Sepia Saturday #7: The Matriarch of the McNeils


“Other Mama” (taken around 1947. )


“Up home” — The House on Cottage Street (taken by Kat in 1989)

Alice Gouthreau McNeil, my Great-grandmother.   She married Neil. F. McNeil and she gave birth to six daughters, Mary Lucy (known as Lucy), Mary Josephine (who became Sister Agnes Eucharia), Sarah Catherine (Katie – my Grandmother), Clara, Marguerite (known as Margie), Anne (called Annie) and Matilda (called Tillie), as well as three sons, Malcolm, Stephen and James.

I’ve heard talk of her over the years as being the sweetest, kindest, most loving person anyone could know.  My mom and her siblings referred to her as “Other Mama” since they not only loved her enough to call her that, but spent almost as much time “up home” at her house at 6 Cottage Street in Glace Bay, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, as they did at their own home at 9 York Street. They headed there after school-mornings, for their lunch and enjoyed family dinners at the big wood table in the dining room on Sundays.

I can tell by the restrained smile and the slight twinkle in her eyes that she was a good woman.  By the way she’s dressed up, I think this may have been a photo taken before going to church, perhaps at Christmas since she has a corsage. I love the way she wears her hat so jauntily in this photograph and the corsage that testifies to the love of nature and flowers that she passed on to her daughters, especially my Great-aunt, Clara.  Clara  lived in the house on Cottage Street long after “Other Mama” died.  Clara kept the most beautiful garden of sweet peas and tiger lilies and other pretty flowers.  I never met my Great Grandmother, but I felt her presence while sitting at the dining room table in that house and whenever I strolled under the lattice archway or bent to smell a rose in the garden.

She died in 1950 at the age of  78. My mother’s voice fills with wistful emotion when she speaks of her.  She left an indelible impression and I wish I had known her.

Sepia Saturday is ordinarily coordinated by my very good friend, Alan Burnett of the News From Nowhere blog.  As he is on a well-deserved cruise-vacation with his lady-wife, I am pleased to assist him by posting all participants of this feature for the next few weeks.  Please advise me in a comment if you wish to be included in the links’ list below.  Thank you.














What’s that buzz?

It’s August–my least favourite month of the year. Why? Well, I’ll tell you.
It isn’t just the fact that August brings waves of heat and humidity. No. It is also the peak season for one of my worst fears: the dreaded wasp.
I have a few phobias, that’s a fact. I am fearful of fire – I don’t light matches. I am fearful of needles (ever since the Nazi-nurse gave me a booster shot in kindergarten and my arm swelled up like a balloon). Of all my phobias, however, the most enduring and undiminished fear is that of stinging insects.
As a child, I thought bees were cute, fuzzy and soft. I watched “Romper Room” and we sang that little song, “Do Be a Do-bee”, remember? What was not to love about bees? They made that lovely buzzing sound, they made yummy honey and they populated and pollinated all the pretty flowers.

I went blithely along for years, not fearing those black and yellow insects, until one summer when I was on vacation in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. We were visiting my great-aunt, Clara, in the town of Glace Bay where my mother grew up. We loved to visit Clara because she was such a sweetheart and always gave us vanilla ice-cream with home-made runny, strawberry jam drizzled on top. I loved her yard because she had a fantastic flower garden filled with sweet peas and tiger lilies.
My cousin Janis and I were out in the front yard exploring while our mothers had a visit in the old house that had originally belonged to their grandmother (or “Other Mama” as she was always known). We were playing hide and seek and Janis hid beside the white-painted, arched trellis that led to another part of the garden. What she did not know was that a wasp-nest must have blown from a tree or somewhere and come to land at the foot of the trellis. Janis stepped right on the nest!
I had my back turned when I heard her screaming! Buzzing, dive-bombing insects were swirling about her leg and she was shrieking at the top of her lungs. She ran away from the trellis, but they were following her. I steered clear of her path and ran to the back door and pulled the old wooden screen-door nearly off its hinges. Racing into the house, I cried, “Mom! Janis stepped in a bees-nest and they’re stinging her.” We could hear Janis wailing in the yard.
By the time we got to her, the wasps had retreated, but my cousin was in a sorry state. Her face was red from crying and her legs were covered in wasp-bites. I was petrified.
When we went back to East Bay and the cottage where they spent the summer, Janis lay on the couch in the living room with ice, wrapped in towels. She was in rough shape for a couple of days. Fortunately, she wasn’t allergic to bee or wasp-stings as is so often the case these days. There was no need for epinephrine; if there had been, I fear we might have lost her.
Although I, myself, was not stung in the incident, witnessing the horror was enough to traumatize me for life. I developed an absolute phobia of anything remotely resembling a bee, wasp or hornet. Horseflies on a lake when we were swimming terrified me, large mosquitoes put the fear of God in me and even the common housefly caught at just the right velocity and in a certain light could dupe me into believing I was being pestered by a malicious stinger.
This fear, generated on the east coast, followed me back to Southern Ontario and our suburb of Mississauga. No more relaxed days in the back yard, swimming in the 3-ft. deep above-ground pool or eating bar-b-ques at the wooden table on the patio. No more leisurely roadside picnics with the Coleman stove.
My outdoor days were forever to be hampered by this inner terror.
The worst thing for me, was if something landed on me. I would freeze, clamp my eyes shut and begin saying the “Hail Mary”, only peeking every few seconds to see if the killer bug had flown off. (I still do this, actually.) I hated when my mother would send me out to take clothes off the hoist-clothesline because inevitably a yellow-jacket would be sunning itself in the folds of a sheet and catch me off-guard. I would release the sheet into the wind with a yelp and go tearing off around the side of the house. This was a drag because the folding part of this exercise really appealed to my type-A personality.
So, my life from that point was lived mostly indoors, avoiding the spitfire aces that dove in my backyard or anywhere else, for that matter. No, I did go out in the summertime, but I had my eagle-eyes trained for whatever might be lurking on plants or in the skies, or even on the sidewalk.
One of my most terror-filled encounters took place while on vacation in Florida, in July. (I know. Who goes to Florida in July, in a non-air-conditioned, dark-blue vehicle no-less?)
It was at a theme park in Orlando. We had got tired of Disney World, I guess, and my dad got the bright idea that we would love a trip to The Gatorland Zoo. Yeah, right! Never mind the fact that in the 70s safety regulations must have been pretty lax, because those gators were in a 3-foot deep pool surrounded by rubber matting and we were allowed to walk around it as long as we “steered clear of the snappers”. What?!!!
For me, that was not the worst of it. The matting was framed by a cement walk and at each corner was a large tin trash bin. To get around the pool you had to go around the walk and to get around the walk and make an escape you inevitably had to pass those bins, every one of which was surrounded by a battalion of bees, wasps…all my nemeses! I was paralyzed with fear and although I was 14 at the time I cried until my dad rescued me and we got the heck out of that death-trap!
Another fear that I had was of being confined in a small space with one of my adversaries. We were driving along in our Ford Galaxie 500 (undoubtedly en route to NS) when a bee flew in the window and onto the dash. Panic ensued. My mother reacted in her usual fashion with an “Ooh, Bill! Stop the car!” I thought about jumping out onto the highway, but realized my chances of survival were probably better with the bumblebee. Instead I just shrieked and tried to get under the seat. Eventually, my dad pulled over, we all got out and my dad opened all the doors until it flew away (this despite my vote “Kill it, Daddy! Kill it!” which fell on deaf ears).
Unfortunately for my younger sister, a couple of encounters with hornets and wasps were to add to my entrenched phobia.
We were sitting at the dinner table in the cottage at East Bay, Nova Scotia. We were having a lovely meal, prepared by mom’s sister, Joan (Janis’s mom). My sister, Nancy was sitting across the table from me and we were all just carrying on as usual—you know, “Pass the potatoes.” “Would you like more gravy?” “Who wants pie for dessert?” -–that sort of thing. Suddenly, somebody (I can’t remember who –it’s all a blur from this point except for the yellow and black thorax, the striped abdomen and the stinger resting on my poor unlucky sister’s forehead); somebody said, “Don’t move, Nancy!”
My sister was still as a corpse, BUT (and here’s one of the reasons why I live in terror to this day) the wasp stung her anyway! She had a huge red swelling on her head that looked like an Easter-egg –okay, I may be exaggerating a little bit, but it was big!
With this in mind, is it any wonder that a few years later when we were driving home from somewhere and my sis and I were in the backseat, with my folks up front and ANOTHER wasp landed on her head, that I actually opened the car door and jumped out without any hesitation? Granted, we were in a research complex near our neighbourhood and the car was only going about 30 mph, but that did nothing to ease my parents’ minds when my sister shouted, “Kathleen’s jumped out of the car!” and they turned around to find me not only out of my seat, but also standing about 100 feet back down the road on the grass verge. I got in trouble for that, let me tell you, but it was worth it. Admittedly, my sister did not get stung this time, but she could have.
I have spent the bulk of my life-to-date, ducking out of class-rooms when errant wasps entered transom windows, excusing myself from the middle of church services when bees flew about the congregation, absolutely putting the kibosh on any camping trips or cottage weekends at the height of the summer and avoiding back patios where the chance of an encounter is likely. I did really well at that for a very long time, but one time we made a fatal error that we will never repeat.
Shortly after we were married, my husband and I moved to a small town north-west of Toronto. We got into the habit of checking out local yard-sales in the hopes of accumulating some decent furniture (we were not very well off) and we did pick up a few treasures.
We were living in an apartment above a century home and had a gorgeous space with an original stone wall, a huge bedroom above the garage and a walk-out through sliding doors to a wood-framed balcony. It was a gorgeous place to be.
Kevin had just landed a job with a soft-ware firm in Guelph and I was at home in the apartment, looking for a local job and doing a bit of writing. We had only 3 cats at the time.
One day, I happened to notice there was a wasp on the back glass door leading out to the balcony. This, for me, was a disaster! I can not go near the creatures. A sheer terror rises in my gullet and my adrenaline pumps at an alarming rate, telling me one thing: FLEE!
It got worse. No sooner had I noticed the wasp, then I heard another buzzing behind the woven burlap-style drapes and then another!
I raced into the kitchen and grabbed a few things: my sandwich that I had been eating, a big metal spaghetti pot and some cat treats. Luckily, we had trained the cats to respond to the word “treats” and when I called it out they came after me like rats after the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
I guided them into our bedroom and shut the door. Then I stuffed a sheet under the opening at the bottom of the door. Fortunately, I had a phone in the bedroom, so I called my husband. Bear in mind this was his new job—I think he’d only been there for about a week, but when I told him I was trapped in the bedroom with the cats, a tin pot to pee in and the wasps were taking over our apartment, he understood my fear. He left work and came home to my rescue.
The problem was that the wasps kept returning and, to quote my husband, they were “tough buggers” to kill. After a few days of trying to despatch them only to have them show up on the window time and time again, we called our landlord in to see if he could get rid of them. He determined they must have been coming in the front window above the computer desk, so he sealed it off with some pink foam. That didn’t work either!
I was living in sheer hell. The only time I felt safe was after Kevin had killed off the daily crew and it was dark, when presumably they were sleeping anyway.
One day, I happened to notice one fly out from near my computer desk (I was going nowhere near this space as you can imagine). I called to Kevin to come and take a look. The Ikea desk was one we had picked up on one of our yard sale jaunts. It had legs with peg-holes running down the front and back. It was from these that the wasps were appearing! It seems with our $15 purchase, we had got a hive of activity in the bargain. Wasps were coming out of the woodwork. Literally!
yard sale
It was with delight that I watched that desk being sprayed and then hauled out onto the back deck where Kevin took it to pieces. We cleaned up all the little carcasses and my life finally went back to normal. Well as normal as it can be for a phobic.
I’ve had other nasty dealings with my foes. The Hyggehus has been taken over by both a troop of fuzzy bumblers and more gravely, by an infestation of wasps. I don’t know how I survived that one!
Can you really blame me for doing all I can to avoid any contact no matter what people think of me? If you have a phobia, you’ll know what it feels like—that panic that envelops you until you can’t function. It will not let go!
Tell me, what are your greatest fears?
Kathleen Mortensen©2009 Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

Friday Film Festival – Cape Breton on Film and in Song

If you’ve arrived to read the Plates post, please scroll down (once you check this out, of course!)

(This Barra MacNeils’song always gets to me and I’m sure if my mother is reading this she’ll be all teary-eyed too.)

My mother was born in Glace Bay, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in 1929. Glace Bay is a coal-mining town and my grandfather, Guy Harris, descendant of a Welshman (well-known for its collieries and mining disasters such as Aberfan in 1966) was a clerk for the Dominion Coal Company that ran the mines out of Glace Bay. As well, for years, my Great Aunt, Clara Steele was the secretary at the Miners’ Museum in the building onshore,above the mine.

The following, are some highly-acclaimed films that have been made in Cape Breton and set in and around Glace Bay. It may be of interest to you to know that my own relatives have appeared and featured in these films. My mother’s uncle, Alec McDougall portrays one of the elder gentleman speaking the traditional Scots’ Gaelic in “Margaret’s Museum” and my second cousin,his daughter, Marguerite McNeil, has a cameo in that film, but she has the important role of the dying matriarch in “Marion Bridge”.

You will also recognize a very young Kiefer Sutherland (known to audiences as Jack Bauer in the series “24”) in the first clip for director Donald Petrie’s film, The Bay Boy.

These films call up something visceral in me. If you have read some of my Blasts From the Past posts, or my poems, such as “Scraps of Me” or “Getting Ducked“, you will get a sense of my deep connection to the land and the locals of Cape Breton.

One of my favourite books is the Cape Breton-based, “No Great Mischief” by Alistair MacLeod. I read it in a day and a half and I could literally feel it in my bones, my body and my blood. It made me incredibly proud of and affined with my Cape Breton heritage.

I am also a big fan of a number of Celtic-influenced, Cape Breton musicians: The Barra MacNeils, The Rankin Family, Mary Jane Lamond and Rita McNeil, Natalie McMaster and Ashley MacIsaac. (You can find information on any of these artists on Wikipedia or through Google).

The Bay Boy (1984) Controversial at the time of screening, this is a very good film which is true to the experience of growing up Catholic in Glace Bay. I saw it the year it came out and honestly don’t recall too much, but I know it’s good.

Margaret’s Museum (1995) Another film with some controversy attached to it (watch it and you’ll see why, but I won’t spoil the surprise). As the trailer indicates, Helena Bonham Carter is magnificent as the feisty, quirky Margaret, but it is the tragedy that she portrays that you will remember best. Not to be missed!

New Waterford Girl (1999) Probably one of my favourite characters ever put to film, is Liane Balaban’s, Moonie Pottie. Whether you’re Canadian or not, you will undoubtedly recognize a few faces in the cast. If you don’t laugh at this one, there’s somethin’ wrong wit ya.

Marion Bridge (2002) My mother and I like to watch this one together. It is just such a taste of life in C.B. Marion Bridge is not far from my aunt’s house. My cousin, Stephen has a home and business right in Marion Bridge and of course our cousin has a significant role. It’s a powerful film and we get a lot of emotions out while watching. Keep your eye out for Ellen Page of the film “Juno”. She has a significant part to play in this film.

Some other Cape Breton films of note:

Life Classes
Goin’ Down the Road
Johnny Belinda

Canadian Graffiti

Sometimes, as I get older, these “Blasts From the Past” get a bit muddled up in my head. Was it 1972 or 74? Was my hair long, or short? Was “Queen” at the top of the charts, or “The Knack”? It’s all a blur some days.
So, it is with today’s memoir.
From the time I was a child, our most frequent vacation-destination was Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, land of sea and sky and spectacular hills. Chock full of raspberry bushes at the roadside, stinging bloodsuckers in the salt-water and lobsters in traps in the lagoons it was a new and mystery-filled world to a tousle-haired little girl like me. I loved to go to Cape Breton.

My mother was born and raised in the coal-mining town of Glace Bay and my aunt and uncle built homes on both sides of the Bras d’Or at East Bay and Ben Eoin. The air was clean and fresh, the water was cool and tangy and my cousin, Janis (just a year younger than I) was my best buddy.
We used to run around the pink, painted house (it was a cottage initially and the main house was in Sydney) playing tag, rough-housing with the dogs, Flip and Pal, spying on my slightly older cousin, Stewart and his best friend Kevin (I had a wicked crush on him for years!). We swam and dove off the wharf, went for boat-rides with my larger-than-life uncle, Mack, and slept (okay, I didn’t actually sleep there) in the matching pink-boarded cabin across the road with the wooden bunks. The cabin was also where we set up a “haunted house” with bowls of tinned spaghetti to mimic guts and grapes for the eyeballs. We rustled up every kid on the point to go through our spook-house and we laughed ‘til our guts hurt.
Janis was (and still is) a character; get her giggling and it’s hard for us both to stop. We had many an adventure and we could talk and talk for ever. When I was back at home, we used to write each other letters using every letter of the alphabet and making up sentences to tell of our exciting lives. Later on, we sent each other tape recordings of ourselves telling stories about school and parents and everything under the sun. Sometimes, Janis and her mom even came “up” to Ontario for a few days and we would spend the time singing radio hits like “You’re Sixteen” and “The Monster Mash” and just goofing around. My dad made sure there were grand tours of all the local tourist attractions so we got to experience spots like Ontario Place theme park, The Ontario Science Centre and Niagara Falls together(we still laugh at the photo simulating us going over the Falls in a barrel, because my aunt Joan left her large purse in plain sight on the platform in front).

The older we got the more our conversations veered towards one topic: boys. I think I was the one who was most interested (being a bit older) and it was particularly useful that the house in Sydney was directly in behind a convenience store with a really cute teenage boy serving behind the counter. Here’s where the dates get a bit confusing. It was either when I was 15 and Janis was 14 or later on when I was 18 years old and she had just turned 17. No. That can’t be right, because that’s when my hair was long and permed and lightened with sun-in (a really good frizzy look) and we both wore identical royal blue bikinis on the beach. That was in the middle of summer.
Okay. It was when we went down in the Spring for a wedding. Janis’s older brother Stephen was marrying his lady-love, Joan and we were all invited. So it was earlier, when they still had the house behind the store.

Janis was a fiend for Coca-Cola (this worked into my plans nicely since we were always having to go into the store) and Timmy – I think that was his name – was there in his cute plaid shirt, with his shaggy brown hair and blue eyes, oblivious to my adoration. Somehow we got a Polaroid shot of him, which was a minor miracle if you consider just how bulky those Polaroid cameras were. I mean, it’s hardly going to be unobtrusive when you’re wielding a plastic box the size of a loaf of bread and to top it off it makes that crazy whirring sound before it ejects the longed for photo. (Sorry folks, the picture is lost, but I still remember his rather bored face.) I think we emitted our customary goofy giggles and raced out of the store clanging the bell behind us.

A few years later, when we were visiting again, Janis introduced me to a few of the night-time activities of boys and girls in Sydney. Rather than driving around in her dad’s car, we went to “Rent-a-Wreck” and picked up our personal, snazzy ride: a Plymouth Duster. It was a cool car with bench seats, Most importantly, there was gas in the tank and the radio worked.
First up on the itinerary was “shooting the drag”. If you’ve seen “American Graffiti” (and who hasn’t?) you’ll have seen them in their cars driving up and down the main strip, whistling and hooting and trying-as they say today- to “hook up”. Well, in 1970s Sydney, Nova Scotia they had the right idea, it was just scaled down a bit. The main drag was Charlotte Street. The part where one did the “shooting” was about a half-mile long and then you had to turn right, drive down a parallel backstreet and start over. The target was usually a handful of boys standing on a corner having a smoke and carrying on. As for the other guys in cars actually on the “drag”, you were lucky if you made eye contact with anyone less than 50 who wasn’t coming home from the liquor store with his case of “Keith’s” for the weekend.
A few rounds of the “drag” and it got old pretty fast. It was time to head to the newest big attraction in Sydney: McDonald’s! A burger, fries and of course, a Coke later and we were off to Charlotte Street once more. There may not have been much talent, but we sure had a lot of laughs and we had the radio going on the one station that was worth hearing as we sang (shouted) all the lyrics through the open windows of Mack’s car.

But that wasn’t all. When Janis said we should go and watch the “submarine races”, I had no clue what the heck she was on about. We were driving along and she suddenly turned down a side street and headed out in a direction I’d never been. We turned onto the Esplanade and made our way along until we came to the Sydney Harbour. Janis pulled the car into a parking lot near the water’s edge where it was really dark. Gradually, my eyes made out some other cars parked in the lot. Their windows were all steamed up and some of them were even rocking a bit. Ah! Now I understood. There were no “submarine races” it was a Lover’s Lane kind of place. Neither of us had ever taken part in this activity but we had a laugh making fun of the “lovers” who were all lined up in the chilly May night air off the Atlantic. (I know there’s a periscope joke here, but I’m choosing to ignore it.)
At the end of the night, we’d be beside ourselves with laughter, sneaking in the back door to a quiet house where everyone else was asleep. We were starving despite having wolfed down a couple of burgers and large fries between us, so when we got in the door and took off our shoes and jackets we started hunting for some food. Glory be to God! There on the stove was a big pot filled with my aunt Joan’s marvellous spaghetti sauce with the huge meatballs and lots of chili peppers. This is definitely how I came to have a) a real taste for anything spicy and b) an even worse stomach ulcer. We grabbed spoons out of the squeaky wooden drawers– holding our fingers to our lips like a couple of drunks trying not to get found out—and then lifted the lid, dipped the spoons in and each pulled out a big meatball dripping with the red-stuff. Oh! I can still taste the juicy, meaty, hot-hot goodness to this day.

Half the time, we would spend at the house and the other half we would enjoy the country and the lake. Janis and I loved the freedom of jumping in the car and heading across the sandbar to my uncle Guy’s side, in Ben Eoin. One day we took the town road back and turned down to the sandbar, crossed over and then made our way along the winding road on the other side. Janis knew of a little beach that was open to the public and it made a change to go somewhere to sun ourselves where people other than her 4 brothers could see us in our blue-bikini glory. We could be mean as teens though. There was one fellow at the beach in a stretchy Speedo suit that did nothing to enhance his sand-in-the-face image. (He was no Mark Spitz.) He had glasses and a bean-pole body (he probably turned into a gorgeous man once he got some proper clothes and a new pair of specs), but to us he was just the epitome of nerd-dom and his name, Barry Gillis was the butt of our jokes for an entire afternoon. We didn’t say anything directly to him, we just snickered and jibed at each other with typical teen-girl playfulness along the lines of “When you and Barry Gillis get married, how many kids are you going to have”? That sort of thing–harmless, but hilarious if you are a teenage girl.
I hope you appreciate this photo; the search was frightening!
Well, Janis went away to university and she married a football star. She doesn’t live in Cape Breton anymore and my Aunt Joan and my dad are no longer with us. I haven’t been to C.B. since I went with my mom back in 1989. I married a man I met through Telepersonals. Stewart’s in Newfoundland, his friend Kevin became a Mountie (R.C.M.P. officer) and has been married, oh, a few times. Barry Gillis? My guess is, he’s a politician in Halifax or some other big Canuck city. I doubt anyone “shoots the drag” on Charlotte Street anymore and I never did get to watch a Submarine Race!

Kathleen Mortensen©2009

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Party People

pwder pizza box
Ah, the Seventies!  A time of maxi-dresses, big lapels, powder-blue suits and eye-shadow, pizza-in-a-box and fruity cocktails.  At 2394  Pyramid Crescent, things were happenin’!  There was no “swingin’” going on, but the food was flash, the drinks were frothy and the chat was cheerful. These were the Davison dinner-parties and as a little girl, I was “party” to all the festivities – the craziness before, the cacophony during and the chaos after.
My parents were always big on entertaining.  They had a close circle of friends – originating on my mother’s Nova Scotia side – two ladies (and their partners) who had moved from Mom’s small coal-mining hometown of Glace Bay to the hoity-toity highlife of Toronto, Ontario and the parents of one of my friends at school, whom they had befriended at church.  This was the Fabulous Four and their parties were always a hoot because of the wacky sense of humour of the husband of one of the Cape Breton ladies, the presence of my dad’s rich Irish laugh and the clear, Scots’ accent belonging to my friend Susie’s mom.  As well, her dad was an accomplished Chef who had worked in the finest hotel-restaurants of Bermuda and when he prepared a meal for one of their parties, it was fit for a king.
My parents loved to fill the house with the smells of good food, the sound of music,laughter and chatter and to enjoy good conversation on just about any subject from politics to film.  I heard it all.
beefwell2 grasspie
Having a chef in their group put a bit of pressure on my mom and dad. They wanted to prepare dishes that were equal to that of their talented friend – my mom particularly had a sense of pride about this and so, between my mom and dad they would come up with some pretty elaborate meals.  I recall one party where they actually made pastry and wrapped it around a choice cut of meat to bake in the oven.  This, I think was their piece de resistance – a Beef Wellington!  Mind you, there were many other select dishes over the years: Coquilles St. Jacques appetizers, homemade soups, Beouf Bourguignon, Round steak in a Parma-cheese and tomato crust, Roast leg of lamb, Stuffed Salmon etc. – all accompanied by potatoes and vegetables done to perfection and finished off with Strawberries Romanoff, Grasshopper pie or Chocolate Mousse.
This is not to say that things always went well in the kitchen.  We had a pretty small house – a bungalow, with not the largest kitchen and not the best appliances – no gas ranges, no microwaves, no double-doored refrigerators – no, we had a Frigidaire olive-green stove with 4 burners and 2 inner racks and neither did we have a whole lot of counter space.
I can recall my mother, her hair piled high in a bouffant do, decked out a long, floral, jersey dress and black patent square-toed shoes with pirate buckles, sporting a half-apron as she checked whatever was roasting in the oven. The Deilcraft dining-table with the extra leaves would be set with the Wickerdale Spode and the Oneida silverware on a colourful linen tablecloth and a centrepiece of fabric flowers would be placed dead centre. Meanwhile, my dad would be prancing around in his y-fronts and undershirt, his just-shaved face stinging from the styptic pen he’d used to cauterize the blood from a cut.  Mom would be yelling at him, “They’re going to be here any minute!” To which he would yell back, “Betty. I’m going as fast as I can!” If you hadn’t sent me out for such and such at the last minute, I’d be in my suit right now, ready to go.” And so it would go, until the doorbell rang and then it would be all smiles and belly-laughs and shrill shrieks of delight and knowing looks. The party had begun!
Along with great food, there was a trend in the Seventies to concoct some pretty fantastic drinks – the likes of which you could only get at a fancy cocktail lounge or in the finest restaurants.  Though not given to overly excessive indulgence (at least not on a regular basis), my parents did like to, shall we say “tipple” and my dad, who was the soul of generosity, would spare no expense to accommodate all tastes – running from aperitifs to after dinner liqueurs. (I got to taste them all  by the way, despite being waay under-age.)
The advent of the personal blender made all these decadent concoctions possible and the Oster blender guidebook that came with the machine allowed for experimentation with as yet unheard of potent potables.  One night it was the fruity orange blossoms made with gin blended with orange sherbet, served in a bowl-shaped champagne glass, and on another, it was frozen strawberry daiquiris.  A canned piña colada mix brought a taste of tropical lands to the Davison living room where the room was a-buzz with shouts and strident talk, punctuated by sipping ladies and quaffing gents. The fellas had their favourites too, but they tended to lean to the more traditional screwdrivers, rum and cokes and gin and tonics.  Of course, there was also always a goodly amount of the popular Canadian brews in the stubby bottles cluttering up the shelves of the small Frigidaire.
The one thing my parents had literally no clue about was wine.  I am appalled to admit that along with such great banquets they were wont to serve the likes of Maria Christina (an overly sweet Canadian white wine that today would make anyone gag), or a bottle of Mateus (you know, the kind you would let drip with the wax of candles when using as a centrepiece?) or some rudimentary red that caught my dad’s eye when he scouted out the liquor store.  Occasionally, a trip to a new restaurant in town resulted in the trial of a new wine that my dad would latch onto. He was quite set in his ways was my father, and when he found something he liked (even if others did not, he held to it like the mast of a sinking ship). My mother still considers “Black Tower” to be the height of wines for a fancy meal.
Thankfully, as they aged, so did their wine selection and I must take some credit for introducing them to a full-bodied Merlot, or an unoaked Chardonnay.
Along with wine, my father loved to have an impressive selection of liqueurs.  Coming from an impoverished Belfast family and having made good over here in Canada as a Chartered Accountant for the Canadian Government, he liked to put on a good show and a storehouse of alcohol was one way he did that.  He had built a solid wooden bar in the family room in our basement and liked to stock it with anything that struck his fancy.  We had Tia Maria and Drambuie, Crème de Cacao and Amaretto, Cointreau, Cherry and Peach liqueurs – you name it!  And my father had absolutely no compunction about giving me a bit – especially since it was “only a tiny glass”.  It’s a wonder I’m not a full-blown alky today! Then again, “familiarity breeds contempt”(did Shakespeare say that, or was it the Bible?) so, I’m not inclined to even taste liqueur these days – alright, I’ll admit, I do like a bit of Bailey’s in my coffee and Kirsberry Cherry liquer doesn’t go amiss. Oh, and then there’s Kirsch in the fondue…
There remains a legend left over from my parents dinner parties and it gets blown out of proportion every time it is told (naturally). The wacky Jack (a stocky character with prematurely white hair, sparkling blue eyes and a devilish grin) was known to be a bit of an imbiber in these brouhahas.  He was the joke-teller who often crossed the line into the blue zone, if you know what I mean.  He was the card, the wit and the one inclined to get “in his cups”.  He was also the one who supposedly pilfered the silver from the dining table and after acting as usher at the next day’s Sunday mass, handed over the goods from his jacket pocket with a guilty grin and a guffaw.
Jack is no longer with us. He died from Cancer a number of years ago, but we will always remember his laughter and also his good heart.  He once cooked up a fabulous full breakfast for me and my sister as we watched him manoeuvre around his kitchen like a pro. He was a good egg himself.
I hope somewhere, my dad and Jack are having a bit of a laugh – raising a highball or tipping back a tiny glass of the nectar of the Gods.  I miss them both–I miss those days.
(Next time, we’ll have a look at some of my own parties – from little girl birthdays to big girl bashes.)
Kathleen Mortensen©2009

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Where I’m From – in poetry

My Great-aunt, “Big Clara” (the tall one),as opposed to “Little Clara” (the shorter).

Colleen, of Loose Leaf Notes left a comment on my blog yesterday and I found myself at her blog, thanking her and having a nose around to see what she is all about. She is a brilliant writer, who writes from the heart and writes in such a way as to immediately draw you into her world. I have added her to my links in the sidebar.

At Colleen’s blog, I read a poem entitled “Where I’m From”. Upon reading it I began to wonder if she would think it too bold of me if I should attempt a similar type of poem since it was such a wonderful expression of who she is. I was pleased to notice that she actually attributed this poem to another person’s blog and that there is in fact a template for anyone who wants to write one like it. I can see Michelle Hix of Sont les mots… taking this on, or perhaps Fenny . Here is the link to the template and a bit of the history of the origin of the piece. You can read Colleen’s memorable poem here.

Here’s my version of “Where I’m From”

Scraps of Me

I’m from sixties’ suburbia,
pb & j and cheese-spread
in the canteloupe kitchen
of the brick bungalow
on Pyramid Crescent.

I‘m from blown dandelions
plucked daisies, and the buttercup test,
from pixie stix, pop rocks,
Dickie Dee bells
and candy cigarettes.

I’m from best-suit Sundays,
candle-lit Masses
and my father’s tenor tones
carrying each hymn
from memory.

I’m from the seventh one
of the twelve bastard-spawned
Catholics of Rodney Drive, Belfast —
the son who crossed
the Atlantic.

I’m from corned beef and cabbage,
Feis Eirann and the Clancy Bros,
Murphy-jokes and miracles,
clay pipes and pots of gold
at the end of the rainbow.

I’m from the middle daughter
of the shunned ex-Baptist–
the Dominion Coal Company clerk
of Glace Bay, Cape Breton
Nova Scotia.

I’m from bloodsuckers, seaweed,
and salt-water… “out East Bay”,
the house on Cottage Street
with the “Aren’t they gorgeous?”
sweet pea-beds, and tiger-lilies.

I’m from, “Who’s like you
since Leatherarse died?”
and frequently:
“What do you think this is,
your Father’s yacht?”

I’m from the roll of the sea
and the rise of the hills,
from blueberry pie,
“Big Clara’s” strawberry jam
and outdoor lobster feasts.

I’m from the nun-chase
across the Santana schoolyard
and the tear-stained
train-station farewell
at the age of 15.

I’m from acid-free albums
of corner-pointed pictures
and pinked photographs
of British army days
and “the old country”
in the footed tin box.

Kathleen Mortensen © 2008

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