It begins with a haircut.
Not at the cheap place where you can just walk in without an appointment, where I ususally go—essentially a unisex barber—but to my old, more expensive, hairdresser who I used to see when my hair was long and didn’t need cutting every twenty-five minutes. It still feels like I’m having an affair, this new place; I’ve never accepted that I really left the old place. Just taking a break. I go back a couple times a year for a decent cut, a template for the uni-barber to follow. A little unconventional but it seems to be working for all three of us.
It’s a day of errands and appointments. There is the usual traffic. A bus pulls in front of me at a dangerous angle; I consider making my feelings known but the sun is shining and it’s easy to be nice, so I keep my hand on the wheel.
A woman, sixties, stout in a pink house-coat with permed hair the colour of cardboard, smokes on her balcony, and later, in a different part of town, there is a man, also in his sixties, trying to get on a unicycle. I round the corner and never know if he succeeds.
The appointments and errands go on and soon it’s late afternoon and I haven’t eaten and I know I won’t get any work done even if I return to my desk so I decide to take myself out for a bite, treat myself to that place inside the art gallery, but it’s closed. The gallery itself, however, is open and though my stomach is growling the exhibit draws me in: William Brymner, his own work and that of his students, Prudence Howard, Morrice, A.Y. Jackson, et al.
The Quebec paintings are always easy to spot—all church steeples and snow. Even the houses have churchy elements, even the log cabins alone in their forests of birch— especially the cabins.
In Clarence Gagnon’s ‘Winter, Village of Baie-Sainte Paul’, a wind blows on a sunny afternoon. Lunch has been eaten, slabs of cold tortiere and glasses of cider. The dishes are done. The men have gone back outside, the children too. It might even be a school day. Inside the slope-roofed houses women breathe on the glass as they look out onto frozen gardens, broken fences and knee high drifts of snow.
I like the idea of painting en plein air and vow to do some soon. Pourquoi ne pas en hiver? Well, maybe just a quick sketch…
I still haven’t eaten so I stop at a deli on my way home, the one I used to take my mum to on errand days when she’d come with me for the ride, staying mostly in the car, especially if I parked in a sunny spot. She was like a salamander then. I’d stock up on her favourites: blocks of smoked bacon to slice or grind with garlic and eat with fresh rye bread, brandy filled chocolates, sauerkraut and a bag of pfeffernusse—a spicy cake-like cookie. I’d always buy one square of ice-chocolate from a box near the cash register—creamy milk chocolate that feels cool when you eat it. She wakes up when I open the door and all groggy wonders where we are; I hand her the chocolate and like a child, she brightens immediately, fumbles with the gold and turquoise foil, pops the whole thing into her mouth. I hear her dentures clatter and soon she begins to sing crazy old songs about chickens and underwear, songs I’ve been listening to all my life. I tell her I got the smoked bacon, and she hoots, says let’s go home and eat!
That was then.
The last few months of her life, after the stroke, she was in a nursing home and for a while she still ate the bacon and the rye bread, the chocolates and cookies. Surprisingly, it wasn’t this stuff that killed her, in fact it’s what kept her going, all that was left. When nothing else mattered, the bacon was still a small joy, some connection to better times—she always talked of home when she ate it, the mountains, her mother; it even made her sing occasionally, even in that hideous room.
The chocolates and cookies went first, and when one day she said no to the bacon and bread, I knew the last corner had been turned.
All this comes back to me as I stand in the delicatessen, choosing meat for a sandwich, my stomach still growling.
I buy the meat. And a bag of pfeffernusse, a block of smoked bacon, which I’ll put through a meat grinder with garlic, salt and pepper. I buy sauerkraut and brandy filled chocolates. I want to buy more but I leave it at these things, some of which I don’t even like, it just feels good to place them in front of me on the counter. And then even better to carry them outside into the sunshine.
I open the car door, set the bag down on the passenger side. Only the square of chocolate is missing.