All My Children, Best Adult Novel Award, Best Novel Award, Grandmother, I Wil Tell the Night, Memories, Muskoka Novel Marathon, Nana, Nostalgia, Novel, Novels, Olivia Newton John, Summer, Summer of Jenny, Throwback, Throwback Thursday, Write, Writer, Writers, Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Life, Writing Tips
Remember those lazy summers of our youth when school was over and we had the world at our leisure, to twirl on our finger and do with how we saw fit? I do. And my favourite times? Not the parties, or the late nights walking dimly lit streets and being out after the lights came on and feeling infinite, or lying in the grass as the dew dropped in and the stars filled the bowl above us, or catching fireflies in jars to fashion our own magical lanterns, or dancing in abandoned band-shells to the music of our own young hearts. Don’t get me wrong…all those things were splendid and magical. But none of them included spending time with my Nana.
I just wanted to board a train, or get in the car, or board a plane, and get myself to New Brunswick. One summer in particular stands out for me as the Golden Time of my Youth in New Brunswick. The Summer of Jenny. Cue the angels singing…
My Nana and I would work our days around that one golden hour in the afternoon when we would sit in front of the TV and watch the goings on of JENNY and GREG and JESSE and ANGIE on ALL MY CHILDREN. I no longer recall most of the storyline of that summer, but I know my Nana and I lived and died by it. I remember jetskis, for some reason…the excitement of the story…but that’s about it. We loved that show together like I haven’t loved a show since (with the possible exception of that one year my mother and I obsessively watched Caged Women together. Screeching derail here—I just discovered that CAGED WOMEN was actually called PRISONER everywhere else…and CAGED WOMEN only in Canada. My Mom and I loved crusty old Lizzie).
Yes, I used to love spending weeks at a time with my grandmother when I was a kid. I like to think we had a special bond. We would just poke around the house doing not much, and it was always enough. She made the simplest foods magnificent, we fed laundry through the ringer-washer and hung it out to dry, we worked on the garden, we sat idle, whatever. And at 1:00pm, we religiously watched that show. Jesse and Jenny felt like family, like vital parts of our day. We’d yell at the TV, sigh, laugh, feel their frustration and joys. Time stopped. And then, when it was over, we would critique it.
On grocery days, we would have to go into town early. We’d need to be back by 1:00pm, come what may. I think my Nana would have swam across the Miramichi River to get back in time. Grocery days were more magical when there were no uncles around to take us to town. We’d go by taxi…something I never did back home in Toronto. A taxi seemed like a conveyance no less magical than the Tardis or the Millennium Falcon. I loved the feeling of being chauffeured to town. It felt somewhat magically Dickensian to me. And I was always able to pick what I wanted. Back home that would be junk, junk, junk. But in New Brunswick, it was peanut butter and normal white bread. Nana almost never had peanut butter…or only had the old scraped almost clean jar from the previous year, hiding somewhere in the back of her fridge. Nanas always did things differently, didn’t they? Peanut butter in the fridge?! That was a special kind of crazy nobody else on the planet would get away with. But at Nana’s, I allowed it.
Usually right before All My Children came on, we listened to music. I would always ensure Olivia Newton John’s LET ME BE THERE was played. Nana either loved that song emphatically, or the Nana in my head loved it so much that I forced the Nana in real-life to endure it over and over again. She loved hearing my cousin Christine sing it. SO, that is what I always played for her. I judged her joy by how much her feet tapped…and they tapped a storm during that song. Her feet can’t be wrong, right?
It’s THROWBACK THURSDAY, so today I am thinking of my Nana and of the SUMMER OF JENNY. And Jesse.
I often try to capture pieces of the feelings I had in that house in my writing. I considered the immense bedroom over the kitchen as MINE. You had to step down a couple steps into it, and it had wardrobes like the ones in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe…instead of closets. And it was so big! With the stovepipe running up through it. And, man, did those floors creak!
It’s nice to reflect on the past, sometimes. It makes you heartsick for it, but it also brings it back. I loved that summer. I’ll never forget it. My Nana was everything. I miss her every day. I miss Jenny and Greg and Jesse and Angie. 🙂
The last novel I completed has a scene in it where my main character makes a meal with his grandmother. It’s skewed away from who we were, of course, but there is US in the scene too. Here’s the scene. It’s from the novel I wrote for the 2016 Muskoka Novel Marathon. It actually went on to win BEST ADULT NOVEL in the marathon.
Chapter 2 from I WILL TELL THE NIGHT…
“Honey, get me those two Vidalia onions over there,” MyImogene said. “The two beside the sink. We’ll cut those up and have ourselves a good cry over the cast iron pan, shall we?”
Finn scrambled from the rocking chair on the other side of the kitchen. He had already given up on trying to pin Oscar’s tail under one of the rockers. He had to give up on his theory that cats were stupid enough, or gullible enough, to fall for that trick. He grabbed up the onions and brought them to the woodstove where his grandmother was preparing their afternoon dinner.
“What’s a Vidalia?” Finn asked.
“If these were peaches, sweet boy, they’d be Georgia peaches,” MyImogene said. She was always one to get to the point of a thing by taking a more circuitous route to it. She was well on her way to telling the boy the answer he would need to know, but she would not take him there too quickly. MyImogene was all about the roundabout.
“How can an onion be a Georgia Peach, MyImogene?”
“Oh, it’s not, my boy. Landsakes, no. That’d be a horrible peach to bite, now, wouldn’t it?”
Without thinking too much on it, Finn decided to try again. “What’s a Vidalia?”
“Well, hon, you know the red part of a match? The part that makes a fire?”
“Yeah,” he said, finally putting the onions he was holding into his grandmother’s waiting hands. She quickly began to skin them with an intense anger that would put any animal hider to shame. “Sulfur, Daddy said.”
“Right,” MyImogene said. “We’re halfway there, my smart boy. How’d an eight year-old get to be so smart? I swear, I was eighty before I knew that one.”
“You ain’t eighty now, MyImogene.”
“Boy, ain’t ain’t no word. Not yet. We haven’t devolved to that level of grammar deconstruction as of yet. With any luck, I’ll be dead and buried before that happens.”
The cast iron pan was now over the open flame of the old woodstove, and a mound of butter the size of Topeka fried down to a river as MyImogene slowly dropped her Vidalia pieces into the mix. The onions sizzled to life as they hit the skittering butter in the bottom of the pan.
“What’s a Vidalia, MyImogene?” The boy was persistent in his constant pursuit of knowledge.
“Sulfur, my dear boy, is a chemical element of atomic number sixteen. It’s combustible. Do you know what that means?”
“It explodes or catches fire?”
“That’s near enough to the truth of the matter. Well, sulfur is found in the earth. In the dirt. In the soil. It’s from the land, Finn. And when there’s very little sulfur in the ground, in places such as Vidalia, Georgia, well that Earth does its best to make the sweetest most delectable onions found on the planet.”
“Vidalia? It’s a place?”
“Yes sir, young man. Vidalia, Georgia. In the deep south of the United States of America, the country found on the bum side of Canada. They are famous for some nasty and ugly things down there in the Deep South, Finn. Things we’ll talk about, perhaps, at some other time. But they are most famous in Georgia for the glorious Georgia peach and the divine Vidalia onion.”
The onions were browned to a golden perfection when MyImogene plopped them out of the pan and put the pan back on the fire.
“Now, get me those potatoes from the kitchen table.” She made a motion with her hand to direct the boy. “Not the bag, the peeled and parboiled ones there on the cutting board. Careful now. They’ll be a bit on the warm side.”
Finn brought the cutting board over, attempting to balance the peeled potatoes upon it as he stepped clumsily to avoid Oscar. He only lost one.
“Finn Barker. Don’t you dare damn my cat.”
“Sorry, MyImogene. He made me drop a potato.”
“You know all these things we’re eating here today come from the ground, now, don’t you, Finn?”
Finn seemed to look around at the meal preparation piles before answering his grandmother. He wanted all the facts to be accurate before agreeing. “Yes, MyImogene.”
“Well, set the board down here and I’ll start slicing these taters into the new batch of butter while you go back and rescue the jumper. It came from the dirt, so the dirt on me floor won’t hurt it but a bit.”
He set the board down beside his grandmother as his wheels turned to decipher the meaning of her instructions. Then he went back and rescued the fallen potato from the floor. Oscar was now nowhere in sight, most likely scared out of the room by the fallen potato.
“We’ll just tamp that one down on my apron for good measure.” Before his eyes, the last potato was swiped across the apron and sliced into the pan. As the butter purred the potato slices into golden brown likenesses of themselves, MyImogene dumped the fried Vidalia’s in on top of them. “You ready for a good old potato and onion fry-up dinner, my boy?”
“Can I have a molasses and old cheese sandwich on my side, MyImogene?”
“My boy, you can have whatever your good ole heart desires as your side. You’re at your Imogene’s house today. None of that processed cheese slices and ketchup your lazy old mama serves up for lunch.”
She said lunch like it was a dirty word and her disdain for it knew no bounds. It was the word that snuck into the English vocabulary when the guards were busy keeping ain’t out. His old and stubborn MyImogene would die calling the middle meal dinner, all the lunchers of the world be damned.
Soon enough, the potatoes and the onions were cooked to perfection. MyImogene took the pan from the flame, set it on the cutting board that Finn had brought over with the potatoes and proceeded to bury the steaming dish in a thin layer of cracked black pepper.
“This, my boy, is the perfect dinner for a lazy summer afternoon. Even better on a rainy lazy summer afternoon, but we won’t do ourselves a little rain-dance just yet. Today’s sun is much appreciated. No need to scare it away. I’ll just get us a couple plates and whip you up that sandwich, shall I?”
Without being prompted, Finn picked up the cutting board and brought it back to the table. It was surprisingly heavy with the cast iron pan on board, but he was a strong enough person for the job.
Once MyImogene returned to the table, molasses and old cheese sandwich in hand, the two dug in to what would always and forever be Finn’s favourite meal on Earth. No interruptions from his brothers, sister, mother, father, or even old Oscar, who was off somewhere in a huff fearing falling objects and little boys with deceitful plans to trap his flicking tail.
I remember you, Nana. I remember you well.