Sheila Morrison is a retired physiotherapist and teacher who enjoys writing essays, memoir and short stories. She is currently working on a novel. Sheila lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and spends her spare time in the woods and on the beaches with her family and poodle.
What I Didn’t Understand
I lived with my unilingual English-speaking parents and younger brother, til I was eleven or so, on the second floor of a Quebec City duplex, smack in the middle of a francophone community. Except for our occasional baby-sitter (who spoke only French to me), no other adults ever came into our home. I soaked up French quickly from neighbourhood children. At my English elementary school French lessons were frequent and wonderful. My best friend Suzanne, who was bilingual, came to my house to play often. I alone was comfortable in both languages.
Our French landlord’s flat, downstairs, was covered in brick, our upper-storey with white stucco. My mother, who always seemed to be hugging an electric heating pad, swore the stucco was damp and caused her to suffer from “rheumatism”. It may have been her way of saying that she was unhappy because after we moved to a big house she didn’t mention her achey muscles again. Or maybe she was right, that the dampness was a problem. There were other signs of her discontent, however, like bursts of foot-stomping anger with me and my younger brother for reasons that eluded me. As she sat writing letters home to “Mummy and Daddy”, sometimes while weeping, I could sense, but not understand, her loneliness.
I remember little about the physical details of that flat wrapped in stucco. Little vignettes and small spaces swim in my memory surfacing now and then to nip at me. The kitchen was in the middle with the dining room and living room at one end and the bedrooms at the other. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen while my mother made jello studded with canned Delmonte fruit cocktail, smeared a meatloaf with tomato sauce, or heated up canned spaghetti and sliced weiners. The counter ran along one wall, then half of the next wall before it turned abruptly into the centre of the kitchen to form a divider in the middle of the room. I loved the shiny formica counter top. It’s yellow surface resembled scrambled eggs and looked buttery and delicious. Along the edge was a silver strip under which dirt would collect the way it does under a finger nail. My mother would give me a butter knife and ask me to dig out the sticky black substance, probably to keep me busy, a task I found satisfying. While I dug out the dirt I would admire the swirls of buttery yellow on the counter.
Eggs were a frequent meal. At breakfast my dad tapped the egg perched in the chicken-shaped egg cup with the side of his knife two or three times until it cracked, whacked through the shell and lifted off the cap. The yolks were runny and after the first bite he’d slip a big pat of soft butter into the hole left by the spoon. He’d dip a finger of crustless buttered toast into the egg. and shovel it into his mouth, catching the drips of butter from his chin with his tongue. I copied him. My mother reprimanded him for setting a poor example by eating too quickly, a habit which I have been unable to break to this day. My father, who came from a large, poor New Brunswick family, had had to learn to eat quickly if he was going to eat at all.
My mother had impeccable and essential table manners, coming as she did from high-society Halifax. She insisted that I lay the table correctly and that we all, including my father, use her beloved Birks silverware in a defined manner. In addition to boiled eggs she served poached or scrambled eggs on buttered, crustless toast triangles, but her morning specialty was “bunny-in-the-hole”, more commonly known as egg-in-the-hole as I later learned. (Several decades later I taught my husband, whose cooking repertoire was limited to cereal, how to make “bunnies-in-the-hole” for which he became famous in the eyes of our children.) Eggs were even more delectable when, for birthday parties, they were made into crustless and quartered egg salad sandwiches accompanied by gherkins and a sprig of parsley, or paprika-sprinkled devilled eggs, both containing tiny, crunchy bits of celery, onion and radishes. Eggs became synonymous with care and affection despite my mother’s moodiness and unpredictable temper tantrums when Dad was at work and my brother and I made too much noise.
I grew up, graduated from university, and got married on the campus where I had met my future husband. The wedding has faded from my memory, which saddens me, but really it was my mother’s wedding more than mine. There was a strike that year in France where wedding lace was made and I remember feeling disappointed in the choice of wedding dresses available. My mother organized everything from a bridal shower (attended by the wives of my father’s work colleagues, none of whom I had ever met) to booking the wedding chapel and the hotel for the reception, to ordering the tea, mixed sandwiches (including egg salad of course) and wedding cake. She also hired the local town photographer. And she fired him, minutes before the wedding ceremony while I was putting on my dress. I have no idea why, but as a result we have no professional photos, only a few Kodak Brownie shots.
The day after our wedding my husband and I moved to Ghana, the first of several homes in West Africa. I was twenty and more than ready to leave family — especially my mother — and country behind to teach and to explore the world.
That first year we lived in a tiny village with no electricity. On the verandah I had a tiny charcoal burner made from a Nescafe coffee can where I would eventually learn to simmer a goat and pepper stew or fry a few plantain in palm oil, and in the kitchen a kerosene stove for the rare occasion when we could find kerosene. I had no cooking skills under my belt. My mother had never let me learn to cook. “You’ll have to do all that work soon enough some day when you are married. Don’t bother now.” I was off the hook, but looking back I wonder: did she fear that I would end up a dissatisfied housewife? Did she want her own personal space in the kitchen where she could dream of a better life? Was she simply tired of my endless questions and chatter? As an adult I learned the basics of cooking on my own, but it was challenging in a new country where most food items were foreign to me. I had one hand-produced cookbook with recipes for local dishes — spicy groundnut stew and pounded plantain and cassava — as well as recipes for so-called western food but made with so many substitutions that the traditional Ghanaian food became much more appealing. Without milk there would be no custard, but if I wanted to make an “apple pie” I could do so with green papaya, although ingredients for a crust were a hit and miss.
But eggs — free-range chickens provided us with nutritious eggs. And even better, we discovered guinea fowl eggs with their luscious orange yolks. On those nights when too many fiery red peppers had burned their way through our intestines, those eggs were heavenly, healing gems. Over the years we travelled to many countries and partook of a variety of cuisines, some delicious and some downright scary, but always there were eggs, palatable comforting eggs.
After a decade away we returned to Canada to study and work and raise our three children in Halifax. My parents were living in Ontario by then. Slowly over the years I began to notice small things about myself that reminded me of my mother. I didn’t want to be like her and I made a conscious effort to change. While peeling vegetables at the kitchen counter one day I felt myself sinking my weight onto my right foot and tucking my left foot around the back of my right ankle. My posture slumped a little and an image of my mother, in the exact same posture, came to mind. I hastened to straighten, plant both feet on the floor and shift my weight into a balanced position. Something about peeling vegetables in the same posture as my defeated mother made me both sad and angry. Angry that even at a distance she somehow tried to control me. My life was not about peeling vegetables.
Over the child-rearing/working years I slowly gained weight until one day I looked in the mirror and recognized my mother’s shape. My life was not her life, but I did not want this daily physical reminder of someone who had failed to live up to my image of “a good mother”. I struggled for a long time trying to lose the extra pounds in order to regain the figure of my youth but I lacked good nutritional sense and knowledge. On my seventieth birthday, and long after my mother had died by suicide at age 69, I began to make an earnest attempt to educate myself about food. By that time the Metabolic diet, the Paleo way of eating, and the Keto lifestyle were all popular. I studied all three and over the space of a year I went back to the healthy weight of my twenties. One day I opened my closet and looked at my wedding dress, fifty years old, moth-eaten and badly marked by big mildew stains. I slipped it on. Unable to do up the zipper I stood in front of the mirror and visualized being able to fit in comfortably. Another eight pounds and I would be into that dress. On the internet I found a discussion about how to stop a stalled weight loss. It could be done by eating only meat for a day or two, or — eggs! I don’t eat a lot of meat, but I love eggs. Every other day for two weeks I ate only eggs and the last few pounds fell off. I was now ready to do a kooky photoshoot in my dress. Now I would have photos my way.
As I slithered into that old stained and chewed-up dress my mind went back fifty years to that day when my maid of honour, Heather, was helping me dress. She giggled as she said “your mother asked me to tell you something.” “Why didn’t she tell me herself?”
“I think she thought you’d be cross. She said to tell you to use face powder so your face wouldn’t be shiny.”
According to the bridal magazines a dewy complexion was in vogue and I loved my Marcelle moisturizer. There was no way my mother was going to control my wedding face.
Now, seventeen years after my mother’s death, my daughter is doing a fun photoshoot with me in my old dress in my friend’s garden. My mother would have gotten a kick out of watching her grand-daughter direct me as I posed. It was a day of uproarious laughter and delight, a day that I wished could have happened fifty years ago. Had my mother been there this time around I might have even put on a bit of face powder.