Weekend Blues on The Farm

Again, I find myself feeling the need to apologize for my lack of blog posts in the past few days. Why, and to whom, I don’t really know but the compulsion is there nonetheless.

This weekend it was my turn to go up and ‘take care’ of my father, who has now been living on his own for the past ten months since the death of my mother last November. I love my father; I dread going there. I suppose it would be worse if it were the house I grew up in, which is the house that features prominently in my dreams when I dream about my mother (which is often), but they moved up to this farm about forty-five minutes south of Georgian Bay to ‘retire’  almost twenty years ago – if you can call a hundred acres and seventy-five cows a form of retirement – so there is some history there as well. History mixed in with a good dose of guilt and remorse. Lots of ‘should’ statements, such as “I should have gone up more often”, “I should have made more of an effort to visit”, “I should not have found so many excuses for not going” or ‘I should not have been such a selfish, ungrateful little brat”… You know, the usual things we beat ourselves up over.

I won’t get into how wonderful my mother was. I will instead redirect you to a post I wrote on a previous blog – in what seems like a previous life – that sums it up rather succinctly. Which is a bit of a shock, considering how drugged up I was during that time.

My sister and I have decided to take turns in going to visit my father, as it is quite a drive to get to as well as exhausting once you factor in the housework and cooking for him. He was married to my mother, who did everything for him short of wiping his nose, for fifty-eight years, so at first he was a bit lost. And since he flatly refuses to let us get housekeeper for him, it falls to us to fill that role. However, on this visit, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that he’d been doing rather well on his own. I’m not sure if it was just for show since he knew we would be coming, but it looked reasonably clean. Even the plants showed signs of regular watering. What was not so pleasant, on the other hand, was how thin he looked. Otherwise healthy, but thin, which leads me to wonder if that’s just my mind at work again. Thinking the worst. But he was eating well, and seemed pleased to have me replenish the stockpile of sweets I’d baked for him on my last visit if reluctant to let me do anything else like laundry or bedding. It was a family stealth mission just to get the sweeping, dusting and bathroom cleaning in.

I had been sent a number of heart-healthy recipes to prepare for him and, while I did make two dozen low fat banana muffins, I must admit that I did not use the other ones. I didn’t laden anything with artery-clogging butter and refined flour or sugar, but my reasoning is this: the man is 82. He’s recently lost his partner and best friend of almost sixty years and he continues to work on his farm, although the doctor forbade any more cows since the triple bypass so now it’s soy, wheat and barley. So I figure, if he wants to indulge his sweet tooth every now and then, he should just do it. I know he won’t overdo it – he’s been almost militant since the heart attack. I suspect it has more to do with not wanting to be stuck in hospital again than anything else. I know firsthand how stubborn and bull-headed he can get since it’s like looking in a mirror -I am my father’s daughter, a chip off the ol’ block. Except for on the inside, both physically and emotionally, where I am very much like my mother. And for that reason, I made the oatmeal raisin cookies and date loaf squares using my mother’s recipes. I didn’t tell him that, of course. But it felt like something I needed to do.

The visit went better than they have done in the past, and not only because of his apparent increase in housekeeping skills. I guess it’s true what they say, that time really does heal all. But still, there were moments that caught me offguard which I suppose won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Like last time finding the dress she wore when she left on honeymoon, labelled and packed away in the farthest reaches of one of the closets, a picture of her in her wedding dress that was tucked into the corner of the vanity mirror in the room I slept in hurt my heart a little. It’s not like I knew her then, so it shouldn’t have. But it was more just another piece of her that’s been left behind, further reminding me that she’s no longer here.

I think that’s the part I struggle with the most.

Anyways, I have a backlog of baking posts that need to be seen to this week, as well as a project I’m working on. The same project I’d alluded to in my last apology post. But I still can’t say much on that topic lest I jinx it. But once I am able to, trust me – I will let you know.

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Something Old, Something New: Strawberry-Rhubarb Crumble Pie

In my admittedly limited baking experience, I have found that despite the vast amount of recipes available by various cookbooks, recipe blogs, and the Internet in general I will inevitably have the most success making something from the timeworn Women’s Institute cookbook given to me by my mother when I was about sixteen. I think it was an attempt on her part to interest me in cooking, as well as impart a bit of a lesson in family history. Both grandmothers, two aunts and at least one great aunt had their recipes included there, as well as a host of others from names I’d heard many times throughout my life. It’s like a culinary version of a time capsule.

Although that first attempt failed miserably – I was far more interested in boys and bands at that age to want anything to do with country kitchen life – I did keep the book with me. It even moved across an ocean and back. I would bust it out whenever I had a hankering for my grandma’s oatmeal cookies or banana muffins, then back to the bookshelf it would go. But it wasn’t until my mother passed away last November that it has been getting any regular use at all.

There are a number of contributing factors, of course, but mostly it’s because baking has become a form of therapy. And using that cookbook in particular serves as a link between me and my mother, as well as those women who have gone before her. Every now and then it hits me, that connection, and then the tears will start to flow. Like today, for example.

I had picked up a bunch of rhubarb and a quart of strawberries from the farmer’s market because they looked so inviting. I’ve never attempted to make anything with rhubarb before – the last time I think I baked a pie it was pumpkin, using the canned variety. I’ve never really been down with anything too labour-intensive, and hulling berries and cutting rhubarb stalks into one inch pieces would definitely fall into that category. But for some reason, today I was really looking forward to it. There is a certain zen-like quality to the repetitive action of cutting the fruit and tipping it into a bowl to be blended with some sugar and spread onto an oatmeal crust. Until it hit me – the last time I would have had strawberries and rhubarb together in a room would have been when I was a teenager, living at home with my parents. I would have been watching my mother slice up the berries, slapping my hand as I stole some to eat. She would often send me out back for more of the rhubarb that grew wild at the edge of the field our house was surrounded by, since she would underestimate how much she needed. When I would return, there would usually be a small bowl of cut-up berries set aside for me; no sugar, just the way I liked them.

Cue the tears. God, I wish she was still here.

I’d like her to see that I did learn something after all, that even after all those years of resisting anything to do with the kitchen that everything she’d tried to teach me had somehow sunk in anyway. That I was finally somewhat proud of my rural roots, proud enough to pass on one of my grandmother’s recipes to a co-worker looking to make the perfect pecan pie. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my newfound hobby, it’s that you can’t go wrong with a Women’s Institute or church group recipe. And I come from a long line of both.

I made this strawberry rhubarb crumble pie by using this recipe. It’s a name that I know I’ve heard but cannot place. If Mom were here, she would no doubt tell me not only who Marilyn Ismond was but where she lived, who she went to school with, and who else she is related to in the book.

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First Bump in the Road

The first day of my foray into self-discovery hasn’t gotten off to the best start. I spent the bulk of it with my father and sister. That wasn’t the bad part – it was nice to see them. It was more the circumstances that brought us together: deciding on the inscription and a headstone for my mother’s grave. Not the best way to spend a Saturday afternoon. But perhaps it’s appropriate seeing as her sudden death last November was the catalyst that set all of this into motion.

I try to avoid anything that reminds me that she is no longer here, which is rather pointless considering that thinking about her every single day is in itself a reminder. I guess it would be more accurate to say that I avoid situations which deal with her death in a vain attempt to spare myself the pain. Again…pointless. And also patently unfair to my older sister because that means that she is left to bear the burden on her own. It’s enough that she has power of attorney so is in charge of any decisions relating to the estate. I need to put my own selfish emotions aside, step up and do my part – however small it may seem.

We’ve decided to split the Dadwatch duties into six week increments: she’s there now for a weekend of cooking freezer meals and light housework and it will be my turn at the end of July. But although I can bake a mean cake and create other heavenly treats from scratch, my more savoury culinary skills leave much to be desired. Meaning they’re pretty much non-existent.

I’ve got six weeks to train up, so I guess I’m going to have to fit casseroles into the cookie and cupcake-making schedule.

I’ll let you know how it pans out.