauerkraut. I was staying present with memories of my dad. He always made a big crock and had all the equipment, including a big wooden mandoline. I'm pretty sure he bought it at Denninger's in Hamilton. The cabbage and riesling came from a ten-minute drive from his front door in Grimsby. It would ferment in the cold cellar, on a shelf with his oval copper chafing dish and cast-iron Dutch ovens. His cookbooks were down there too. Magic happened in that corner of the basement. I can still smell the boozy-acidic tang.
I have never made my own. That should change. There might be tears.
ELO were masters of the dramatic entrance — they knew how to set the stage for a song.