Don’t spill the coffee

During March and April it’s Roll Up the Rim to Win time and, as I watch local people going into Tim Horton’s and coming out with bright red cups in their hands, it takes me back to a time when I nearly wrote off a minivan—and my family—just for the sake of a cup of coffee.

Roll up the Rim to Win (1) Roll up the Rim to Win (2)

We were visiting family in Southport, near Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, in the spring of 1990.  Our three boys, Paul, James and Ryan, were six, five and three respectively.  My mom had come from Winnipeg to visit with the boys and Dan’s infant daughter, Katie.

Winter doesn’t hang on in southern Manitoba the way it does in northern Newfoundland, mainly because the prairies are flat and there’s really nowhere for the snow to collect.  So, once winter has blown herself out and the mercury has eased up above the zero mark the sun gains strength and the snow melts in record time.  Snow gives way to crocuses, breezes blow softly across the prairie sands, and fragile blades of grass begin to brighten the colourless landscape.

Coffee-drinking is in our family’s DNA.  I don’t know if it comes down through my Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors or through the English ancestors on my dad’s side, but it is certainly well-established.  We also like tea, but coffee is the beverage of choice, especially if there’s a Tim Hortons nearby.

One Saturday morning we all piled into the van: Len, Mom, my brother Dan, Paul, James, Ryan, Katie, and me.  We drove from Southport to Portage La Prairie to do a little grocery shopping.  On the return trip we stopped at Tim Hortons to pick up a tray of three large coffees, a tea for Len, and a box of donuts, and I got behind the wheel to drive.  Dan got in the front passenger seat while Len and Mom sat in the back seat to keep an eye on the squiggly-wiggly children.  I carefully placed the tray of beverages on the console between the seats and buckled my seatbelt.

It takes about ten minutes to drive from Portage to Southport, and as we drove along we all chatted and laughed and looked out the windows at the farmland scrolling by on either side of the road.  As we approached Southport, row-on-row of military housing emerged from a mirage of heat waves.

One of the boys began to whine, “I have to pee.  I have to pee now!” and began kicking the back of the driver’s seat in desperation.  Simultaneously, a bumblebee drifted in through an open window and made for the back of the van, where the children began to scream and flail their arms and legs in panic.

And that’s when I made the decision that nearly cost us our lives.

With only a minute to go till we reached the house, I pressed down on the accelerator and sped up, thinking it would be quicker and safer to get home and get the kids out of the van rather than stop on the side of the road.  I thought surely the child in need of a potty could hold it for one more minute and surely the bumblebee couldn’t inflict that much damage in a matter of a few seconds.  Then I remembered that my brother Dan was dangerously allergic to bee stings.

Down went the gas pedal as the screams in the back grew louder.

I took the next turn a little fast—on two wheels I think—and the bright roll up the rim to win cups in the tray slid towards the floor.  I guess you could say everything tipped at that moment and, in a flash, I reached over and grabbed at the tray of coffee, hoping to save it.  Dan yelled, “Watch the ditch!”  I let go of the coffee tray and spun the wheel so that the van righted itself, barely staying on the road.  I lurched to a halt in the driveway, shut off the ignition, and drew in deep breaths.

Dan looked across at me, deadpan, and said, “You grabbed at the tray of coffee—willing to sacrifice a $20,000 minivan, your mother, your brother, your husband, your children, and my daughter—for four Tim Horton drinks?”

I suppose there is something to be said for the Newfoundland tradition of having tea at the kitchen table, even if you don’t win a prize.

It could save your life.

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Of swimsuits and knitted socks

The difference between weather in eastern and western Canada was never more evident than in my choice of clothing for a weekend outing.  I pulled on long johns and tucked them into my homemade ‘Nan Tucker’ knitted socks, preparing for my first winter’s excursion on a snowmobile to cabin country.  I packed a knapsack with extra-warm clothes, first-aid kit, and a digital camera.

Socks like these are a common sight on the Great Northern Peninsula.
Socks like these are a common sight on the Great Northern Peninsula.

In March 1969, our church youth group chartered a bus to Cultus Lake, British Columbia.  I packed an overnight bag with a swimsuit and towel, transistor radio, hairbrush and a Brownie camera for a weekend at the beach.

The trip took us an hour east of Vancouver towards Chilliwack.  Along the Trans Canada highway we passed dairy farms with cattle standing along the fence-lines swishing their tails and chewing their cuds.  Raspberry and strawberry farms with their gridline-pattern rows ran as far as the eye could see, holding out the promise of a harvest of fresh fruit.  Mennonite farmers waved as they stood in the middle of fields of glorious yellow daffodils.  Gradually the farmland gave way to fir-covered hills, and then the hills slid into the background and the mountains reared up, standing shoulder-to-shoulder as we followed the highway to our destination.

At the lake, sun gleamed off the water as we scrambled off the bus and changed into swimsuits.  The soft spring air and the clear, cold water were thrilling.  We picnicked by the campfire and sang songs and imagined the legendary ‘Bigfoot’ coming down from the mountains to the campsite.  Cabins, framed by a brilliant riot of daffodils and tulips, stood back from the beach, while playgrounds on lush green lawns were alive with the shouts of children.

Cultus Lake was no stranger to visitors, and fishermen came from afar to fish for Rainbow Trout and Sockeye Salmon.  The Cultus Lake sockeye salmon is an anadromous fish—that is, a fish that lives part of its life in fresh water before migrating to the sea.  That day, I watched fisherman casting their lines, waiting for fish to bite.  I listened to their laughter floating across the water as they traded fish tales.

*****

Now, forty years later, the Newfoundland landscape lay concealed beneath a heavy blanket of snow as a shower of snowflakes fell like eider-duck feathers from the sky.  I followed Route 430 west and found the rendezvous site on the side of the road.  Within minutes I was pulling a heavy helmet over my head and hoisted myself onto the back of a snowmobile, hanging on for dear life and bouncing over the barrens; amazed that there were traffic signs on the trails in the middle of the wilderness.

At Stock Pond, we pulled up to ‘Da Tilt’, a cabin owned by Carl and Millicent Tucker, in the center of a magical wood of moss-hung trees and snow-laden branches.   As he got off the snowmobile, Carl asserted, “I think it’s time for tea!”  Millicent greeted us at the door and, as we took off helmets, mittens, scarves, caps, coats and boots, put a kettle on the cast-iron stove to boil.  In the kitchen, we drank scalding tea and nibbled on buttered buns, watching a grey jay tilt his head and peer through the window, begging for morsels of bread.

After tea, Millicent brought forth a platter of fisherman’s brewis and, while we ate, Carl told stories of fish and fishermen, dog teams, seals on ice, and life on the Northern Peninsula when he was a young man.

After lunch we piled onto snowmobiles and headed to Pistolet Bay to go smelting.  Alyssa, Carl and Millicent’s granddaughter, and Len, lowered their hooks into the icy water.  Alyssa pulled up smelt after smelt, while Len only managed one rock cod, which came up with jaws flapping.  “You can’t have that one, Len,” advised Carl, pulling out the hook and forcing the foot-long cod back down through the ice.  A group of snowmobilers dropped by and one feller in a space-age helmet, noticing Len’s lack of success, insisted on showing Len the way it’s done by hauling in three smelts in the space of a minute.

Back at the cabin, we warmed our toes by the wood stove as other cabin-dwellers and snowmobilers dropped by to visit.

Looking back, I’d say that whether we pack an overnight bag with swimsuit and towel, or long johns and worsted socks, there is something in all of us that yearns to get back to the land; back to simpler ways.

Enjoying toutons and a good yarn

Queen Elizabeth may think tea and crumpets at the Palace is tasty, but she probably hasn’t tasted tea and toutons, poor dear.  All my life I’ve measured how civilized a social gathering ought to be, by comparing it to Tea with the Queen, but no more!  If Queen Elizabeth hasn’t tasted toutons,  more’s the pity!

My love affair with these delectable morsels began not long ago when a lovely lady by the name of Rose invited me to tea.  As I at down at the table she took the toutons from a sizzling cast iron frying pan and stacked them on a plate.  When the kettle boiled she poured steaming hot cups of tea and placed them on the table along with a tin of Carnation and a bowl of sugar.  On the platter, next to the toutons, were crisp fried pieces of salt pork.

“Just butter the toutons and drizzle molasses over them,” she said, pushing the containers nearer to me.  I helped myself to a touton—buttered it and drizzled the molasses over it—then took a bite.  If there was a heaven on earth, it was in Rose’s kitchen that morning!

When I first set foot in Newfoundland in ‘77, Len took me to see his Aunt Mamie and Uncle Newton in Kelligrews.  Never in my life had I seen anybody just walk into someone’s house without knocking, but that’s what Len did.  Where I grew up—in the city—you phoned ahead to arrange a visit, then you knocked on the door and waited for it to be opened.  Walking into someone’s house without knocking was a culture shock for me!  That evening Aunt Mamie cooked up a scoff of Fish ‘n’ brewis; something I had never heard of.  As I ate, I wondered how someone could take pieces of hard bread—like hockey pucks—and turn them into something so good; but she did, and the scrunchions and onions complimented the delicious meal!

My first sit-down meal at the home of my future in-laws was also a bit of a culture shock. The kitchen was full of visitors, young and old, and the table couldn’t accommodate everybody so the men sat down to eat first.  I was a visitor—and didn’t have a clue what to do in the kitchen anyway—so I was told to sit down with the men.  I didn’t understand much of what they were saying to each other, so I sat quietly and hoped nobody would notice me.  Platters of fish and potatoes, vegetables, salads and soups were passed around, and if I didn’t want something, I passed it along.

Suddenly, Len’s mom handed me a loaf of fresh-baked bread and a knife.  I had been away from my home in Vancouver for a couple of years, and hadn’t seen homemade bread in ages.  I looked at the loaf in my hands, then at my plate heaped with food, and decided I didn’t want any bread.

“No thanks,” I said, and passed the loaf along.  The table of men—and the women standing around the table—erupted into laughter.  I looked at their laughing faces in total confusion.  What had I done?

Len’s mother took the loaf and the knife and held the bread to her bosom, cutting slices skilfully and handing them to the men.  Len explained, “You’re the woman, you’re supposed to cut the bread.”

Fresh from the oven...
Fresh from the oven…

Tea in Newfoundland, especially in the outports, remains a ‘homely’ way for friends to get together.  In the city, having tea with a friend is more of a formal occasion.  When you invite someone over, you arrange a date and time and your friend arrives at the designated hour, and woe betide if you show up early or late.But in the outports, it’s a gentler life, which goes without saying, really.

All things considered, when it comes to having tea, I think Queen Elizabeth and I might agree that tea and toutons in Rose’s kitchen exemplifies the age-old adage, “Life’s simple pleasures are the best.”