Sabbaticals are twelve golden ticket months that appear in the academic calendar once every seven years. It’s when we get to focus on research, personal development, graduate students, and writing. Travel to a sister institution or to work with colleagues in different parts of the world is often part of these venerated breaks from the regular grind of teaching, administration, and a tonne of other work. On my last sabbatical, I travelled to India, Brasil, and a few other places. That seems like a mirage now.
Instead of jostling down New York’s 5th Avenue to see what’s showing at the Guggenheim or melting in admiration at the interior design of an 18th century Sicilian church, I’ve been tethered to my home. Covid has done this, of course. However, I do not hate my pandemic life and have actually been loving many of these quiet days. It’s my year of living creatively I tell people.
Notes are jotted all over my TO DO list on the fridge, which has morphed from a neat vertical row of tasks into a crazy avalanche of coloured words, checkmarks, and arrows. Ideas are scrawled on sticky notes and the books I keep ordering form themselves into towers of inspiration all over the house. These are the places I’ve travelled.
I’m taking Anne Lamott’s genius advice to heart and have been writing down whatever pops into my head. Either I’ll find a place for it in the memoir(s) to come, in an article, or maybe I won’t ever use it. The point is to give the craft space and also to practice storytelling. It looks effortless on the pages of the authors who know what they’re doing but trust me when I say it’s hard. I love it though.
On the Edge of Town
Memories of time spent in the home of my Grandpa and Grandma Mooney, my mom’s parents, have been populating my mind lately. Throughout my childhood we would gather there for Christmas and summer family gatherings. Their house was small, maybe 1100 square feet, but it had tremendous depth. Most of it was coloured in browns and welcoming floral patterns that seemed to make the space stretch and look richer than it was. When everyone else was outside or downstairs, I’d tip-toe past the rattly china cabinet and into the immaculate top floor rooms that were filled with lacquered bedroom sets and exotic religious icons.
Doing this felt like a sacred secret. As I touched the gold picture frames and neatly laid hair brushes with their matching hand mirrors, I was feeling the history of these two people. My grandparents. They had so many children, laboured for a half-century on the farm, and were not always kind to my mother but were so gentle with me and my sisters. It was weird to reconcile that these were the same people. Maybe that’s what compelled me to continue my covert traipsing operations year after year.
The smell of my grandpa’s Aqua Velva cologne perfumed the small bathroom. Everything was different than ours at home, in terms of the design (carpeted toilet cover and matching toilet ‘skirt, dull avocado vanity) and what it contained. Opening the mirrored medicine chest was a cherished activity, which I did every trip and always alone. I’m not even sure if I went to the bathroom, but I was fascinated by the neatly organized pill bottles, creepy but alluring plates of false teeth, the packets of denture rinse, and the men’s razor with its hairy brush, small round container of suds, and cup with “Old Spice” sailor script.
But it was the tube of Close-Up cinnamon toothpaste that really held my attention. I had never seen this kind of toothpaste before, we always had the garden variety Crest or fancy triple-level Aqua-Fresh that dominated the market in the mid-80s. I’d squish a blob of the red liquid on my finger. It tasted sweet and I wondered if it could even clean your teeth.
Before leaving the house I would lean against the white deep freezers that sat next to the back door and listen to the voices of men, aunties, and kids yelling to one another. I’d also ponder the picture on top of one side of the kitchen cabinets, directly above the table. It featured a peasant about to break a humble loaf of bread. He seemed so sad and poor, in his black garb with a bowl of soup by his side, and a Bible.
This image is from a photograph taken in 1918 by Eric Enstrom of Bovey, Minnesota. Enstrom said, “I wanted to take a picture that would show people that even though they had to do without many things because of the war they still had much to be thankful for.” His daughter, Rhoda Nyberg, transferred the image to canvas and oil paints and called it “Grace.” The man featured is Charles Wilden, a peddler who sold foot-scrapers in Bovey. It’s one of the most reproduced images of the 20th century.
The Candied Voyage
The Chinese restaurant is another memory that looms large. With a couple of dollar bills in our pockets, me and my cousins would gleefully speed our way across a few backyards and turn left when we got to the main street. The shop was on Royal Street, which was one of seven main drags that cut across the tiny town of about 350 people. The others had equally regal names, like the town itself, which was called Imperial. The remaining streets were: Duchess, Princess, Queen, King, Prince, Duke. Royal Street came between Queen and King, thus dividing the town by gender, title, and rank. Fascinating.
The restaurant doubled as a candy and convenience store, and it was always very quiet, clean, and a little dark. There were a few tables set up and a booth or two for indoor dining, which included both Chinese and Canadian cuisine. Covered with rounded boomerangs, overlapping rectangles, and pointy stars inspired by the 1950s space race, the laminate countertops gleamed in the late prairie afternoon sun that made its way through the three large windows facing the street.
It was always this time of day when we came to the restaurant. We didn’t arrive for our family visits until late morning and then it was all about lunch and playing or snooping through the house, in my case. Plus, who buys candy in the morning? We’d always leave after dinner, which would be too late to get sweets and we always had a bountiful spread of those to choose from anyway. My grandpa was a sugar hound.
Sometimes I’d spy little kids through the glass displays or see them seated on little chairs behind the counter. I wondered about who they were. Do they live in the suite on the second floor? What do their bedrooms look like? Do they get teased at school? I don’t remember ever hearing them talk, which made them even more curious to me. I was just a traveler, a visiting child who’d enter the store once or twice a year to stock up on penny candy and sometimes French fries. What were their impressions of us?
These cherished visits transported me from the regular world of family get togethers into a calm and sort of mysterious place that I enjoyed. Being in the restaurant was like make-believe because everything about it, the vibe, the look, the people, was so different than my shopping experiences at home. It seemed like something from another time, which is how the whole town felt to me. It was a dusty place where old people who used to be farmers lived and where my mom couldn’t wait to escape from on her hurried passage into adulthood. I loved getting candy and being in the restaurant for many reasons, including the fact that it centered around sweets, which I love fiercely to this day.