Rising Bread and Raising Memories

The aroma of freshly baked bread, crumbly crust breaking to reveal soft angel-puffs inside, turns me into a 5-year old in the blink of an eye.  My father was always a strict man, believing that children were essentially cabbages until they became old enough to hold an intelligent conversation.  Needless to say, my sisters and I don’t have a lot of the cozy memories others might have of childhood.  

When I was in Kindergarten, my father took a year of leave-without-pay from the Foreign Service, to earn his Masters Degree from Harvard.  All of a sudden, our young family of five had to rely on my mother’s painting lessons and small art gallery for our survival.  We lived in a big old wooden house with a haunted barn, in a neighborhood full of children, in a tiny town called Groveland.  My father took to baking from scratch.  It served two purposes: we saved money by only having to buy the flour, yeast, and sugar, instead of store-bought breads, and my father had an outlet for his frustrations when his studies were difficult.  As a middle child craving the attention of a distant father, these baking sessions were a chance for me to sneak into the kitchen to be close to the Dad I secretly adored.  Believing that he was instructing me in math, economics, and science, my father was happy to teach me his recipe inventions (dreamy breakfast breads with fresh apricots, heavenly cinnamon/brown sugar rolls, even light and fluffy bread made from potatoes).  He never noticed that my happiest times were when he broke off large lumps of whatever dough he was working on, and passed it to me, instructing me to invent a bread of my own.  I always ended up making a silly-faced head out of my ball of dough – googly-eyed with pokies sticking out of the top of its head, and he would bake it alongside his perfect loaves, giving it the same respect he gave to the food he made for our family.  My father only intended to be practical with his baking, but the lovely smells, the happy clatter, and the conversations that ended up coming out of that kitchen, stay in my heart to this day. 

Now that my sisters and I are adults with children of our own, and my mother has passed away, my father recalls those days of poverty with a note of regret in his voice, sometimes apologizing for putting the family through so much hardship.  But I remember that Christmas as the best Christmas I ever had.  We didn’t have a tree, just a very tall (taller than me!) bottle from Mexico that my mother managed to decorate so beautifully that we could not imagine a lovelier Christmas tree. My mother sewed enormous stockings for us to hang on the banisters of the stairs.  Only my parents knew, with dread, that there would be nothing for the three little girls under our “tree” in the morning.  The next morning the first things we saw were our stockings, filled with oranges and apples and nuts and candy canes.  As we were emptying them onto the floor, the doorbell rang.  We all ran to the door, and there was a cardboard box.  The kind of box a refrigerator is packed in.  We pulled it inside and found it filled to the top with toys.  All of our neighbors, whose children always played at our house and were fed by my father’s sweet baked goodies, knew that we weren’t going to have the same kind of Christmas they were going to have.  They all came together and shared with us these gifts from their homes.  My sisters and I didn’t understand why our parents silently hid their grateful tears in their coffee cups.  We were busy whooping and hollering with joy, opening boxes of baby dolls and cars, a slinky, a ball;  nothing labeled, just gifts from the heart that we would share together.  If I close my eyes, I am there again, the spicy smell of warm cinnamon bread, chewy and sweet, smothered in butter; the nutty smell of my parents’ coffee.  When I open my eyes, I see my Mom, eyes gazing at my father over her cup of coffee, lips murmuring, “I love you, Merry Christmas.” And my stern father, blinking quickly and hiding his gruffness in his moustache and beard, “try this funny little bread-head that your daughter made – not bad, not bad at all.” And I turn away with a huge smile, hiding my pride by burying my face in my new baby doll, the happiest 5-year old girl in the world.

Welcome to Jasper

My furry man had just been promoted as general manager of a beautiful resort in a tiny little town nestled in Canada’s largest national park.  He trudges off to work there a month before we move, while the kids finish the semester and I organize the movers.  A few days later, one of the biggest cabins on his hotel property burns to the ground.  In the past, it was used as the General Manager’s house…and I wondered, “Is that a little message from the universe?  Naaaahh….”

We moved to Jasper in the dead of winter.  In our last job, we were spoiled rotten with a humongous log cabin on the hotel grounds that we were given to play in for 3 years.  Here, we lived in the hotel with our 2 giant dogs, hedgehog, snake, and children, while we waited for rental properties to open up in town.  Surprise surprise, landlords don’t take too kindly to the magical combination of dogs/hedgehogs/snakes.  Why, I have no idea, as I know that my 2 children could do much more damage to a house than all my pets put together.  As a result, we lived in the hotel for 4 months, changing rooms and moving to different cabins  every couple of weeks.

It seemed like every day brought something new and horrible into our lives.  And with each new event, some snarky local would say, “Welcome to Jasper” AFTER delivering crappy news or saying something rude.  A sentence beginning with, “welcome to” should be a positive thing.  You BEGIN by welcoming someone, right?  But my new tactless friends either had wicked senses of humor, or maybe they were just plain stupid.  So on our first day of school,  I ask the sourpuss office lady in the elementary school where I should meet my son for lunch, and she replies, “everybody walks home for  lunch in Jasper. “  Our “home” was 3 miles away in the hotel and she KNEW it.  “You can pay me a dollar a day and he can eat in a classroom with the few kids who have to stay at school, or you can go to a restaurant for lunch with them.  Welcome to Jasper.” She didn’t crack a smile for the entire length of the conversation, while my cheeks were cramping from my eager attempts to be friendly.

Another day, Housekeeping left the door open in our cabin and my little boy helplessly watched his dogs run away into the forest where a pack of coyotes stood waiting for them.  Then he had to watch his mommy run into that same forest to look for the dogs, and he thought he would never see any of us ever again.  So Hotel Security strolls up to me (as I’m hollering for the dogs in my t-shirt and jeans in the snow) and tells me they’ll start searching as well, and by the way, “Welcome to Jasper!”

We finally secured a home on the hotel property, squishing 2 little apartments together  to house our small zoo.   They tell us our new appliances have arrived and to prepare for the installation.  As they stand in the kitchen watching me, I empty out our entire freezer/fridge and place the items on the kitchen table.  2 hours later, the engineers amble up to me and say, “okay, we’re ready to go; we’re done.  You have to wait for the plumber to install the dishwasher.” When? “I dunno.  I dunno if the plumber is even here today – not sure if he can do it before the weekend.” And where is the new fridge? There is no fridge!  “Oh, that’s on back-order. Prolly won’t see that for another few weeks, but who knows.  Welcome to Jasper.”  When the plumber finally installed the dishwasher, the water line blew at 2 in the morning, flooding the apartment below ours.  Instead of knocking on our door, the neighbors call Hotel Security to complain.  When the plumber finally gets around to fixing the line, he mumbles, “well I never.  I never seen such a modern dishwasher that used so much water pressure.  Heck.  Kind of a funny way to welcome you to Jasper, EH?”

It’s gotten to the point that when something ridiculous happens, like watching the town sprinklers shoot out tons of water  every morning during a week of pouring rain, my kids just turn to me and drawl, “welcome to Jasper.”

We had that one cabin burn down, then there was a fire in town at another hotel, then just a couple of months ago, our main lodge roof caught on fire.  My son remarked, “tourists must be like, ‘oh no!  fires on the left, fires on the right!  What kind of place IS this?!’…..welcome to Jasper!”

Even the wildlife wants to get in on it.  We have wild animals around every corner here.  Wolves, bears, elk, cougar, bighorn sheep…you name it, we got it.  The coyotes love to trot down the middle of the road, forcing me to slow down, following their swishing tails as they giggle amongst themselves.  And there are suicidal squirrels.  They dash across the road in front of your car. And if one car doesn’t hit them, they dash back again hoping another car will.  And do not get me started on the damn elk.  They own the hotel property.  We even have to put up signs that warn the tourists about them.  Think: Horses With Attitude.  They are that big, and the girls are bitches.  Truly.  One night, while I was out-of-town, my honey gives me a call while he’s out walking the dogs.  In the middle of the conversation, he suddenly sounds out of breath and starts exclaiming, “Oh, OH OKAY – I’m going I’m going, shoo SHOO—AAAHHH! I’ll call you back!” and hangs up.  He called back after a harrowing 5 minutes, to tell me that a she-elk had chased him all the way up our front steps into our doorway.  He had to slam the front door in her face.  Welcome to Jasper.

Lest you think I have only complaints, bear with me.  I grew up moving every 2 years of my life as we followed my father’s Foreign Service assignments all over the globe.  He specialized in communist and socialist countries, so you can imagine the scenic spots of tranquility in which we lived.  Russia, China, Malaysia…places where you only drank the water if you wanted to die a terrible poop-filled death, and where a walk to school meant possible encounters with cobras so our mother gave us walking sticks with which to beat the bushes along the way.  To me, Canada is Paradise.  The people are gentle and kind, polite and modest.  The animals might kill you and eat you, but a grizzly bear just doesn’t seem as sneaky and evil as a poisonous snake.  You give the bears their space and respect, and they usually mind their own business and leave you to yours.  Give me a thousand ocean sunsets and I will still hold out for one perfect sunrise in the mountains.  The air is crisp and clean and the sky is big and blue.  In the woods next to our new house in Jasper, the whole Circle of Life takes place.  Out of our kitchen window, we watch Mama elk give birth to precious spotted brown calves with wobbly legs.  Mama grizzly bears come along to kill and eat the calves to feed to their cubs.  Coyotes tag along to pick up the scraps.  All the while, the loons on the lake behind our house croon a soundtrack to our new life.  It’s terrible, it’s heartbreaking, it’s beautiful, and it’s now all ours.  Most importantly, wherever we go and whatever we do, we do as a family, and that makes this Home.  Welcome to Jasper.

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