I came home from the hospital, or so I’ve been told, wrapped in a delicate blanket with bunnies and flowers strewn across the top, each stich individually placed by the loving hands of my maternal great-grandmother, who, unfortunately, remains only a fuzzy memory in my child’s mind as she passed not long after my first birthday. Mother always says I was the largest baby in the nursery on the day I was born, weighing in at 9 lbs. 9 oz. The claim stands that I was so long my feet dangled over the end of the hospital bassinet and I sat up and requested a burger and fries before they aspirated my nasal passages. I feel this is exaggerated, but, not totally out of the realm of possibility.
It’s sad that we lose the memory of those first months on earth. I’m sure, that during those early days, if fortunate, we are cooed over, held , and loved and it just all goes to whatever coffer is reserved for good memories long forgotten. If we did retain it, the images most probably would be of large distorted people looming over our cereal splashed faces, mouthing words in a language of which we had no understanding. Beyond this, I would guess would be a general feeling of wetness between our legs, or whatever might be residing there.
My first home, and several to follow were to be in Halifax, Nova Scotia. My mother’s father had a medical practice on Spring Garden Road with the family home not too far down the road from his office. As I said, my memories of that first year are left to the universe and my deepest thoughts, but that was where I left my initial imprint on the world.
Long before I was a twinkle in my father’s eye my grandparents raised my mother, her older brother and sister and one sister that followed in the house on Spring Garden Road. World War II was in full bloom and Halifax streets were liberally represented with personnel from all branches of the military.
During those times, money was tight, and luxury items such as nylon stockings were in short demand, if to be found at all. For my mother, who even at that tender age was most definitely a clothes horse, this was a time of extreme deprivation. Things being as they were, my grandmother ran her home as well as helping my grandfather in his medical practice. With four children and a large house to maintain, outside help was often brought in to keep things moving along smoothly. When my mother was in her late teens a young woman was employed through a family in Newfoundland, answering to the name Effie. Effie was the oldest of nine children, with her family having their roots in the Basque region of France. Hardships being felt all through the provinces, young girls of working age often found employment as nannies or housekeepers to ease the burden on their families. After arrangements had been made for Effie to come to Halifax, she arrived on a wintry morning and was picked up at the train station by my grandfather. A small girl, he said, standing just under the five foot mark, wearing a simple dress topped by a worn coat. She wore a red felt hat perched on top of her dark hair, and the rest of her belongings were contained in frayed tapestry bag, the handles of which were clutched tightly in both hands.
After being introduced to the household and shown to her room, my Mother, who is an ascetic human, and truthfully should have been an interior decorator or a personal shopper, immediately determined to take her under her wing. What she lacked in social graces, Effie well made up for with her gentle ways, efficiency of motion around the house, and unexpected and most appreciated gift for preparing the savory dishes of her Basque heritage. Soon she was enveloped into the heart of the family. Sundays were her days off. From the stories told, she spent her free time riding around the city on public transportation taking in the sights. After she’d been in the house over some months it became apparent to my mother that the girl owned but two dresses outside of her uniforms, and one pair of shoes. Now for my mother, to whom shoes are part of the essence of life, this was unacceptable. Effie’s envious mane of waist length black hair was kept in check by a severe bun pinned close to her neck and no makeup up enhanced her small featured face.
Mother saw a project, and threw herself into remedying the situation. The two girls were similar in age and body structure. Mother began by selecting items from her own closet to fill out the girl’s wardrobe, and took her shopping for shoes, hats and gloves to accessorize. After some prodding from my mother, Effie’s long hair was left on the floor of a local beauty salon and replaced with a shorter style more current for the time. Seated at my mother’s vanity table her lovely skin and expressive brown eyes were transformed through the magic of foundation, mascara, eyebrow pencil, and a touch of red to accentuate her full lips. Voila, a new Effie emerged and the result was to prove life changing, as was to become more apparent in the months to follow.
During the weekdays she wore her uniforms, but could be heard humming as she dusted the floorboards and a slight blush appeared on her cheeks. My grandmother, not entirely in support of this whole Pygmalion effort, had to agree that Effie seemed much happier after than before. My grandfather, however, was less convinced.
On Sunday’s as before her transformation, Effie continued her routine of attending early church, purchasing her bus token, and spending the day out on her own. The only difference noted by the rest of the household, was the shy girl who before had seemed to be constantly making a mental picture of her feet now had a lilt in her step and lifted her eyes to meet yours when spoken to. My mother was delighted.
Months later it became obvious by the increasing tightness of her uniforms that she had embraced her new lease on life in ways that had never been anticipated. After my grandmother questioned her, Effie broke down and admitted that she was expecting a baby and had met the father in question while riding on the bus. Horrified, my grandmother was forced to contact the girl’s parents and explain the situation. Effie continued to stay on in the house on Spring Garden Road until the new member of her family was welcomed into the world. After the baby girl was old enough to travel, the infant boarded the train with her young mother and returned to Newfoundland. Effie’s tapestry bag had been replaced by a suitcase which held her severance pay, new clothes, and gifts the newborn. After that, Mother was encouraged not to even offer as much as a bobby pin to her replacements.
Piperade (Basque Fish Bake)
2 onions, chopped
1 lb. red potatoes, sliced in 1/8″ slices
3 large green bell peppers, cored, halved, seeded and cut lengthwise in thin slices
2 14 1/2 oz. cans petite diced tomatoes
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. salt
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 small med-hot green chiles, seeded cut in half lengthwise and chopped into thin slices
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 1/2 lbs. cod fillets
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In large mixing bowl toss onion, chilies, green pepper and potato slices with olive oil, 1/4 tsp. black pepper and 1/2 tsp. salt.
Spray bottom of 13x9x2″ casserole dish. Spread vegetable mix evenly over bottom. Bake uncovered for 40 mins., stirring once halfway through.
After 40 mins., add 1 can of tomatoes with juice, garlic, and lemon juice to baking dish. Mix well.
Cut fish into six serving portions. Season with remaining salt and pepper. Place fish pieces over tomato/potato mixture. Pour remaining can of tomatoes over top of fish and vegetables.
Cover and cook an additional 30 mins. Let rest covered for 10 mins. prior to serving. Serves 6.