March 27, 2013

Easter Traditions Then and Now

I remember once sitting in the living room with my parents some time over the Easter weekend while we listened to the entire recording of Handel's Messiah. I'm not sure if that was a yearly tradition or not, but it left an impression on me. Now I like to turn on CBC Radio while I am cooking breakfast on Easter morning and tune in to The Messiah with all the other people listening across the country. It's a good, unifying feeling of joy and celebration while maple flavoured bacon sizzles in the pan and the scrambled eggs cook up light and fluffy. We have bacon and eggs every Easter morning, and my family looks forward to the meal, but it is the beautiful braided Easter bread that is the crowning glory of the white clothed breakfast table.

Every year, For as long as I can remember, my mother has made her family-favourite Easter bread. My mom is an excellent bread maker and I have good memories of sitting in the kitchen watching her knead the dough - thump thump thump - as she turned the dough over and over with her capable hands on the yellow formica topped kitchen table. She generally made a large batch of sweet dough and after decorating the braided bread with white icing and brightly coloured jelly beans, would deliver a few loaves to close friends. We still had plenty left over for Easter breakfast, though, and it was always a big treat sliced and slathered with sweet and slightly salty butter. 

When my boys were little I asked my mom for her Easter bread recipe. She gave me the original booklet from which she had first learned the method; the booklet had probably come free of charge with a bag of Robin Hood flour. Every year since, I have made Mom's Easter bread, and it has become an essential part of the Easter celebrations in our house. I make two loaves and they are both gobbled up in as many days. Easter bread is not terribly filling and being white bread, it becomes stale fairly quickly. Fortunately, it never lasts long enough in our house for staleness to be a worry.

The first rising (I love punching down the dough)

Ian insited on putting his copy of Ben Hur in this photo
of the braided dough ready for baking

Golden baked loaves. They smell sooo heavenly.

Iced and decorated for Easter morning

I made our Easter bread today, and this evening, our youngest is decorating eggs. When I was growing up, Holy Saturday was the day for egg decorating. I, the youngest would do my best not to smudge the colours on my eggs, while my sisters, especially my sister Pauline created objet d'art with theirs. A local shop also sponsored an Easter colouring contest each year, and Pauline often won First Prize. I could only gaze in wonder at what she could accomplish with a set of pencil crayons. We had a beatiful collection of eggs which decorated the sideboard or the table for the Easter season.  My girls have made some beautiful creations over the years, and my eldest brought home one she had made by tying a piece of patterned silk around an egg before boiling it for several minutes in vinegar water in her cooking class this week. The pattern transferred itself onto the egg throughout the process which made for a very pretty result.

The egg on the left was boiled tied in patterned silk, while the
other was decorated with felt tipped pen by my youngest daughter

On Saturday night, our family would attend the Easter Vigil at our Cathedral. With the lights dimmed and the scent of incense sitting heavily in the air, I would generally fall asleep on my dad and sometimes he even carried me all the way home. Easter morning, we children rose and sought out our stash of chocolate and jelly beans. We always had a large, flat Peter Rabbit, and my brother and I would attack the ears first. We even had a type of Easter treasure hunt once. We had clues that we had to follow in order to reach the hiding spot of our cache of treats.

As a family now, we attend whichever Easter mass works for us because my husband is usually very busy during any holiday period at the hotel where he is employed. He even used to dress up as the Easter Bunny on Easter morning and hand out chocolate eggs to all the children staying at the hotel for the holiday. This year we opted to go to mass early Sunday morning, when our eldest girl will be singing in the choir. For several years I hid plastic eggs filled with little chocolate eggs and other candies in our downstairs for my own children. Each of our four kids was assigned a colour of plastic egg. They had to find only their colour. Eventually, they got too old for that (or my skills at hiding just could not keep up to their skill at finding) and for the past few years I have simply filled a basket or similar container with brightly coloured Easter grass to make a nest for their treats. I make one for their dad, too, so he doesn't feel left out.

We always get together with friends for an Easter supper, generally of baked ham, scallopped potatoes, salads and of course, luscious desserts and wine. This year, with the weather being so beautiful we will shake things up a bit. We are going out to our friends' farm where we will gather with some other families and go for a long walk followed by an Easter Tea (which our host says will be supper disguised as something easier). We often shared our Easter supper with friends when I was growing up, too, if I remember correctly. Easter was always the most important celebration in the year and many of the traditions I grew up with I have carried on with my own children. Taking the rich and meaningful moments of our childhoods and adapting them to our own families is what tradition is all about. And barring that, we make our own.

A joyful and very happy Easter to all!

I decided to re-post this from April 7 of last year, as much of it still holds true for our Easter celebrations this year. Again the weather promises to be beautiful and warm, and again we will be going to our friends' farm for a walk and an Easter tea, but on the Monday this time. Three of our kids will be working Sunday afternoon after the early mass, two here at the bistro, and our eldest back at his job in a music store in Vancouver (although he will be here Friday night and Saturday for a little visit). "The numbers are dwindling," my friend said last night, "The numbers are dwindling." Even on the Monday we will be with only two of our kids as our second eldest is making a visit to his grandparents for the week. One tradition we will all partake in together, however, and that is the eating of the Easter bread, but I'll be making it a day early so that can happen. 

Here is an extra photo from a little side road I took the other day. A little valley within our Valley: 

And I found some of these just opening up:

Happy Spring!

March 19, 2013

Spring Cleaning the Cobwebs

Late winter in Central Park

My mind has not been on writing much lately. My girls have been on spring break for a week now and there is another week to go. My eldest daughter spent her first week in New York City on a music appreciation trip with twelve other school mates during which she visited Lincoln Center, attended a concert of the London Philharmonic, toured Radio City Music Hall, Times Square and the NBC studios at Rockefeller Center, went to Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, the 9-11 Memorial, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the musical instruments section. While she was there, my younger daughter kept track of her itinerary, and would often pipe up with, "Emma's getting ready to see Wicked at The Gershwin Theatre," or, "Emma's up the Empire State Building right now," or "Emma might be either at Staten Island or in Greenwich Village right now - they have a choice." Emma came home early Thursday morning and spent almost all that day entertaining us with stories of the group's adventures, and exhibiting signs of complete exhaustion. They had taken the red eye flights both ways, to and from Vancouver, and as might be obvious by the description above, did every touristy thing they could cram into their five day trip. She summed up her New York experience with, "It's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there." She found she missed the general politeness of Canadians and home cooked meals after a few days.

Times Square on a Friday night

While Emma was away, I found that a little piece of me went with her, hoping and willing her to have a good time and praying her group would not encounter any bedbugs, which seem to have made an unfortunate comeback in the world of travel. However, the group stayed at a good hotel in Manhattan and one of their group, an experienced traveler, showed them how to inspect their beds properly for any critters. They found none and I felt better. Here at home, I was busy helping my violinist son mentally prepare for his auditions at the universities of his choice and filling my youngest daughter with vitamins and remedies to counter the cough she had again come down with; this winter has been a bit hard on her, like it has for so many of our acquaintance. With all of the above on my mind, I began the necessary task of spring cleaning our house. Spring cleaning and de-cluttering is proving to be a therapeutic exercise as I work toward my goal of having most of it done by Easter.

A long time ago, in a conversation with my always very busy sister, Monica, she told me she had developed a practice of cleaning out one area per day or two. That way, over time, she would get everything done without feeling overwhelmed with the idea of having to clean the whole house in one go. I decided to adopt her approach because, also being a busy person (who would rather do anything than clean), if I was going to get the job done well, I was going to have to do it a bit at a time. Rare is the day I can spend the entire time cleaning. Besides, my elbows get sore after a couple of hours' scrubbing and my lungs can only ingest so much dust. I also had a lot of paperwork and files to sort through and organize, so I tackled that job first. I found as I weeded out the old papers and kept only the important ones, making a folder for each new category, I began to feel my mind de-clutter, too, as if all the disparate items in my head had dropped into their proper place. I knew I would be able to easily locate what I needed now, and not have to shuffle through binders of thrown-together forms, lists, and printed out email communications, which is how a lot of my work is done. I tend to work intuitively. I am not disorganized in my mind, but even though I married a man who is hyper-German-organized and is an amazing example of order and efficiency to me, my files and binders do not often represent the fact.

I felt the same sense of mental de-cluttering when I pulled out our office desk in the corner of our living room. I cleaned everything, including the power cords, the walls, the carpet underneath. Just knowing my files on the shelves by the desk were in order, and the desk and everything about it was clean and orderly made me feel a great sense of satisfaction. Then I tackled the entryway of our house, getting the kids to go through their shoes, cleaning the shoe shelf, the coat closet, the throw-rugs, and scrubbing walls and the floor - which some bright person before us decided should be white lino with little green diamonds. The next victim of my spring cleaning attack will be the kitchen, and my kids have been conscripted for the event. We have a big kitchen which is what builders call 'a high traffic area', and once or twice a year we clean the insides and outsides of the drawers and cupboards and reorganize their contents. Of course, the appliances need to be cleaned, too, and more regularly, but we will tackle them as well, because the time has come again. We are also in the process of going through all our books, dusting them and their shelf homes, and weeding out ones we no longer value. I suppose I would not feel quite so much satisfaction with my spring cleaning if I did not let things build up in such a way as I tend to do. I am better at keeping our lives and important papers organized than I used to be - we have a box for medical receipts and a box for anything to do with our taxes, files for bills and important papers - but I am far from where I could be. I am not hard-wired to maintain a strict ' place for everything and everything in its place,' but I do enjoy the illusion of it, and the serene effect on my psyche for about a week after my annual spring cleaning.

I have long subscribed to the idea that "to everything there is a season." Spring and fall are the seasons to get my act together once more. Spring, because the increased sunshine highlights all the dust, dirt and clutter. Fall, because I will again be much inside the house and looking at the dust, dirt and clutter accumulated over the late spring and summer, and because my holiday from my volunteer work - and its paper trail -  is over. Spring, however, has a certain energy about it that emancipates the soul and makes it desire freshness and cleanliness - perhaps to reflect the renewed world outside my four walls and a desire to cast off the effects of the grey, gloomy grit of a west coast winter. Welcome Spring!

March 11, 2013

The Exotic Marigold Idea

From the time before I was born until the day I left home for good, my family home held my mom, my dad, and at least one other adult. My parents, from very early in their life together, chose to share their home with other people. When they moved to my home town, which was a university town in those days, they leased a large house down by the lake shore and 'rented' rooms to various university students in exchange for help with the groceries, the cooking, and the children. Back then, my dad was teaching high school, acting in theatre productions, hosting musical evenings at our house and brewing beer. My mother was also very active in the theatre community, busy raising six children and handing out her trusted words of wisdom and generous love to our various residents and visitors. I made friends with many of our house mates and grew up believing that a house full of children and adults, musical instruments, and a few cats was the norm.

When the lease was up on the big house - it was being sold to a real estate agency for their offices - we moved to a smaller house, and we could no longer house so many friends. Besides, my older brothers and sisters were all getting to the age when more concentrated parental attention would be needed. One of our student friends, however, moved to the smaller house with us. She moved with us again six months later, to a slightly larger house with a good sized private yard and garden, which my parents bought and still live in today. Marianne just felt at home with us, and we were all so used to her that no one minded or thought the situation odd. My parents were happy to oblige. They could remain active in the community, my mother could go back to work without worrying about the cooking - Marianne, with her Italian/French background, took over that role beautifully - or about my brother and I, the two youngest in the family, having no one to come home to after school. Marianne never acted like a second mother, but as I grew up I found her to be a good friend with an open ear, especially as my elder siblings all began to move out, travel the world, marry, and expand their horizons beyond our home. I spent many hours in the kitchen, helping with the food preparation, or just sitting on a stool by the wall and rattling away about my day at school, my friends, my projects, etc.

Years later when I had also moved out, gone away to school, married, and began to have children, I sometimes longed for a third adult in my house too. I often would say to myself as I struggled to learn to cook and look after babies without the benefit of any nearby family, "I wish I had a Marianne."  My husband and I coped just fine on our own, however, and I suppose it was good for me to face up to the challenge of doing everything myself while my husband was at work. He believed I had been a bit spoiled, and I am sure I had been compared to him, the eldest of four children raised in the city by a tough single mother; in my experience, eldest children always think the youngest are spoiled. Still, at times I was lonely and felt isolated. I sought out mothers groups and relied on my friendships to fill that void. Fortunately, I have made many wonderful friends over the years.

These days, as far as our home life goes, I am what my mother calls 'it'. My husband does what he can for our kids and our house and garden on his days off, but with a demanding job which requires many long days,  I do the majority of everything else it takes to run a household. We have three children still living at home, and they are all helpful, but before too long they will be gone away, too, at university or travelling, and expanding their horizons beyond our home and family. Our little family community will be broken up and life will continue adjusting to the changing patterns. At times, I know, it will all feel a little strange. And very quiet.

And then there is the ageing factor. My parents, now in their seventies, my father seventy-seven, have a third support in Marianne, who is in her fifties. The three of them work together to maintain their large garden, their home, their admirably healthy diet and lifestyle. As my parents age further they will, perhaps, be able to stay in their home much longer than if they did not have Marianne as a house mate. I often wish I could be closer so I could be of help to them when they are ill or need something, but for now I can rest assured they are managing all right in their small community of three. I remember a couple in their nineties, who, with the help of a supportive community of younger friends, was able to carry on in their own home and with their garden. A routine was established among the friends, and the elderly couple never went without anything they needed. Another family, who are very good friends of ours, created a beautiful living space in the second home on their farm, and are helping their ninety-seven year old friend live out her days in dignity and comfort in beautiful surroundings. If only all of us could have such good friends around us as we shuffle off this mortal coil.

Sometimes I think about how my life will be when I am elderly. I see many elderly people in our neighbourhood, which is home to two assisted living residences. Some look happy, healthy and self-sufficient. Some who are physically or mentally impaired appear well cared-for by family or friends. Some look lonely and fragile, as if it takes everything they've got just to get through the day. Perhaps, like in the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the secret to ageing with grace and dignity is to live in a supportive community where each person has their role and takes their turn being the caregiver or the cared for; the comforter or the comforted; the bestower of wisdom or the grower of good things to eat; the person who is good with money or the dispenser of remedies for whatever ails you. Yes, the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that we need to create and foster communities of people, ideally of varying ages who can support each other as we all make our way through life. In other, non western societies, these communities are created within families who naturally look after their elder members. Perhaps we need to work on renewing and expanding that practise in our society, too, making supportive communities we can count on among our friends and families. That, at least, is what I am working toward in my own life. I'll keep you posted.

I posted this on my son's laptop. My own PC has just been in the computer hospital recovering from a virus. I will be catching up on everyone's blogs over the next while. Thanks for your patience! Have a great week.
The photo above is of the primo actors from the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, including Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, and Maggie Smith.

March 2, 2013

I Know Why the Englishman Drinks Tea

I have never been so cold as the winter I moved to Vancouver to go to University. I grew up in the Kootenay Mountains in south eastern British Columbia where it snows in winter, rains some in every season, and is pleasantly hot in the summertime. As long as I wore a coat, hat, scarf and gloves I was warm enough in winter, unless we had a rare cold snap of -15 for a few days. Then, I wore long underwear under my jeans. After a beautifully warm fall in Vancouver, the winter rain set in. It rained, and it rained, and it rained. My hair loved the moisture, and I had waves in it for the first time. My limbs, not so much; I wore my long underwear and wool sweaters all winter long. Some days, when I was walking to my bus stop on Broadway and Commercial I was chilled to the bone by the damp, and it wasn't even very cold outside if the thermometer was any indication. When I arrived at my class, I looked forward to a break in the arts lounge where I could buy a cup of tea and begin the day's bodily thaw.

We were tea drinkers in my family. My mom always served tea after supper. I would have a cup and then head upstairs to my room to do my homework. I drank tea at breakfast when I was an older teenager - I wasn't allowed coffee until I was in college - but I'm not sure I appreciated it as much as I do now. I have a cup or two of tea every afternoon. I use it as a break in the day and a lift of both my spirits and energy which often begin to flag after lunch. After supper, in the fall, winter, and early spring I can usually be found with my hands wrapped around a cup of herbal tea as my work is generally done, and I need to keep warm while I sit with a book or in front of the TV to wind down the day. The hardworking furnace can only do so much for me.

Last night was another dark and rainy one. I drove with my son the twenty minutes into Chilliwack for his music lessons. Well, he did all the driving. I just sat and directed him from the passenger's seat. Before I left home I had filled a thermal mug with Bengal Spice tea (sort of an herbal chai in a teabag) to take with me. After dropping my son at his first lesson I went off to do errands. When I returned to wait for him outside his teacher's house, I took a few sips of my still hot tea. The spicy, milky sweet liquid warmed me as it went down my esophagus and I could feel my shoulders relaxing. I had been chilled all day, and I so appreciated the radiating comfort that tea gave me. I dropped my son off at his next lesson and went to sit in the waiting room. I made myself comfortable in one of the wooden armchairs and proceeded to enjoy my tea as the rain hammered the roofs outside. I grew warmer and sleepier by the minute. I managed to stay awake talking about books and movies to another person in the room, but it was hard to keep my eyes open. I needed Mr. Bean's toothpicks.

Or perhaps I needed some Yorkshire tea. An old friend of mine had immigrated from Yorkshire, England with his family. The first time I went to his house his mother asked me if I drank tea. I assured her I was a 'big tea drinker'. She made the tea in a small metal pot, the proportion of tea to hot water most likely equal, for the tea was the colour of mahogany. I added sugar and a lot of milk and drank a mugful. My friend's mother offered me another cup and I, already vibrating from caffeine but too proud to admit it, had another cup. I had to admit defeat after that second cup, however, and my friend and I went out for a very. long. walk. Recently, I discovered a tea called Yorkshire Gold, which has a lovely, slightly exotic flavour and reminds me of the tea I once drank with my friend's family. The tea was part of a gift basket of international foods our friends gave us for Christmas, and they informed us laughingly  that Yorkshire Gold, a tasty blend of Assam and East African teas, is 'what the commoners drink' in England (where it also rains an awful lot). The 'commoners' in this part of the world are now drinking it, too, and enjoying it very much, although we use only one tea bag per mug, or two for a pot.

Do you like a good cuppa? What's your favourite kind or brand these days? Over at my other blog Stella is sharing her easy recipe for a homemade Chai latte. It's delicious and oh, so warming on a bone chilling early spring 'Wet Coast' afternoon. Cheerio, and happy weekend! 

Above image: unknown