Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Strawberry Season

I used to be a leader of men. I was a Chief Petty Officer in the Royal Canadian Navy, and through one of those strange quirks which could only happen in the Canadian Forces, I was posted from sea to Newfoundland, to be the Headquarters Sergeant Major, responsible for the training and well-being of army reserves in that province. I was pretty good at it. I travelled about the province in some pretty tiny aircraft, conducting unit inspections and whatnot. Often there were opportunities to take a company of young troops for a nice hike and if I was nice to the instructors, they let me participate in some training exercises. How I loved bailing out a window four stories up with a rope tied around my ass! Salad days indeed.

Now I'm a follower. In the winter I follow the snow blower up and down my 550 foot driveway and in the summer I follow the lawnmower, hoping the grass will dry enough for mowing between the rains in Nova Scotia. I have officially retired, but I'm a busy sort, gardening and poking my nose into local affairs - there's lots to do. I edit the Open Directory once in a while and sometimes I write for Wikipedia.

I take care of things. I care for my wife, the Flower of Acadie. I look after the cat and the dog; and I cherish Hilda, my wife's mother and my own belle-mere. In French, belle-mere means mother in law, although of course as in all translations, something is lost. It means literally "beautiful mother" - sort of like an Inuit uncle I suppose. She gets all the parenting privileges, but has none of the responsibilities for discipline, which can make the right person pretty popular. Hilda had lots of daughters and all of them are well married, so she has lots of beau-fils.

Hilda stays with us because she can no longer stay alone. She is widowed and frail and topples over a bit. She stays with us because we have the space, resources and the talents and skills. My wife is a special unit registered nurse and I am a first aid instructor and observant. It is a good fit. Hilda will not be staying with us for all that long as she is eighty-one and her health is delicate. We are hoping to get her moved into a nursing home in her neighbourhood called Villa Acadien. All of her friends and contemporaries are there. They go to church together and cheat each other at cards. They all know the same songs and the same people and all of the stories about those people. If Hilda can get into the Villa while she is still a competent and functioning adult, things would be well. While we wait for the bureaucrats to find the forms and cross their endless T-s and dot their endless I-s, we make sure that Hilda enjoys her stay here with us.

Hilda and I breakfast together most mornings and then after, if the weather is good and she feels strong, we visit the gardens. The tulips and daffodils and the other smaller bulbs were glorious this year and the poppies, globe flowers, lilacs and peonies are a treat. The roses are coming along nicely and look to be full of buds. The apples had us blanketed with blooms for a while and something you might not expect - we have a lot of blueberries and their little white bell blossoms have a winey scent that carries a long way. When we're done with the flowers, we visit the vegetables. I garden in raised beds, so Hilda doesn't have to stoop much to inspect. We check out the broad beans, the green and wax beans, the carrots and the peas and she bad mouths my onions. Every time she bad mouths my onions. She says they are too small and slow to ever make salted onions, and she laments over the scarcity of good gardeners nowadays. Salted onions are important. A few years back, chef Paul Prudhomme visited in Clare township from Louisiana. He tasted the local rappie pie (potato rapure) and declared that it would make good wall paper paste. The man was arrogant and incredibly ill-mannered and completely missed the heart of Acadian cooking - salted onions. It is the base of all soups and stews and lends an impossible to duplicate flavour to all Acadian cooking. Over the past year and a half, Hilda has been teaching me how to make fricot and potato soup using salted onions. Pretty good stuff and be damned to Paul Prudhomme and his great wide arse.

When Hilda was in her prime she was a very strong willed woman, absolutely in charge of everything and everybody in her household and definitely not someone to be messed with. Now she has withdrawn, her focus is on grand children and great grand children, visits and the little things in life. She listens to her own body more and is in that stage of mild hypochondria that most old folks inhabit. Her focus is more on herself and less the denial of self for the good of all that the matriarch exhibits. Now that she is no longer personally responsible for the well-being of all her children, she has the opportunity to be good to herself. It can be difficult when you are an eighty-one year old woman and dealing with doctors. Hilda had breast cancer and it was determined to be estrogen-related, so they gave her Tamoxifen, which was a good drug, but it has side effects, among which are light headedness, lack of sleep, poor appetite, thrombosis, visual defects and cataracts. If you consider that at eighty-one, any estrogen that Hilda has is probably rejoicing in its viability and throwing parties to which no other estrogens come, you might conclude that a five year regimen of a drug whose side effects so closely parallel the standard effects of old age is almost malicious. At best, it was short-sighted. Her doctor of course is only forty-two.

Every year and only once a year, the strawberries come, and while they are here, those who love strawberries have them every way they can; fresh, with cream, with ice cream, in pies and in sorbets. We revel in the fresh strawberries and treasure them, because we know that fresh local strawberries have no equal and once they are over, it's over.

This is Hilda's strawberry season.


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