Like gathering up
the scraps of pastry dough
I make a little tart of words
March 12th was opening day, so to speak. First, we dragged up our supplies from the cellar; took inventory and rewashed thirteen blue plastic sap buckets, matching lids and spiles. The yard is glare ice as we shuffled out into the cold sunshine arms wide and filled with blue plastic. Warren handled the drilling: thirteen holes, half an inch wide and two inches deep. We only needed six mature maple trees. Previous experience from two past seasons had taught us not to tap the linden trees by mistake and to not bother with the crimson king maples. Our star performer has been the wonderful old maple that towers over our driveway. This majestic beauty can take four sap pails.
I suppose you could now refer to us as ‘experienced’. My parents produced maple syrup for years at the farm. I have always found it thrilling – another sign that we are not ordinary retired folk. I proudly give away our syrup to friends. It is also a regular ingredient in my kitchen, added to salad dressings, stews and sauces plus my yogurt of course. I love our abundance of maple syrup. All it takes is good spring weather. Above freezing by day. Below freezing each night. But grab those precious few weeks while you can. Once passed the opportunity is lost for another year.
Every morning before breakfast Warren heads out to gather sap. Some mornings all that is waiting is a thick slab of ice inside the pails. Throughout the day, Warren keeps a watchful eye on the pails ensure the sap doesn’t brim over. Some days when it is really flowing he has emptied them three times.
April 1st. We have fifty orange Home Depot buckets lined up inside the garage waiting. That’s enough. 200 gallons in all. We dissemble the sap pails and hammer wooded dowels into the tapped holes. It is too windy and cold today to fire up the stoves. We delay the boiling.
Tuesday April 2nd, we start the sugaring off. Two stoves are assembled on our kitchen stoop. Each stove burns 150,000 BTUs. That’s a lot of power. Warren hammers together a wooden frame and hangs a tarpaulin tarp to provide shelter from the wind and dust. Inside our makeshift sugar shack we can barely hear each other over the roar from the propane stoves.
Sugaring off operation gets underway each morning around eight am. Warren lugs out ten great sloshy 5- gallon pails from the garage into the kitchen. This is our daily supply of sap. Our goal is to boil this down all day letting evaporation reduce the volume to a ratio of 30:1. By 7 p.m. every night we shut down the operation. Before the cold sap hits the stoves we give it a good straining to remove any impurities such as leaves or bark. My job is to hold the filter wide over a spare empty bucket while Warren wrestles control over the flow of sap pouring into the filter bag. This operation is not always easy.
“Slowly now, wait wait. Oops”
The filter slips through my fingers, folds on to itself and we splash sap down our legs onto the kitchen floor. “Damn”
We have two 12 x 18-inch stainless steaming trays set up on top of the propane stoves. All day long we hang close, regularly checking the level of the boiling sap. Whenever the levels drop, we top up with new sap. Hour by hour it boils away. By 7 p.m. all of the day’s orange pails are empty and we have two noticeably brown boiling trays left to cool. We store this semi syrup product in the garage until day 5.
This is our routine for the next four days. Constant vigilance on the boil. Topping up the levels. Empty pails need washing. A major scrub down every evening: boiling trays, oven mitts and filter bags. Our social calendar is kept clear except for the daily trips to town to buy more propane. We push on.
Saturday April 6th. We have four – five gallon buckets of brown semi syrup to finish off today. We now want to reduce this by half. It shouldn’t take too long. Warren wants to rely on his hydrometer but I prefer my tried and true candy thermometer. The final syrup comes off the flame when the boil reaches 219 degrees.
Same scenario – we start the day with a final filter and then wait around to watch the boil. I test the heat. 210 degrees. We top up and gradually the heat climbs again. 211 degrees. Another top up. We only have one half a bucket left to eventually pour into the boiling trays. Almost done.
Eleven a.m. and the boil is still only at 215 degrees. I start to question if I shouldn’t pop into town now to pick up some groceries. Warren assures me that he’s got it. I’m back in half an hour and take the temperature again 217 degrees in one tray and 216 in the other. This is taking all day. I go in the house to clean. I can see Warren hanging around outside, waiting.
Approximately five minutes later I look through the kitchen door window but can’t see Warren. Surely, he can’t have gone far? I head out to the stoves and check the boil. At first, I can’t understand what I’m looking at. One tray is still boiling but the second tray is …… well its gray/brown foam.
“What the hell?” Realization explodes in my brain. “Oh my God! Warren!” I scream. I grab at the control dials and shut the flame off. In a quick dash I head down the walkway to his garage. Where else would he be – working on his cars.
Moving on….. The two of us stand together and assess the burnt mess in the one tray. Obviously, the boil had obviously reached 216. At that point the consistency of the liquid changed. Tiny, tiny bubbles erupted like a volcano and boiled over the sides of the pan. We can see black char burnt into the pan and a great puddle lies under the stove. What a mess. We probably lost a quarter of our entire intake of sap. Inside the tray it looks like foam insulation except its dark gray/brown and cracked dry.
With nothing more to lose, we decide to take the last few cups of semi-syrup remaining in the bucket and add this liquid to the foam mess. We give it a stir and surprising it comes back to live – more or less. We stir the concoction a little more and pick out some of the larger pieces of burnt charcoal.
We decide to give it just a little bit of a boil to blend the new liquid with the old foam. Just a short little boil and then we remove two trays from the flame.
That is, it. The boiling phase is over. No one is pointing fingers about what happened to the last tray. I feel as much to blame as Warren. We both knew we were at the end stage so why did we both goof off? So discouraging. Such a waste of resources, time and energy. But what is done is done.
On to the bottling assembly line. We have two batches. The good stuff and the burnt.
I used a permanent black marker to label the jar lids with the year and descriptive name. “GS” obviously stands for good stuff and “Old English” is our code word for the much darker burnt toffee flavoured batch. This one is an acquired taste.
Now begins the big sticky clean up. I dawn plastic gloves protect my hands from the scorching water as we sterilize the thermometers, hydrometer and sap pails. The stainless-steel boiling trays are garbage. At least one is for sure.
Once we air dry everything, it is hauled back down to the cellar, cover and stored.
I washed that damn floor yet again. It wasn’t until I thought of washing the soles of Warren’s running shoes that I started to make real process.
Meanwhile Warren has hoses run up from the utility sink in the basement and is power washer the kitchen stoop. Hot spray blasts the sugary glaze coating the propane stoves, tanks and flagstone porch. The green tarpaulin tent is dissembled and folded away.
Fifty-five glass jars of maple syrup are our take away, all stored in the cellar pantry. Job done. I’m done in. I don’t recall feeling this worn out in previous years. It may have been our last year for sugaring off.
Ten pm and the RV campground is still humming with activity
There’s a general reluctance to move inside. Bedtime is put on hold
The scorching heat of the day has finally cleared leaving behind a velvety soft breeze perfumed with wood smoke
Most unusual is the number of young children still up
bicycles are abandoned in the grass
Now into a different game: flashlight tag
Foot soldiers on reconnaissance shining their torches, squeals and protests
retreating troops escaping through a labyrinthine of motorhomes and trailers
free in the warm evening air
Lawn chairs are pulled around and bonfires spring up at every site
Low voices and laugher float – neighbours silhouetted in the glow
wild sparks burst out
free in the warm evening air
The dog and I head out to escape this mini metropolis
straining our eyes, we follow the dark outline of a path leading to the edge of a large meadow
stillness except for a chorus of peepers, white noise in the calm
More flickering lights, smaller this time
Hundreds of blinking fireflies dance just above the grasses.
free in the warm evening air
With an inflatable plastic cushion positioned under my tender stitches and our freshly born son safely strapped into his new car seat, we headed east. Goodbye Toronto. Hello Ottawa, my new home. The year was 1992. I was 39 years old and the Jays were just about to win the World Series. The next nine months – my maternity leave, would turn out to be the happiest time of my life.
It was complicated. We had been married for some time but Warren had been transferred to Ottawa and I had not followed. I had a great career in Toronto. I owned a home. This maternity leave, while not a permanent solution, was offering us a chance for the first time to live under the same roof as husband and wife. Our new baby. Matthew – well that was just a wonderful, wonderful bonus.
Doubting friends and family were greatly relieved we were finally together. That summer they literally showered me in pastel little sleepers, tiny socks, and receiving blankets. Every weekend I would pass these along to Warren. It was entirely his responsibility to set up the new baby’s room in Ottawa. While my belly expanded, Warren filled his nights with “nesting” activities; assembling the crib, hanging teddy bear murals and washing all in-coming with Ivory Snow. He thought of everything right down to the zinc cream and baby wipes. The room stood perfect and waiting; a testament of Warren’s love.
Life in Ottawa as a new mother; and as a wife, felt like dress up / playing house. With few distractions Matthew and I settled into a comfortable routine. Matthew’s morning bath, selecting his outfit for the day, a walk up to Bank Street and shopping in their lovely boutiques and food stores. It was all fantastic. On Tuesday we did a mom and tot class at the library. I learned to cook that winter. Most days at noon, I would switch on the TV and catch a half hour program called: “The Urban Peasant” James Barber factored large in our life at that time. I copied most of his suggestions and felt very grown up and gourmet.
Our apartment was on the ground floor of an old mansion in the Glebe. Our front window faced out onto the Rideau Canal and a grassy parkway with paved sidewalk that went on for miles. It was in this beautiful setting that I witnessed my first hoar frost. Ottawa was frozen under a thin coating of ice; a jewellery box of sparkle in the morning sun. There was tons of snow that winter but I don’t remember it ever snowing. Every day seemed sunny and bright.
One of our favourite activities was skating. It was so convenient. I could tie my skates on the front steps and just pick my way across to the frozen canal pulling Matthew in his red sled. The poor little guy looked like a sausage in a blanket buried under multitudes of scarves, and woollen covers. He was definitely protected from the crisp winter air. It was a glorious season of beaver tails, poutine and hot chocolate.
Little memories now mean so much. I was so content even ironing my husband’s white business shirts. I recall enjoying setting up the board in the kitchen. Beside me in his squeaky swing-on-matic my son would watch. The clock ticking away the late afternoon minutes while we waited for Warren to return.
Yes, it was those quiet, private times I cherished the most. Just Matthew and me. Our days were filled with rings on our fingers and bells on our toes; or blowing kissing on tummies and bubbly bright smiles. I’d pull up a chair beside his crib and just sit there watching him sleep. I’d study at his eyelashes, his fingernails, his little twitches and sighs.
Those blissful nine months were all ours. I treasured my solitude and the opportunity to bond with my little man. Never again would life be so simple or defined just by love.
Trips to the bank have been few and far between this summer as the Main Street construction continues
Actual currency is its own commodity
“Do you have any money?” he called out from the kitchen
“Sure, help yourself. Take a twenty from my purse”
I could hear the zipper of my wallet opening and the unmistakable sound of coin tumbling loose.
Fast forward two days and I am standing in front of the No-Frills shopping carts corral just gob smacked. In my hand is a very light and very empty wallet. No coin. No shopping cart. My car is right across the parking lot. Should I go somewhere else with free shopping carts or make do here?
With a NO-Frill plastic basket tucked into the crock of my arm, elbows high – I push on.
“Only the essentials” I say to myself as I start to sort and prioritize my grocery list based on weight and bulk. Two- days’ worth of meat, no apples, no to that jar of pesto sauce. I can make something else.”
Around aisle four, just after I added the box of raison brad cereal, the trembling in my forceps gets really serious. I switch my grip for the umpteenth time. Swinging the now full basket in my fist works for half an aisle. I rest a bit in aisle six.
“Oh its hot in here.” I’m just about done. Pass on the eggs. Leave the margarine for another day. I just need a bag of milk. Way the heck across the back I stagger. The end is in sight. It’s possible if I carry the milk clutched in my free hand and cradle the heavy basket against my chest in a football hold. No time for pleasant smiles with my neighbours. Both arms are shaking and there will be a permanent deep red indentation in my wrist from the handle.
“Damn the construction. Damn Warren and our lack of change”
Bertie McLam Cole (my grandmother) was a preemie baby. She was born during a particularly cold February night in 1893. For the first tentative weeks of Bertie’s life she lay swaddled up and toasty, sleeping on the open oven door. She was a survivor and carried this determination all throughout her long life.
Bertie came from solid stock. Her father, my great grandfather Noble McLam was born in Norwood. His wife (Roxy Swackhammer) was born in Acton but a descendant of Pennsylvanian Dutch immigrants who came to Canada from the USA at the time of the American revolution. Noble was the local blacksmith of Acton. He and his family were active members of the United Church and Noble was a past Master of the Masonic Order. Bertie lived on the family farm until she married.
John Cole (my grandfather) was thirty-four years of age and already grey headed when he married Bertie. He grew up on the outskirts of Acton, coming from equally long pre Confederation roots. (his grandparents immigrated from Wales in 1831) Apparently, John had a lifelong tendency to move and he changed jobs frequently. Once married, they lived briefly in Detroit and Chatham Ontario where he worked in as an accountant in the young automobile industry. They were a family of six when John and Bertie purchased their first home on Erindale Avenue in Toronto. Bertie always believed John, an avid baseball fan, wanted this house because it was so close to the Viaduct Park. Baseball games in this particular Toronto park drew large crowds in the mid 1920s.
In 1928, just on the cusp of the great Depression life suddenly turned upside. John Cole died. Bertie was left on her own with four young children under the age of 10. My Dad and his younger brother Jack were sent off to live with Noble and Roxy until they reached school age. The Erindale house was reconfigured; kids sleeping together, Bertie on the daybed in the dining room and all of the other spaces including the back stoop were reserved for boarders. For the next forty years, in this house or in Bingham Avenue, even in her Main Street apartment she rarely had a place all to her own. There was always the sound of strange footsteps coming from the upstairs hallway. The tenant, or a son come home to live.
I think Gramma Cole would have liked to have been defined by her full-time job. Early in the 1930s she began working at the prestigious Women’s Canadian Club of Toronto. She was their loyal employee for some thirty-nine years. This job largely consisted of serving tables at the ladies’ luncheons but in later years she was promoted to the role of Hostess. The Club was located on Bloor Street east and Gramma Cole enjoyed window shopping while she rode the Queen street car to and from work every day.
She was proud of this club and her association with it. She often spoke of what the Toronto society ladies were wearing and who was lunching with whom. I never understand how she managed given that she was quite hard of hearing in her later years. I recall how angry she was when at the age of 81 the Toronto Women’s club forced her into retirement. That Club had been everything to her.
Money was always tight in this household. All four kids, from a very young age, held down multiple jobs: up before dawn to deliver newspapers, again after school, bagging groceries, delivering for the pharmacy. They all were expected to contributed to the house hold expenses. With rent from the tenants, making do, passing down, this family of five got by.
During World War II all three boys saw action overseas. As a mother, I can’t imagine how Bertie coped during these horrific years. The worst possible news arrived by telegraph just three weeks before the end of the war. Curtis Cole, her eldest son was shot down in France. The family was now down to four.
Life has never been easy for Gramma Cole. She always worked hard, saved for her nice things and always held up her end. A pleasing apartment was one of her few indulgences. She would fuss over the right upholstery fabric to recover a couch or bring home several difference carpets just to try out. If she had any hobbies or interests I don’t recall other than her love of interior decorating.
In my memory, Gramma Cole never changed her appearance. In every one of our family photos her hair is neat and white. She was always pictured sitting inside, wearing a dark simple dress and very sensible black shoes. She is never smiling in any of those photos. Did she ever garden, shovel snow, bake? Did her hair ever blow in the breeze? I have no reciliation of her having a real life.
I never referred to this woman as Nanny or Gramma. I think that says a lot about our relationship. She was always addressed as” Gramma Cole”. There were no hugs or snuggles. No sleep overs. Maybe she didn’t like kids. She lived in an adult world and we expected to behaved.
She kept a clean orderly home but I don’t ever recall eating a meal there. No running in the halls less we disturb her tenant. Perhaps her loss of hearing in those later years are partially to blame for our lack of connection.
I think my grandmother can best be described as a reliable employee, discreet at work, sensible, serious and hardworking.
In her mid 80s, Gramma Cole suffered a stroke. Her residence and personality took a change at this point. She gave up her apartment and moved into a nursing home in our neighborhood. For the rest of her time this independent and proud woman was weepy and fearful. She died less than one year later and was buried in the family plot in Acton Ontario.
I’m the last one who should be writing about Bertie Cole. I didn’t much like her let alone love her as a child normally loves their gramma. I guess that is the point. I am the last one. Everyone else who might have known that young bride, that busy mother, that dedicated employee is now gone. No one else can bear witness.
I believe this stoic proud woman deserves at least one page, typed, spell checked and saved on a laptop file. At this point, my kids show no interest in their great grandmother, but she once lived and sacrificed and through her came my wonderful father, then me, then them. Such is history. Fading in the dispersing fog of time.
Art has always been a part of my life. Both my maternal grandparents and my parents collected beautiful paintings. My father coveted his Asian art but also took an interest in Toronto’s new modern art movement. I was encouraged. When I was six my parents enrolled me in a Saturday morning community centre program – my first art class. To follow have been countless lessons, clubs, workshops and retreats. Through the study of colour theory and painterly techniques I have developed a great appreciation for the value of art – achieved through the artist’s skill, talent and dedication.
The Art Galley of Ontario (AGO) feels like an old family member to me. The first two floors of this art gallery contain my closest and dearest. We usually meet up several times a year. Each painting tells a story. I breathe it all in. The gold leaf frames, the medieval Christian scenes. How many times have I stood in front of the jewel toned Dutch masters and marvel at those huge old panels? They are a feast for the senses. The fur on the hanging rabbit pelts glistens and the stiff lace collars and velvet folds beg to be touched. So much dewy pink flesh. This art has given me a visual understanding of time and place – history became alive
If you follow the halls of AGO along to the east wing, you will come to the Impressionist. Such technique. These artists are magical alchemist. Van Gogh, Monet, Degas and Renoir all knew how to transform colour into light. So beautiful. So clever. Tiny dabs of pigment sharing the same values, sparkling and radiant. It defines romance. I never tire of these old friends.
A visit to the Canadian twentieth century expressionist is always my last and favourite stop: the famous Group of Seven, and David Milne. I particularly love the snowy landscapes. My heart swells with patriotism.
My father shared my love of art. It was our “thing”. I fondly recall in the 1970s we would take trips together downtown to view the galleries. Perhaps my love of art is connected in some way with a daddy complex. I remember him explaining the significance of Mary Pratt’s painting. It was in a gallery on King Street and Toronto was all a flutter over this new feminism movement. The nerve to present pictures of domestic everyday life as worthy art. Mary Pratt’s luminous fish and tin foil were puzzling.
Dad and I struggled to understand the changes creeping into the art world. We both loved Albert Franck. He was one of the first to paint ugly downtown Toronto in the winter. His backyard scenes are quite recognizable, always containing snow, red brick homes and wooden lean-twos in back alleys. Harold Town’s quirky expressionist style was another favourite. In 1969, Dad and I attended the opening of the Toronto Dominion bank towers designed by the world-famous architect Mies van der Rohe. International attention was starting to shine on sleepy old Toronto.
The 1960 and 70s were all about Modern Art, throwing out the traditions of the past in the spirit of experimentation. It was the time of pop art classics such as Marilyn Monroe and Campbell Soup Cans. The AGO installed Claes Oldenburger’s giant hamburger installation. Art was fun. “Be there or be square”.
In the 70s, 80s, I became aware that art was all around me, influencing what I wore, where I chose to eat and the car I coveted to drive. Art was in design. Art was in advertising. The outdated AGO went through a massive Frank Gehry renovation expanding to make room for more conceptual artist. The works of Charles Pachter and Michael Snow were some which I could appreciate.
The contemporary art movement is defined as any art created in our life time. In the 1980 I worked for a corporation which owned an enormous collection of Canadian art. I my office was a Jack Bush painting. For ten years I stared at two vertical lime green swatches intersected by an orange stroke. Technically a giant H on a white background. This was my first encounter with the new colour field movement. Ridiculous. Such a rip-off but as the years slipped away I grew to love this piece very much. The purity of these intense colours. I regretted not stealing it when everyone but me was laid off and the office closed.
These days I rarely venture above the second floor at the AGO and generally do not have the patience for most contemporary art. My focus is still back on the execution of the installation not on the artist’s concept. Much “Postmodern” art often relies on videos and multimedia. We become a part of the experience and the reaction is the message. Post-Humanism art or cyborg art interprets the increased presence of technology in our daily lives. Meta-Modern art is self-reflecting and is often a protest. I “get” some of it but the message is often ugly. For example –an installation showing a real urinal atop of a marble pedestal. Is the statement that the urinal is art or is it saying art is a urinal?
I want to dismiss metamodern and post-humanism art the way I once ruled out the colour field movement of the 60s. I believe the art world wants to be seen as complicated and intellectual when in fact I see it as hollow and dried up. It all feels like the “Emperor and His New Clothes”. To speak up and say that this is not “real” art would expose you as dull and out of touch. To me, Metamodern art is much like a millennial obsessed with taking selfies in front of a mirror. The focus is on the self-looking out on the self. Totally self-absorbed in the act of self-absorbing. It feels so narcissistic and ultimately meaningless.
Has contemporary art evolved into a new medium? Do we need a new word to encapsulate this form of self-expression? Is it still art?
Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin & Hobbes, has a fitting artist statement that applies to much of art today. He writes:
“my work is utterly incomprehensible and is therefore full of deep significance”.