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slide show birthday party

I have a friend who is working on a collection of essays she has tentatively titled “Pandemic Survival Tools”. One of these tools is to write letters to friends; she writes one a day. “It doesn’t matter where you last left off with them,” she writes in the guide. “You don’t need to remember. Start in that moment, with the tea you’re drinking or the way the fog started the day, burned off by noon. Tell them what song got stuck in your head from your last trip to the grocery store, or what you played while you washed the dishes yesterday.”

So this week, I wrote a long overdue letter to a friend named Amy. 

Dear Amy,

The women in my life taught me to light a candle when friends come over, even when the sun is shining. The light corrals us together, grounds the scene, makes it shimmer. If we could get together, I’d light a candle and we’d have warm scones from the oven and a mug of hot tea made from the dried camomile buds from your garden, the ones you sent me in the mail last year, and I would listen to the rhythm of your day. I want to know what happens the moment you put your feet on the floor until you close your eyes at night. The word rhythm is important here; I might make a green smoothie one morning and perhaps poach an egg another; that’s not so important to me. It’s how you move through the day, what it tastes like, how it makes you feel. I love those details.

I put scones on the menu because Sally Frawley shared a recipe for Australia’s favourite scones in her newsletter a few weeks ago. The recipe calls for one cup of 7 Up, (or ‘lemonade’ as you’d say in Australia) to leaven and add sweetness. I love adding carbonated drinks to my baking, it’s so practical and nostalgic. I bet you’re friends with Sally – all my Australian food friends are connected in my imagination, even though I know Australia is wider and deeper than Canada. But warm scones pull us together, erase the kilometres, cross the flooded rivers and the oceans. We’ll put some of last summer’s strawberry jam and a bowl of whipped cream on the table, alongside the candle.

My sisters and cousins would do the same. Last night we packed in my cousin’s living room for her 40th birthday celebration. We stretched in age from fifteen months to seventy-five years, all of us related and elated to be squished on sofas together, eating thick pieces of peanut butter and chocolate birthday cake, no masks in sight. It probably wasn’t the bender my cousin once had in mind – a Monday evening family slide-show followed by licorice tea served in Limoges tea cups, but creeping into post-pandemic life felt more appropriate. And joyous. And revealing. As my aunt Susan pulled the projector from its faded cardboard box and slid the carousel into place, her eleven-year-old grandson asked, what is a slide show anyway?

It was best you weren’t there. No one wants to pour over random family images from thirty-plus years ago projected on a living room wall, so I’ll give you the highlights: my cousin was born in 1982, the year Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister of Canada. It was a time of economic uncertainty, but he was handsome, he was sophisticated. We saw permed mullets on the mothers, silk bows tied at the neck for Christmas, tea parties on the floor, our grandmother holding birthday cakes dressed in blazers with brooches at her neck, the birthday girl in a polkadot dress, her signature blue eyes bright and her blond hair in permanent bedhead, and me in a bowl cut and a sweatsuit, much like the one I’m wearing now.

Do you remember the hum of a slide projector? The way the soft motor casts a glow in the darkness, or how the carousel clicks as it spins? The little ones didn’t know how it worked. Young Eva kissed the faces on the wall, Bruce the dog stood in front of the projector swinging a shadowy tail and the big kids walked through our memories sucking icing from the tips of the birthday candles. Go back! We’d shout. Let’s hang on to the faces a little longer, tease each other more, soak up the details of life back then.

I spent the afternoon before the party at my aunt Sandra’s house around the corner. My sister Lee and I used to always spend Monday afternoons in her studio, working on whatever we were working on, but the pandemic made that difficult. It was good to be back.

When we arrived, Sandra had set the table for lunch. We ate broccoli salad tossed with aged cheddar, salad greens and thinly sliced raw white onion. The recipe comes from Sandra’s book of favourite recipes, handwritten with tiny drawings of ingredients here and there. This salad comes from her ex-mother law, recorded in black ink sometime in the ‘80’s. Sandra’s food is always full of flavour and colour. She doesn’t shy away from intensity, she embraces it. She also takes a moment to give thanks when we sit down. And of course, she lights a candle.

Later in the studio, while I wrote and Lee sketched, Sandra took a break from her work to make a card for her niece, our cousin. Sandra puts as much thought into a birthday card as she would a weaving that could hang in a National gallery. She folded thick recycled paper covered in splashes of paint in half and glued one a printed photo of her niece at age five, arms outstretched, her smile wide. Inside she spelled HAPPY BIRTHDAY in cut-out letters. Then, out came her featherweight Singer sewing machine threaded with lime green cotton. I love the sound of an old sewing machine, the way the momentum builds like a steam engine as the thread charges forward. Sometimes we listen to music while we work, usually an instrumental piece like Gabriel’s Oboe, or the simple calm of Farewell to Stromness, often followed by something from Sandra’s Gregorian chant collection. But today it was just the machine humming along, stitching together paper to form a pocket within the card. Sandra put money inside the pocket, just like my grandmother used to do.

This morning I walked Rex, my youngest, to school. I don’t always feel like setting out in the cold for a walk early in the morning. He can go on his own, he is twelve, but he still asks if I am ready like he used to when he was little. This won’t last forever; I want to savour these moments. So off we went. I took the long way home, popped my Airpods in and listened to an audio book. This is a tough time of year in Halifax; the snow has melted, weathered garbage is strewn around, the trees are still bare and people are desperate for a spring that is still weeks away. But today I saw purple crocuses pushing through the ground, and chickadees dancing in the bare wisteria branches behind my house.

Once inside I took off my coat, slipped out of sneakers and into the most amazing fleece-lined Birkenstocks, made a second coffee, pored over Oscar dresses and the Will Smith drama, then opened my laptop. I wanted to tell you about my day.

broccoli salad

Broccoli Salad

I’ve softened things by using pickled red onions in the salad. The star anise in the pickling liquid imparts a lovely ‘je ne sais quoi’ to the salad.

1 head of broccoli, chopped into small florets
½ cup thinly sliced onion – I use pickled red onion, *see below
2-3 strips crisp bacon, crumbled
½ cup aged cheddar cheese, shredded
a handful of salad greens

Mix and toss with:

½ cup mayonnaise
⅛ teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon of vinegar – I used the pickling liquid from the red onions

*Pickled Red Onions

1 big red onion
1 cup apple cider vinegar
2 star anise (or whole peppercorns, fennel seeds, dill fronds… get creative)
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon of maple syrup

Thinly slice onion with a mandolin or a sharp knife. In a small bowl combine vinegar, star anise, sea salt and maple syrup. Place onions in a jar, top with pickling liquid and cover. Leave onions to infuse for a few hours before using. They’ll last a few weeks in the fridge.