Archive for February, 2019

I’ve only ever felt connected to my mother’s family, and not to my father’s. There are very specific reasons for this, and they are plentiful, and too many are deeply private and painful to even explain here, in writing. Still, I have wanted to learn more of my father’s family culture over the years, so I recently asked my second cousin Kevin’s wife, Annelinde, to teach me how to cook a traditional German meal. We had set a date to meet at her house and cook up a storm with another friend. What was decided, three weeks ago, when we talked on the phone, was that she would teach us how to make Ein Flaum Kuchen (Plum Cake) and a beef rouladen. On the side, there would be boiled baby potatoes, as well as a dish of red cabbage and apple as vegetables. And there is always wine, in the cooking, and around it.

What I learned today is that: there is a lot of chopping involved in German or Austrian recipes, and there is a reason why my paternal grandmother stuck to the old school sort of heavy farm supper while I was growing up in Minnow Lake. She had an English, Irish, and Scottish background and had learned that style of cooking because of growing up in the southwestern part of the province, where farming was the main occupation, and where food was fuel more than anything else. Dinners at my grandparents when I was a little girl were more than simple, and without a lot of flavour: boiled potatoes and carrots, with butter melting on both, and then some kind of roast beef that was awfully dried up and then covered up with a thick gravy. My grandmother excelled at making fresh bread, cakes, and sweets. I know it’s why I ended up being fat as a teenager. They lived next door to us, so the cakes and breads were a main staple for us as we were growing up. She used to ask us over on weekends for what my dad used to call ‘second breakfasts.’ (These would be fine if we had been working in the fields in southwestern Ontario…but we weren’t…and we were just kids…)

When I think of any sort of traditional or cultural food on my dad’s side of the family, I have memories of my grandfather making head cheese alongside my father in the tiny kitchen of the house that he had built on Bancroft Drive, in the Minnow Lake area of Sudbury. I never liked head cheese. It made me feel sick inside when my grandfather eventually told me what was in it. Mostly, I just remember the silvery colour of the meat grinder.

I also remember my father making traditional rumtopf in the early fall–taking over our kitchen counters with cutting boards full of plums, cherries, peaches, strawberries, and pears–and then covering the fruit with bottles and bottles of high proof rum. Then, the rumtopf crock would be placed in the fruit cellar, in the basement. Months later, at Christmas or Easter, Dad would lug it upstairs and dump it onto bowls of vanilla ice cream, if people came for supper. He thought it was fancy and impressive. I never liked it, either, because the fruit looked amber and was too soft for my liking. (That the rumtopf crock lived in what I knew was a haunted basement also didn’t impress me, as I was the one who was often sent to put the ceramic pot back downstairs after the fruit had been dished out for dessert. Funny, the things you remember…)

Today, Annelinde spoke of how she first learned to make the rouladen dish and the plum cake when she was seven. Her grandmother, Agnes, taught her. Annelinde was born at the tail end of the war, but was never really sure of her actual birth date. ┬áBirth certificates were hidden, for reasons she may never know. She remembers people saluting Hitler and speaking highly of him as she grew up. A different world, and a different time, if you happened to grow up in Germany just after WWII. Annelinde has fond memories of how recipes and traditional foods are tied to her childhood. I can only think of how this wasn’t the case in mine. The only traditional thing I remember eating was my great-aunts’ St. Patrick’s Day supper of corned beef and cabbage, along with Irish coffee, which was an annual affair at the house on Kingsmount, the house my great-grandfather built back in the 1940s when he moved into town after his retirement from running the store and post office in Creighton Mine.

After about four hours of cooking prep and peppering Annelinde with questions about ‘why is it cut this way?’ or being told that if I put a piece of rye bread in my mouth while cutting onions that I wouldn’t cry (true!), I now know how to make a proper rouladen, which was an amazing thing to eat last night. The plum cake was lovely, and I’ve admired it for years whenever Annelinde has made it at dinners I’ve attended. Now I’ll be able to make a solid German dinner in the future, when I have a clutch of two or three friends over for supper once in a while.

I was thinking a lot yesterday of how I still can’t relate to the memory of my father’s parents. They were scary to me, when I was little. My grandfather was very tall, with wide shoulders. He very rarely smiled, except when he thought something was really funny. He ran the house and my grandmother cooked and cleaned, catering solely to him. I actually can’t recall him ever hugging me, except maybe just once before he died, when he was in hospital, and I don’t recall him ever really taking any sort of interest in how I was doing as I grew up. When we were very little girls, I think, my paternal grandparents found us delightful. They liked us as babies. Once we started to have our own voices and personalities, and were no longer made to wear matching outfits, we were, perhaps, less appealing.

My grandfather tried, though, in his own way, to express affection. What I remember more warmly is that he was the first one to ever take me out fishing on the West Arm of Lake Nipissing, in the boat he made by hand in his wood working shop. Some of my better memories of him were on that boat, out on that lake that I loved. He did also make a wooden crokinole board that I loved, and even the playing pieces had been hand made in his basement shop. He made me a four poster bed for my eleventh birthday. It’s beautiful, still. So, I guess, he expressed his love by making beautiful things from wood and giving them to us as we were growing up. But the gift giving didn’t match with his face, which really didn’t seem very animated to me. He never had to raise his voice to keep us quiet. He only had to use his eyes, his face, and his presence, to be intimidating.

When we slept over, if Mum and Dad were out of town, he would stand in the doorway of the room, an outline of a big man against the hall light, until he was sure we weren’t talking. He listened to our breathing. That, for me, is one of the most terrifying memories of my childhood…to have the image of a tall man standing in the doorway of a room where I slept, so that I learned how to regulate my breathing and make it seem as if I was asleep when I really wasn’t. Those were the longest days and nights, times of being aware of always being watched, being told to be quiet when I was mostly quiet anyway. (I think that those memories, and of not feeling safe when sleeping, have influenced my sleep patterns for most of my life. Odd, but true. Someday soon, I’ll write about a character and sleep. It’s been brewing.)

Once, a kid in elementary school called me a Nazi when I was ten because she had figured that “Fahner” was a Germanic name. It is that. It means “flag bearer,” something which seems typical of the nationalism that is such a key part of German history. I didn’t really know what a Nazi was when I was ten. The kid, I remember, mentioned Hitler afterwards, and that freaked me out. When I went home, I remember I asked my dad about it. He said that his family hadn’t even been in Europe during WWI or WWII. They had travelled to Canada to farm, just outside of London, in the 1800s. No matter. The damage had been done by that little classmate of mine. Words can be damaging when you’re kid, as they can be if you’re an adult, too.

In university, I had a friend whose father was one of a very few child survivors of the Holocaust. He had been in a Steven Spielberg documentary, and I remember that they only had one small, battered family photo on their dining room wall. When I said how lovely it was, his face turned sad. “It’s all I have left of my family. They were all killed.” Visiting their house, in St. Catharine’s, was difficult. My friend’s father knew I had a German name, and he was the one who told me the meaning behind it. He asked about the maternal Irish heritage I had, and then we spent hours comparing how Irish Catholic guilt was very much parallel to Jewish guilt. He also spoke about the oppression of the Irish. He felt better about me when I said that the relatives on my father’s side had come over from Germany in the 1800s.

So. I guess it has always made sense to me, my draw to one culture rather than the other. My paternal grandparents weren’t warm and friendly with us, as we grew up. My mother’s family, however, were. They pulled us in, told us stories, and gave us hugs freely. They raised us, alongside my parents. I’ll always be especially grateful to my maternal grandmother and my great-aunts, who showed me what women could be–as strong and spirited as they wanted to. I’m eternally glad of their having been there as role models. The best parts of me come from my maternal grandmother, who had a huge influence on me.

On Saturday night, I went out for dinner with two friends from Zumba. We dance together every week. They’ve watched me grow and change over the last few years, and they accept me as I am, never questioning how I’ve shape-shifted, mostly, I think, because they love me enough to know that it’s a bit of a head trip for me, too, to try and figure out who I’m becoming as I’ve changed and become a more confident woman. After supper, we went over to listen to some live Irish music. My friend Duncan was playing. Then, there was a quick ceili dance and I’d forgotten how much I love set dancing. The last time I danced was at a ceili a few years ago. I should have gone across to Detroit to dance while I was living in Kingsville last year, but the notion of driving into Detroit on your own, when you’re not familiar with the area, is a bit daunting, so I only ever went across when I had a friend in tow. Dancing on Saturday night made me think of my Irish ancestors, and I felt pulled into a culture that has welcomed me from the moment I was born, and which allows me to know and define myself as a woman who is so closely woven into the natural landscapes of water, earth, and sky.

Why even bother trying to learn a bit of German cooking, then? Well, I already have the Irish soda bread down pat. Best to expand and think about another culinary, ancestral pathway. Just because my familial relationships weren’t good on my father’s side of the family, it doesn’t mean that I can’t work to try and integrate some of the better bits. Besides, I’ve been thinking lately, having come north again, that you need to forgive people, even if you can’t forget what they may have done. They only do the best that they can do, our grandparents and parents. They pass down patterns that they don’t even know are embedded in their being. Just yesterday, I came upon a quotation online. Kazu Haga wrote: “If we carry intergenerational trauma (and we do), then we also carry intergenerational wisdom. It’s in our genes and in our DNA.” I have a scientist friend or two who might disagree, I’m sure…but I often think about things like genetic memory, and imprints from history, and echoes of things that come to us, echoes that we can’t always explain….except maybe (for me, anyway) through creating writing or visual art. Not sure. And that’s okay, too.

I can’t hold grudges anymore, which means I also don’t entertain them when they come at me from other places. I’ve never enjoyed drama. I’m often better on my own because of that fact. So, I forgive my paternal grandparents for not having been warm and loving. I can, on a cerebral level, understand that one of my first male role models was mostly cold, and that he influenced the way in which my father grew up and expressed emotion. It’s amazing to me that I’m as open hearted as I am…but I know I got that from the other side of the family tree. Am certain of that fact.

I think my dad would’ve liked to have seen me cooking traditional German recipes yesterday, but I don’t know that he was that invested in continuing his father’s legacy. His father wasn’t kind to him, either. My dad told me that when we sat together in the palliative care wing during the weeks before he died. The stories he told me made my heart break for him, if I’m honest. He was a man of 78 when he died, but he might just as easily have been a little boy, broken, telling me of his youth. I could only just try to gather him in before he died, fill him up with all the love I could offer him, and try to help him cross over with less fear and sadness in his heart. Sometimes, I know from what my father told me, and from what I’ve seen with teaching kids over the years, neglect is a far harder sort of parental abuse to deal with, especially when you are frail and elderly, at the end of your life. Then, well, coming to terms with things isn’t easy…

Families have cycles, and sometimes they aren’t good ones. I know that Dad would’ve liked the food, and the fun conversation, and he would have draped an arm around my shoulders and pulled me in for a hug. So, yesterday, being with the two women who were cooking and baking alongside me felt really ancient, and rooted, and good. Regardless of culture, I thought, there is a culture of women that transcends all nationality. Six hundred years ago, someone might have peered in a front window and thought we were a coven of witches. More likely that we’d have been a coven of wise women, sharing stories, with kindness, with warmth, with intention. Still, I’m mindful of how blessed we are, as women, to now be able to be strong and vulnerable at the same time, even when it calls upon us to open our hearts and risk hurt. Sometimes, though, there is only love, and not hurt. And that, well, that makes for a good day…










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