25 January 2010

Hazel Jessie B (1921 – 2010)

My mother, Hazel Jessie, died Sunday, January 24, in our home town of Southbridge, Massachusetts (USA). She was 88 years old.

Hazel was the youngest of 12 siblings born to Alfred Benoit and Melina (Genard) Benoit of Webster, Massachusetts. She was born on a farm, and was fond of saying that her childhood included a lot of time spent climbing in (and eating from) a big cherry tree in the family's yard. She also had fond memories of time spent playing school under that tree with her six sisters, who remained her best friends throughout their lives.

Hazel enjoyed her work in various jobs during her married life, including at American Optical and several Southbridge stores. Her final job was at the jewelry counter in the former Ames Department Store in the Globe area. But most of her life was devoted to caring for her four children and husband Sam, whom she lovingly nursed through a long illness prior to his death in 2002.

An enthusiastic music lover, Hazel played mandolin and led family sing-alongs. She loved listening to radio, especially country music. In 2006, during a year living in Australia with her daughter, she won a national radio contest for her yodelling skills. In the 1960s Hazel enjoyed the Beatles as much as her teenage daughters did! Indeed, among her children’s friends, she was considered a very trendy Mom. As soon as she got her driving licence, she would take her children and their friends to drive-in movies. Once, she drove off with the speaker still hanging from the back window. She stopped the car, threw the speaker out, knocked out the broken glass and rolled down the window frame. Cars weren’t used every day then, so it was a while before her amused husband took the car out of the garage, rolled up the window and wondered why it had no glass!

Hazel was an accomplished seamstress, crafter, decorator, cook and baker. Until macular degeneration robbed her of vision, she was sewing and knitting for others. In 2002, she made dozens of warm hats to be distributed to Hmong students in Laos who were participating in an aid project managed by one of her daughters.

Hazel is predeceased by her husband Raoul (always know as "Sam"), six sisters (Florence, Viola, Eva, Pearl, Mildred and Edna) and four brothers (George, Edward, Louis, and Chester). She leaves one brother and his wife (Walter and Jenny), a son and daughter-in-law in Southbridge (Paul and Linda), two daughters and their partners in Australia (Carol and Allen; Nancy and Rodney), one daughter in Southbridge (Doreen), three granddaughters in Louisiana (Raina, Ariel and Letty); two granddaughters in Australia (Zoe and Anica), a step-granddaughter in Florida (Kim), three great-granddaughters in Louisiana (Skylar, Aldyn and Keely), a step-greatgrandson in Florida (Colton) and many nieces and nephews.

Hazel will be sadly missed by her extended family and by all who knew and loved her. A memorial service will take place in the Spring, when Hazel's ashes will be buried beside her husband’s in the new Notre Dame cemetery on Woodstock Rd, Southbridge MA. In lieu of flowers, friends and relatives are asked to donate to the Haiti Earthquake Response Fund at OXFAM International (PO Box 1211, Albert Lea, MN 56007-1211) or any other Haiti relief agency of their choice.

(March 2006: Hazel arrives for a year she spent with us in Australia)

24 January 2010

Summer bounty

Here's what we're picking in the garden at the moment:

The basil just keeps coming – the box above has kept us supplied throughout the summer. We've made pesto several times, and we use the leaves liberally, with tomato and feta, on toast and pizzas.The pumpkin goes into pies and soups. Brazilian cherries, cooked with apple, make a great jam. I take the pips out before cooking, but tie these up in a piece of cheesecloth to keep with the fruit during cooking. This batch of cherry jam was cooked a bit longer than planned, because friends arrived just as I was about to test the mix. The slightly longer cooking time caused the mix to go a bit darker than I like – as you can see in the difference between the colour of the fruit and the colour of the finished jam. The flavour is OK, but the texture is a bit stiffer than we like. This fruit also makes a great jelly to serve with cold meat, but jelly-making is a bit time-consuming for my taste!

Our four mango trees are all heavy with fruit. We have to pick them while still green, with just a flush of yellow-pink beginning to show (as in the basket photo), or else the possums and flying foxes will strip the fruit down to the nut before we get to it. This bunch was about to be delivered to a neighbour, but nearly everyone around here has a good supply of mangoes this year. I usually mark each piece of fruit with the date picked, and then we choose the earliest picked among the ripe ones for our breakfast (or in Allen's case, for morning tea – to ensure he has extra energy for his daily word puzzle).

My favourite fruit treat this summer is Mango Jam. Here's the recipe: cook 3 cups of peeled and sliced mango, one sliced lemon and 1/2 cup of water until tender. Cool slightly and put through the blender until smooth. Add 1 cup unsweetened pineapple juice and 1 teaspoon ground ginger to the mango-lemon mix, measure how many cupfuls this makes, and then and cook all until near-boiling. Meanwhile, warm sugar in a bowl in the oven (1/2 cup of sugar per 1 cup of fruit mixture for this one), then add the warmed sugar to the fruit and bring to the boil. (Fruit mix will start to darken from the time sugar is added; pre-warming the sugar reduces the amount of time that sugar and fruit need to cook together, and this helps to retain good fruit colour.) Cook only until the desired consistency is reached. To test, have some saucers cooling in the freezer. When the fruit mixture seems thick enough (it should go a bit wrinkly on the top when you stir it), drop a spoonful onto one of the chilled saucers and roll it around. If the jam wrinkles nicely, it's definitely ready. I don't even wait that long, as I like my jam runny. As long as the thin layer of jam on my testing saucer isn't too liquidy, I stop cooking and start to bottle.

In this warm climate, I've had trouble keeping my jams free of mould. This year I've switched from the vinegar-dipped plastic-sheet covers I used to use, and I'm trying paraffin instead. It's called 'preserving wax' and comes in a solid block (see package in jam photo above). You melt the block in the top of a double-boiler, and pour a thin film over the hot jam in each jar. The next day, you top up with an additional dollop of melted paraffin, making a 12mm wax seal on the top of each jar, with no airspace between jam and seal. I add metal covers and clips later, to minimise accidental damage to the wax, which would be too easy to dislodge, either by me or by mice! We'll see if this method works better than plastic sheeting. If it doesn't, then I'm going to need a second fridge for my preserves and jams, or else a freezer to store the uncooked fruit. Of course, I could reboil the glasses of potted jam in a traditional preserving pan, thus sealing on the metal lids. But over-cooking invariably results in a dark-coloured jam with too stiff a texture. So I hope the wax will do the trick this year. Bon appetit!

06 January 2010

This (sewing) life

I wrote this piece in May 2008, and it appeared in the Review section of The Weekend Australian's January 2-3 edition, 2010. When I submitted the piece all that time ago, the word length was 100 words more than the column's current layout allows. So prior to publication the editor advised me she would have to delete some words. And though I think the editor has cut very judiciously, this week when I read the piece as printed I was a bit saddened to find that I hadn't managed to convey the sense of loss and nostalgia which I had hoped this brief segment of memoire would somehow connote. But then, I went back to see what had been excised (the deleted words appear in red in my original version below), and I felt better about the piece in its original form. It seemed to me that the sentences deleted –  especially in the 2nd and 3rd extracts shown in red – may not have been essential to the factual narration, but somehow they contributed to the nostalgic mood I was aiming for. And the fact that the final sentence of the first paragraph appeared in the newspaper as a separate paragraph seemed to lend unintended importance to the word 'stupidity'.

What I mean to say in this introduction is not that I object to being edited, because I think the editor did a pretty good job. Rather, it is simply that I am (once again) amazed by the power of words, and of their arrangement and inter-relationship in any piece of writing. And the way in which the parts, especially in a reflective piece, contribute to the 'whole' is so complex that if you think too much about it, you could be paralysed and never write another word. But this should come as no surprise to any avid fan of William Zinsser's wonderful books about writing, especially Writing About Your Life (ISBN 1569243794) and Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir (ISBN 0395901502). Anyway, in this post I've chosen to reproduce my original, slightly longer, version of 'This (sewing) life'.

Ah, the adrenalin flood as you make the first cut into crisp new fabric laid out on your table, right sides facing. I’m a methodical sew-by-numbers person. My mother was something else. It’s not that she prided herself on never reading the instructions. She just had the ground-in humility of a poor farm girl, and believed she wasn’t clever enough to follow complicated construction steps. She rarely even checked which numbered pieces to use for whatever pattern ‘view’ she aimed to sew. For most of her life I believed the myth of her stupidity.

Then in her 80s, almost blind and badly crippled by arthritis, she came across the world to live with me. To fill in her days, we hit upon a word puzzle – nine letters, scattered haphazardly, to be used to form dozens of words, including one nine-letter word. Day after day, Mum scored ‘Very Good’, sometimes ‘Excellent’ – never spelling a word wrong, often getting the nine-letter word. For 30 years my late father had written all the letters, so I never knew my mother could spell – had even won prizes for it. Yet here she was, stiffly manipulating the large alphabet cards I made so she could see the letters, and with a fat texta recording the words on a big sheet of paper, in a neat longhand she could only reread with a magnifying glass.

But wait. Watch as I open a new dress pattern packet, consult the instructions to select the correct pieces, maybe even read every sheet from beginning to end. I carefully lay out the pieces to make sure they all fit my fabric. And then I start cutting. Not Mum: cutting as she went, sometimes getting to the end with paper pieces left over and no more fabric. Never mind: why not a different-colour collar – maybe crisp white piqué – or solid sleeves on a patterned dress. Other kids’ admiring mums always assumed these touches were intentional.

My own mistakes had different endings. I once slaved over a three-coloured Mondrian-inspired crepe concoction for three days. Then, after too much attention to perfect top-stitching and not enough to fitting, the hip turned out a fraction less than I needed for sitting down. So after midnight, when my nosy Italian landlady was asleep, I snuck outside and threw the rolled-up expensive ball of unfinished dress into the waste bin. Mum would have cut it up for cushions or those odd sleeves.

But another time, I spent two weeks’ leave pinning and repinning the pieces of a six-gored coat with tab-fronted pockets onto a beautiful woollen fabric in a complex plaid that was not only a one-way design horizontally, but also vertically. I cut three collars before getting a match, and my leave was over before I started sewing. Later, when I moved to a warmer climate, I bequeathed the finished garment to my mother. I doubt she valued my several degrees more than that dream coat, even if few but her appreciated those perfectly matched seams and bound buttonholes.

Nowadays I don’t bother with one-way plaids. But I will always remember fitting my daughter’s first formal made of knobby silk in two colours. And my mother and me, armed with giant wooden spoons, swirling round coffee-tinted water in a bathtub to dye the laces and tulle she needed to make the veil after finishing my ivory wedding gown.

Now she no longer sees well enough to inspect well-matched seams. And I choose the softest cottons to make her wispy nightgowns, one of which I hope she’ll be wearing when she takes her last (in)significant breath.

[Postscript: My mother died in Southbridge, Massachusetts, on 24 January 2010, one month before her 89th birthday. This picture was taken in April 2007, one month after I'd brought her back to the USA. She had spent the previous year with us in Australia, but I hadn't been able to get her a visa to stay any longer. She left her false teeth in Australia, saying she hated wearing them and could manage very well without them! You can read her obituary in a post dated 25 January: Hazel Jessie Boulanger.]

02 January 2010

After apple picking – Memories of my father

As I write, my mother is lying in a bed back in my home town in Massachusetts, patiently waiting to die. She has soldiered on for seven and a half years after our father's death, physically debilitated as a result of a sad accident some years before Dad died, when he had a stroke while attempting to park their car but instead ploughed into Mom where she stood waiting to unload groceries from the boot. She spent many years after that caring for him as Parkinson's disease ravaged his body and mind. All this time, she was gradually losing her vision to macular degeneration. She had asthma, heart problems and all manner of other difficulties. But she keeps going – even spending a year with us here in Australia, while I tried (unsuccessfully) to get her a resident visa that would allow her to live with us permanently. These last two years she's lived in a nursing home back in the USA, and there she is fighting her last battle, clinging stubbornly to life, even though she's told my brother and sister who share her care that she can't wait to join our father in the next world. I will write more about my mother when the time seems right, but in today's Weekend Australian you can read a small piece about her, 'This (sewing) life'. (I've included the same piece in this blog, with some additional notes.) But in this first part of what is, I suppose, an homage to my parents, I would like to share some memories of our father. Dad died in July 2002, just 12 hours before I was due to fly out from Laos, where I'd just begun a two-year assignment, on the first of four flights that would take me 'home' to see him one last time. So there was no chance to say goodbye, and the long trip took me instead to his funeral. I wrote this on that trip, and placed a copy with his ashes – a goodbye of sorts.

My earliest memories of Dad are of me and one or both of my sisters muffled up in snowsuits and tucked in securely between Dad’s legs as we all race down a hill – Harrington St hill, Columbia St hill, or maybe a hill in a nearby field.

It is always night-time in these memories, which added to the fun and excitement for us kids. Dad would look out the window after supper and decide that the quality of the snow or the moonlight, or some other thing difficult to name (maybe memories of his own childhood) was just too much to pass up. And off we’d troupe: through the dark and quiet snowplowed street, Dad pulling the sled and one, two or three of us kids riding on it if the packed snow allowed. (In my memories, my brother is always old enough to pull his own sled.)

I think Dad enjoyed these nights as much as we did, and though there must have been a bit of danger involved – especially in fields where snow-covered rocks might be lying just under the surface – I never felt that anything could harm us as long as Dad was steering, yelling and whooping along with us on a good run, rarely tipping us over, and only calling a halt to the night’s fun long after the time he’d promised Mum we’d be home.

When I was not much older came ice-skating sessions with Dad – us kids on double-runners to begin with, and later on real skates. He preferred to skate on a pond no one else was using – McKinstry’s Pond was a favourite. Often the session would begin with Dad skating around pushing a snow shovel, clearing first a path and then a larger area for us to go round and round until we could no longer feel our toes.

In milder weather, he’d take us for walks. Long before it became politically correct for fathers to push prams (or ‘carriages’, as we called them), Dad was a regular pram-pusher, especially on Sunday mornings after church. Mum would be home getting the roast lunch ready (we called that meal ‘dinner’) and probably enjoying a bit of peace. We’d already be all dolled up in our Sunday best, so off we’d go – Dad pushing the carriage with one child in it (probably Nancy, at the time I’m remembering) and two other kids (probably Paul and me) walking either side of Dad, holding on to the carriage handles. Mum has told me that Dad walked us all in that carriage: Paul, me, Nancy and finally Doreen. He was a great walker, too – long, fine strides in big solid shoes bought from Dentini’s. And he loved to stop along the way, chatting animatedly to friends and acquaintances as we passed their houses, and in later years maybe inspecting someone’s tomato plants when he became interested in the art of growing the perfect tomato.

We kids might get impatient, standing alongside the carriage while Dad and some guy chatted. Sometimes it didn’t seem to us like much was being said in these conversations, which were usually in English but could also include French or a bit of both languages. Still, these things had to be allowed to work themselves out and Dad expected us to be patient. At other times, Dad would use us as an excuse to move on. Maybe the person he was talking to was going on about something Dad didn’t approve of talking about in front of kids. Or maybe the other guy had had a bit too much beer early in the day and wasn’t worth listening to in that condition.

I’m sure Paul has other memories, many of them probably involving baseball. But I think all four of us would remember the time in our lives when we each learned to ride a bike. Most new bikes had trailer wheels in those days – a pair of detachable wheels at the back that prevented a novice rider from tipping sideways. But we never needed trailer wheels when we learned to ride. Instead, Dad would run alongside, one hand lightly touching the back of the seat and the other hand ready to grab the handlebars if we started to tip. He must have spent hours running alongside one or another of us like that, always patient, urging us on with advice and enthusiasm, helping us turn and ready to catch us if we started to fall. Bruises and scratches were par for the course in learning to ride – that’s what he taught us, and it’s a lesson that’s probably stood us all in good measure over the years.

Another memory I have is being allowed to follow Dad around the golf course – maybe getting in a few hits on the back holes, but mainly just tagging along: washing balls in those neat little wheel-shaped things full of brushes (you popped the ball in the top and turned a crank, and the clean ball would eventually spit out the bottom), looking for lost balls and thinking about the Trask’s ice cream we might have on the way home. (Dad’s choice: strawberry, of course!) Unfortunately, the golf bug didn’t stick with me as it did with Paul. But what did stick with all of us, I think, is the conviction that people should get out and do things, active things, physical things, as long and as often as they can. Maybe that’s not a surprising lesson for kids to learn from a father. But our father didn’t just preach at us to go out and play or get some exercise. As often as he could he did that with us. Many kinds of ball games, bide riding, skating, sledding, walking – he did all these things with all of us, all the while explaining, showing us what to look at by the side of the path, telling us a little about his own childhood activities (for example, how he, his father and brothers would cut firewood by the cord and stack it up, ready to haul home for the long winter).

Dad also provided me with two other lessons that I never forgot. He was the first man I ever saw wearing rubber gloves and an apron – a frilly apron, too, because BBQ aprons for men hadn’t been invented during our childhood (in fact, BBQs hadn’t been invented; you just had cookouts!) Dad would come home after work and read the paper before supper. But after the meal, he would usually roll up his shirtsleeves and don one of Mum’s aprons to do the dishes. He liked the water to be very hot, so when rubber gloves appeared on the scene, he would use those in really hot water. Or if he thought Mum had too much work – and especially when she was pregnant – Dad would forbid her to do any housework. After work every night, he would sweep and wash floors and do the dusting, as well as wash the dishes. Luckily, men then weren’t very good at telling whether housework had been done or not (come to think of it, what’s changed!) And that’s just as well, because Mum being Mum, she had usually already done much of the housework earlier in the day.

The second thing Dad modelled for me that shaped and influenced the course of my professional and personal life so much was a love of books and reading. Going to the library with Dad on a Saturday (usually on foot!) was another ritual I remember with love and affection. You could never say about Dad what Robert Frost’s character says of the Hired Man in the poem of that name: ‘He hated to see a boy the fool of books!’ Dad loved books, he loved to read, and to the end of his alert life, reading at least one newspaper (and often two) from beginning to end was an important part of his daily ritual. He was the most well-informed father of any I knew. Among the little odds and ends we found in his bedroom was a list of books he meant to read, in a little notebook with entries right up to the late 1990s. And the fact that he, a man who never graduated from high school, ended his working life as the highly regarded manager of a lab that turned raw glass into fibre optics, prisms and all manner of other devices that PhD scientists and engineers had dreamed up, is a credit to his amazing skill and a fine mind that he worked all of his life to develop. 

My father loved and valued learning as an intrinsically good thing. But he valued goodness itself and morality even more. He would be the first to say he owes a lot of those values to his own upbringing – including the example to which his sister Lucille contributed so much after their mother died. He would also give the credit for much of his goodness to his Catholic faith, which remained a pillar of strength throughout his life, and from which I doubt he ever once turned away. But Dad also found strength and support in family life, which he valued above all worldly things and which, I know, he never took for granted. He was deeply and touchingly devoted to our mother, and she in turn gave him more love and support than anyone really has a right to expect in one lifetime. In the busy years when they both worked so hard to raise their family together, Mum told me she would sometimes slip little messages of love and affection into the lunch bag she prepared for him every morning. And in the last months of their life together, Mum used all her strength to keep everyone from knowing how hard it had become to care for Dad, or that she needed help as much as he did. She had made a promise to care for him at home, and she kept that promise.

This good man left us, his children, with a tough legacy – to try always to do what is right and good, and not just what you feel like doing. But he also left us with what we need to live up to that challenge: strong values and a good role model.

As an old apple-picker himself, I think Dad would approve of the fact that I ended my soliloquoy with a poem by another New Englander, Robert Frost, which is all about the end of a season (or a life).

After Apple Picking
My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.

Follow this link to read the rest of 'After Apple Picking' by Robert Frost.

    Photo Courtesy of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette

Dad and I walk through an apple orchard in Charlton MA after picking blueberries in an adjacent field. Dad had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Whenever he had something important to say, he would stop, say it, then walk on. This new habit seemed strange to me at the time. Later I realised he was just beginning to have only enough mental acuity to be able to focus on one thing at a time. He could walk, or he could talk. But he couldn't do both at the same time.

About me

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I started this blog in 2009 when I became a full-time caregiver. My husband had been diagnosed a few years earlier with primary progressive aphasia. Over the next four years until his death in 2013, we went on a journey of discovery about this rare condition. My blog is about what I learned, how we both coped and how the journey deepened our love and appreciation of each other. Allen’s journey is over, but mine goes on.