A picnic waiting to happen

Still winter in spite of the dazzling sunshine. Still winter in spite of the tiny purple buds sleeping on bare black branches. We have a long way to go before the snow piled on the picnic table melts, before the leaves unfurl from the buds, before the sun coaxes us out of our parkas and hoods.

In the big park so close to the condo where I will move later this month only the squirrels are picnicking today. Suddenly I notice what looks like a dark pile of clothes on the pristine snow. As I approach, my shadow long before in the winter afternoon, I see that it is a person stretched out on the snow, face open to the brilliant blue sky. ” Who is this?

I slow down and call out in my most down-to-earth voice, ” Are you alright?” My sensible matter-of-fact tone masks my trepidation. I don’t want this to be a sick or drugged person…or worse! A young woman half sits up and answers me in French. All is well. She’s just communing with the sky, with the trees she’d just loving this day, in her own way. I agree that it’s just the day for it. All is well. And yet, as I walk on she calls out a thank you and remark that I ” give her hope”.

So, it is not just her snow picnic. Something deeper made her lie down there on this cold,mercifully still day.

Maybe I’ll see her again in the big park when it’s a common thing to see people lying on the grass or sitting at the tables. Maybe I’ll see her again of all the women in the city who draw hope from a perfect sky and from a stranger asking if she is ‘ all right” .


Two of the pillars of civilization. Sure every profession and trade, every occupation , every job, deserves respect and dignity but those two…for me they are the underpinning of the modern world. I know how much “normal” life depends on them.

Seldom do I post pictures of people, and certainly never without their permission but the relief and security this man brought me today deserves recognition. This gentleman came to me from Cinq-Mars E L Plomberie situated in Pointe St. Charles, a “down home” neighborhood of Montreal. When I bought this house well over twenty years ago I asked a co-worker of mine if he could recommend a plumber. Scott was an orderly at the hospital where I worked and he seemed to me a man who knew stuff about every-day life. He lived in “the Point” which is not too far from my little house in an adjacent neighborhood. He immediately gave me the number of this firm. Ever since, any time I have had a problem with my plumbing, this is the guy who shows up.

Last week I was faced with a disturbing problem. I recently sold this house and am packing up, throwing out, distributing treasures in preparation for my move in a few weeks. Suddenly I noticed water was not draining as fast as it should and then on Monday a deluge of water rained down into an area of my basement. Mercifully it was a passageway to the back yard with a concrete floor but still, I was horrified. After consulting with the neighbors upstairs and a thorough inspection by my son-in-law we were all mystified as to where the water was coming from. After all, it appeared and then suddenly stopped – certainly, it could not be a burst pipe. Of course, I called my trusty plumber but he could not come until two days later. Since the water had stopped of its own accord I resigned myself to a watchful wait until he could come.

Yesterday I came back from shopping (how long could that take in a pandemic) to find a second deluge had struck. Another panicky call to Cinq-Mars. “Demain matin, Mme. Cunningham.” I had no choice as I certainly was not going to call in anyone else at this stage.

This morning I was never so glad to see anyone as a masked face appeared at the front door right on time! After a few moments of plumbing history on my part and studied diagnosis on his (almost like a consultation with the doctor) my knight in blue jeans returned to the truck to bring out “the snake”. Within fifteen minutes water was happily gurgling down any and all drains. It seems there was a blockage in the mysterious region of “further along” and whenever my neighbors above did anything watery like wash their dishes, floods of water backed up into my dishwasher to overflow into my basement. How fortunate that my dishwasher is positioned above the little back step area. “Fortunate” – a relative term.

The bill was merciful and I can now communicate with the new owners of my home and tell them that their pipes are well cleared out. I can sleep at night knowing I will not hear the pitter-patter of indoor raindrops. I have done my duty as a good homeowner handing over my beloved little nest to the next generation.

Yes, I maintain that plumbers are one of the pillars of civilization. I told my plumber I would write about him, and not only on Google. He agreed and laughed at me for my rather high-blown theories. Such people are hard to come by and to be treasured. If you live in Montreal or on the South Shore – Cinq-Mars E.L Inc., 2325 rue du Centre, Montreal, H3K lJ6 tel: 514 933-8411.

As to garbage collectors, next time.

Secrets in the Recycling

It’s time. It’s time to ransack my house, to examine, to pick over, to handle and….to discard. I am moving and that means all the belongings I need in my new place will, in the not too distant future, be packed up by strangers and hauled just a few blocks away. The boxes and the furniture will be dumped in the new place and I will be left to create order out of chaos. Before that can happen, however, I have to shed many many things. I have already given away and sold at pathetic prices some of my furniture. There was a sort of pride at the beginning of this process that made me insist on money changing hands. After all, the mirror was a fine one, the chair a prized possession of my father. Should I simply hand my things over to anyone who showed up. As the weeks sped by however, these credenzas, tables, paintings became simply a burden. I would have to pay a mover to take them to a place where they would not belong. They simply would not fit. That is the essence of downsizing. The size of the place you have…..goes down.

I rediscovered an old truth. It is delightful to give people things. The heartbreaking memo I got from a Kijiji contact who took away an old kitchen set from my basement was stunning. I had prepared a little box of kitchen utensils, a tablecloth, a vase and shoved it into his arms as he came back for one leaf of the table. As a single woman of a certain age (sigh) what did I want with all these things? It seems he and his partner did want, and need them. The frail Russian couple who manhandled a heavy mid-century piece down my steps bestowed a dazzling smile and asked if I would like a picture when they had restored it. Frankly I was more worried about insurance coverage if they fell and cracked a rib during this operation. As the owners of a new furniture business they were overjoyed to get a “freebee”.

More sinister was my purge of papers. I deposited on the sidewalk last Friday three large paper bags – the kind one uses for leaf collections full of old photographs, shredded tax papers, old textbooks (I threw away a book!) and letters. Ah, those letters – from old lovers, past students, the families of patients I worked with in the hospital, my work-mates on my retirement. Birthday cards to and from my parents, my grandchildren, my dead friends. Old short stories, painful in their crippled and sentimental forms, poems written in the dark despair of sleepless nights, notices of weddings, of funerals. And somehow worst of all, the agendas – going back to the 1980’s. I had kept them on the pretext that I might “need” something in my notes of years ago. I experienced a pride in seeing the record of my working life, row upon row on the little bookcase.

The unavoidable reality is that there is no room for these things in my new place. So, I had to part from them. I did so in a sort of ecstasy. These people, events, years, joys, reproaches, heartbreaks, surprises were part of my life and are integrated in me. Do I need agendas to prove that I lived those years? Do I need this birthday card to prove that my long dead friend remembered me? No, I am it. The walking agenda, the walking photo album, the walking drama, romance, comedy.

Of course, some objects and documents are precious and cannot be parted from – just yet. They will come with me to what will likely be my last mailing address. The next big decluttering will see me carted off and the objects remaining. At least my children and grandchildren will have a little less work to do. And some secrets will have been long-shredded in the re-cycling center.

Holy Family

“Do we have to go?”

“Yes, your Grandmother is expecting us. It’s Christmas Day, for heaven’s sake.” Carol was scrabbling in the glove bag to find a matching pair.

“So boring! I want to be with my friends.”

“You can be with your friends when Covid slows down. You’re staying in our bubble. And Granny’s in the bubble. Look, it means a lot to her.”

“My friends mean a lot to me too!”

“And your precious phone….which you are leaving at home, young lady!”
“WHAAT. Look, Mum. I’ll stay for the meal but promise me we’ll leave early, OK?

“Mary, try to understand her a little. She’s all alone. You’re very important to her and you could make an effort on Christmas Day. ”

“Look. I know we’re going but you have to understand me too. I just…”

“Put your coat on, Mary. And put that phone in the drawer here. We’re leaving. And we’re staying as long as Granny wants.”

Deathly silence in the car and Mary stomping up the snowy stairs. Granny who must have been standing at the door waiting  pulling them both in and helping them off with their coats. The green tree filling the house with its piney scent. And the kitchen warm and full of steam and the delicious smell of Granny’s turkey.

“Oh my God, Granny. That smells so good”

“Oh, my God…this your prayer, yes? Well, it is the birthday of baby God after all.” And there was Granny’s sneaky smile as she turned away to baste the turkey. Mary had to admit that the old lady had a wicked sense of humor.

“Mum, do you have any wine? I could do with a glass or two tonight.” Carol looked tired, her face drawn in the fluorescent light of her mother’s little kitchen.

“Sure, what do you think this is? There is a nice vino verde chilling in the fridge and I will have some of this very good pino grigio.”

“When did you open that, Mum? It’s half gone already.”

“Christmas day is long when you’re waiting for the relatives to show up! Take that white stuff you like and give half a glass to Mary. My namesake deserves a little boost. After all it’s not often we three sit down to a turkey dinner.” The old lady had three glasses set out on the counter and Carol bit her tongue as she scrabbled around in the fridge to find a soda to cut Mary’s wine.

Her mother noticed, of course. “Don’t you dare. Even that stuff you like should be drunk on its own, pure and the way the wine maker wanted. Isn’t that right, Mary?”

Mary smirked. Maybe this dinner wasn’t going to be so bad after all. Granny letting her drink wine!

Soon everything was ready. Granny did not believe in hors d’ouevres. The big table was set with the white cloth and the runner that only came out for Christmas Day. There were crackers and even a flower centrepiece.
“Mother, where did all this come from? How did you manage it? Beautiful as usual.”

“More beautiful if your father, even that husband of yours and my brother….and so many others who used to be here. Remember in the old days?”
“Here we go,”thought young Mary. “They’re going to talk for hours about people I couldn’t pick out of a line up.”

“Well, that kid across the street came to shovel my steps one day. I never asked him, mind. But I sent him on a few errands and of course, I paid him and he brought me what I needed.”

Carol felt guilty. She should have asked her mother if she needed help in the days leading up to Christmas but she had been too busy. Mary had been giving her attitude. The damn zoom meetings went on for hours. There was always a reason somehow to avoid what one didn’t want to do.

“He’s a very nice boy, Mary. A very nice boy and you’ll never guess what his name is. ..Joseph, just like your grandfather.”

“Hmm. Could I just have a little more mashed potatoes and gravy, Granny? You are the best cook.”

Carol took a long swallow of her wine. “I had to drag her here and now the two of them are best of friends,” she thought.  “Just as well. Perhaps she won’t be in a hurry to leave as soon as the dishes are stacked.” What were they chatting about now?

“Yes, your grandfather and I fell in love on the first date. I wasn’t much older than you. Imagine…your old granny knew how to fall in love. You would have liked him. You are alike in many ways even though you have my name. An old fashioned name. No one has such a name now. Kasheizia – that’s what they call their girls now isn’t it?”

And the two of them laughed and laughed. The wine helped them laugh but Mary realized that she liked sharing her grandmother’s name – even though it was a hopelessly boring one.

The doorbell rang as they were eating the dreaded Christmas pudding. Carol could hardly swallow two spoons of the sweet heavy stuff laced with brandy and custard. The two Mary’s had no such problem. They both had a sweet tooth and after all, it was only on this special day.

Carol jumped up and went to the door before her mother could get out of her chair at the head of the table. A gust of cold air blew down the corridor to the dining room and made the candles on the table flicker.

“Hello.  Madame Mary said I could come for cake and coffee. I am Joseph.” Young Mary sat very still , the spoon in her hand. What a deep voice. The way Granny had spoken, she had imagined a little seventh grader, but this was the voice of a young man

She stood up as Granny’s neighbor came into the room. He made straight for her grandmother and hugged and kissed her. Carol stood back aghast.

“He is in my bubble.” Her mother remarked airily. “Joseph, put on your mask, my boy and you can sit at the other end of the table. That way you and Mary can look at each other.”

“Honestly, the things she said!” But the youngsters just burst out laughing and shrugged. They certainly did look at each other as Granny had suggested.

“I don’t mean to be rude, Joseph, but this is not really……” Carol tried to object – to inject some order into the situation.

“Life is full of risks, Carol. There he sits, far from us. I thought it was an opportunity not to be missed anyway. Another Mary and Joseph meeting on Christmas Eve. After all, some things are written, are they not.

“Joseph, would you like wine or coffee?” and here was Mary, looking after a guest to her mother’s surprise.

“A very little wine, please, just to toast Christmas and your grandmother.”

He only stayed a few moments. Just as he was leaving Granny fished something out of her apron pocket.
“Joseph, go and put this in the crèche over there on the little table in the living rom. I forgot to put it – the figure of Joseph.”

A little bewildered, the young man did as he was told. He was getting used to this capricious old woman.

“Very nice to meet you. I hope to see you again after this plague is over.” And he made a little formal bow to Carol and Mary because now it was impossible to shake hands.

“Don’t worry. Soon the vaccinations and then we will all get back to driving each other crazy,” laughed Granny as Joseph pulled the door behind him.

“Now ladies, if you’ve had enough we’ll stack the dishes and maybe play the keyboard a little before you rush off home.”

In fact they stayed quite a long time as the silver moon climbed up over the city and a few stars argued over which one could be called the star of Bethlehem. Mary listened to stories of her Grandmother’s courtship, a few familiar tales of how she and Joseph had run to Canada to escape some vague danger that she never properly explained.

Carol played some well-loved tunes on the inadequate little keyboard and when they caught Granny yawning she and Mary exchanged a glance that meant, “coats and home.”

During the goodbyes Granny fished the kneeling figure of the Virgin out of her apron pocket.

“Here Mary you must put this to finish off the crèche. As in the Christmas story Joseph had to go first, you see, to get the place ready.

“And baby Jesus?” asked Carol, smiling at her mother – so transparent! “Did you forget about him?”

“No, dear, here he is. I leave the honors to you. Go on, put him in the manger! Ah, these little families.”

Eating with the Ancestors

 For how many hundreds of years did poor  Irish survive on potatoes and milk, cheese or butter?  That with cups of tea was the staple diet. Of course, the nice cup pictured here is more along the lines of ” lace curtain Irish” as my mother would have put it. A dear friend of mine came by and left me some wonderful new potatoes and I didn’t have the heart to tell him I had a full basket in my pantry. So…today my lunch was  boiled potatoes and cheese. I heard generations of Cunninghams express their approval from the misty heaven where they reside enjoying celestial Guiness and legs of lamb. 

An accidental Harvest

 I really didn’t mean to grow potatoes. I had read that if you stuck a rose cutting into a potato and buried it, a rooted rose plant would result. It didn’t so I pulled out the dry stick and threw it away. I forgot about it. ((don’t mock me)
Weeks later some beautiful plants sprouted in a flower pot in a corner of my garden. When little white flowers appeared I recognized ….potato plants! My granddaughter pulled out the first one, peeled it and, with some ordinary grocery potatoes it was a tiny part of dinner.

If life gives you roses, smell them. If your harvest is potatoes….fry them!

Dark Beauty

Bright yellow and pink in the city garden.

Blazing sun and dazzling colors.

After days of baking heat, at last welcome rain

and these darker beauties.

Clematis coddled and anticipated

opens like a Japanese sunshade to reveal

a purple that puts the pallid roses to shame.

On cue, a mysterious visitor, his brown and iridescent wings

boldly carry him to a stick that holds some mysterious attraction.

Surrounded by scents and blooms visited by drunken bees

he, severe and austere, remains faithful to his choice.

Goundhogs and Fireflies

img_20200618_200022356It’s summer with all the luxurious roses and the brilliant buttercups that enchant a young photographer. Today’s image was made by my granddaughter who has suddenly developed an interest in photography.

It is tremendously hot in Montreal and the good weather has been holding for days. I thoughtlessly planted a lovely rosebush on my mother’s grave about 10 days ago and watering it has been something of a chore. Because of Covid 19 access to the big mountain cemetery has been limited to late afternoon and  evening. Only one entrance can be used by cars. I am on foot and that means I have been getting my exercise by walking from the gate at the higher level through the old section with its wonderful trees and monuments and then up a steep incline to the top where my mother’s black headstone sits baking in the merciless sun. Fortunately a dear friend has been giving me a lift from time to time. Besides the inaccessibility of the site, the taps set here and there for relatives to water their plants and shrubs have mainly run out of water. I scout around on lower levels to find a tap that works or when I get a lift bring my own water! We met a widower the other day who promised to water my mother’s precious rose bush. It  is already blooming with many pink blossoms. However, I know I will not rest until the heat wave is over and I can trust rain to once again take over my duties.

The groundhogs, you ask? I saw two lovely ones up in the cemetery and then, as if to remind me of my responsibilities the next day – – a fat one in my city garden. He was bustling away under the fence. When he heard me he turned as if to say, “Well, is there a problem here?” and off he went.

Fireflies appeared that evening as I was watering my plants in the blessed darkness. I have a stubborn clematis that does not want to open its magnificent purple blooms, but it too will yield to the heat and length of days. In the meantime the little flashing lights, pulsating with mysterious life in the dense leaves, remind us that other lives, other forces are at work.

Covid 19 Test

person hand on steering wheel

Photo by Lê Minh on Pexels.com


Magic bus driver in the Covid screening bus,

you don’t take my ticket through the low slot

of the plastic barrier that cuts the wattage

of your brilliant smile.

You take my medicare card, sanitized, in order.

In return, you, the driver, give me a ticket.

The three magic questions,” Do you have symptoms?, Have you been

in contact ….?” The right answers, any answers grant me admission to the

bus with no seats.

Nurses (later I learn they are not nurses) decked out in Covid regalia on the

hottest day of the year, wait to test me in the bus with no seats.

Four cubicles. A figure in a sanitary burka peers at me.

A Quebec scandal!

“anglais ou francais, Madame?” Through the barrier of our masks and

my diminished hearing, we arrive at the compromise of “franglais”.

a ping-ping of both languages in which we are both fluent.

A long swab down my throat elicits a discrete gag on my part.

Then the nose. “Sit still” I tell myself, “If Trump can do this every morning,

you can do it this once.”

All done and I am released through the back door of the magic bus.

Like a sheep guided through the “it’s for your own good” dip,

out I go into the blazing parking lot of my beloved library.

Why did I test? As we say in Quebec, “Le coeur a ses raisons.”

Magic bus driver, stop giving tickets! Take the wheel.

Let the wheels of your bus grow light, transparent, buoyant,

Slam down the gas pedal and carry us away from

Montreal, plague city, city of wary looks, masks, no touch, death.

The next day an email. Negative. For today.