The Magic Helmet

In the name of love, some people turn a simple spoon into an airplane or ‘chew chew’ train to get their children to eat. Sometimes it works. Not always. Papa wore a helmet. It worked like magic. Do you remember what your loved ones did to get you to eat your food? How do you get your kids to eat now? 

Nana and Papa could get us to eat pretty much anything when we were little. It was probably one of the first examples of effective teamwork that I can recall. A bit like the Jamaican relay track team. Our meals were meticulously cut into tiny bite sized morsels by Papa. He could make perfectly symmetrical miniature dice out of any meat. Likewise, he could cut up spaghetti so fine that it resembled rice. Once he had finished and only then, he would pass the baton over to Nana who would make up our bowls of food, usually accompanied by rice, her very own unique macaroni pie or meat sauce. She would then return the baton to Papa who would in turn, work his magic on the home stretch. It was quite the ingenious process.

I am not exactly sure if all this effort was because we were picky children or if Nana was worried that we might choke on our food. I do know that everything they did was rooted in love. Nana firmly belief that fattening up a child was a worthy cause. Every bowl was stirred together with Nana’s secret ingredient: butter. I think when I was young I truly believed that dinner was meant to be shiny. Check my lips in the photo below if you don’t believe me.

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Me (right) being fed by Papa wearing the magic helmet.

Do you remember when my sister snipped off all my curls? I only mention it because the mangy photo above would have been taken not long after that haircut. My unqualified hairdresser of a sister is looking on in the middle, still feeling pretty proud by the look on her face.

Nana actually had two metal covers. We called them helmets because they reminded us of those old war time helmets worn by British soldiers in battle. They were the perfect prop for some of our shenanigans. One was missing the black knob at the top. No one wanted that one. Both were dented from falls as we ran through the house.

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Two decades later, on a trip home to Barbados, we asked Papa to help feed our first wearing the helmet. For old times sake. He happily obliged and took great delight.

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Papa wearing the helmet while feeding our daughter. Barbados. 2000.

Today, I still secretly prefer eating my food all mixed together, preferably in a bowl. Very unladylike but as the saying goes: old habits die hard. There is nothing quite like a one pot meal… chilli, stew, risotto, pilau, soup, porridge are just a few that come to mind. It’s the height of simple comfort. When no one is around, if I make spaghetti, I often attempt to cut up my spaghetti as fine as I can. And yet, I am never able to replicate Papa’s precision, no matter how hard I try. It’s simply what my brain remembers and loves.

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It should then not come as a surprise that I used Nana and Papa’s chop, mix, and butter routine with our kids. I thought it worked pretty well until our fourth. I wish Nana and Papa were here to feed him a bowl of buttery food but he was born several years after they had both passed. Little did I know that despite my best intentions, including giving him David as his middle name, he would become my Goliath.

The day I let our son wear the helmet,  I unknowingly handed all the power to him. When dinner time rolls around, I am powerless and feel like all my batons have been removed. At six, he is my most determined child to use food as his control mechanism.  What will his brain remember when he grows up? And yes, the cliche is true: the baby of the family always gets away with…

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Not forever though. I already see change on the horizon. There may be value in a good old bribe. It works. I can get him to leave just about anywhere with a mere mention of a piece of bubble gum. Just the other day I got him to eat sliced cucumbers by offering him a juice box instead of the water or milk he usually gets. Bribery is my new butter and sugar is the new magic. I know. Not the best choice but for now, it is good enough. Mark my words, this Goliath is going down.

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The Sisterhood of Nana’s Travelling Sweater

Do you remember the first time you travelled? The people you were with? What you did? This is a story about that. It’s also a story about the power of threes. Three years old, three trips to London, three sisters… and a sweater. 

When I was three, my older sister and I travelled with our parents and Nana and Papa to London, England. I am not sure why and I really don’t remember much because a three year old’s brain is still developing. What I do remember is that three events occurred: one rather insignificant, one mentally damaging and one that I still love and protect to this day.

The first thing I remember is that we stayed in a hotel with a Murphy bed. I had never seen a bed fold up into a wall and completely disappear. All the bedding and everything just vanished. I was totally enamoured, a bit like Charlie Chaplin in the scene where he too encounters one for the first time. In my case, I highly doubt I had a top hat and cigarette and OK, perhaps there was a little less drama. I thought it was the most ingenious thing I had ever seen in my whole short life.

charliechaplinmurphy[Source: DesignSponge.com]

Our parents room was down the hall from Nana and Papa. My sister and I took turns sleeping between either Nana and Papa, or our parents. Oddly enough, I don’t remember my turns sleeping between Mummy and Daddy. That’s because Nana snored. Who could forget? So did Papa but his breathing was always like a whisper in comparison.

 

selfridges-visitors-day-poster[Source: Selfridge’s Edwardian poster]

It was also on this trip that I got lost in the department store, Selfridges. 1975 was a much different world when it came to missing children. Come to think of it, I am not so sure the alert protocol for missing children was the safest back in the 70’s. Thank goodness for the Amber Alerts we have today. Somehow I wandered away from my parents and ended up in the hands of customer service. I think I might have cried but truthfully, I can’t remember such micro details. What I do remember is that the nice lady gave me a sweetie, put me on her lap, and announced over the PA system:

“Would the parents of a little girl, with dark, curly hair, please come to the customer service desk”.

To this day, I have a phobia about getting lost. If I am out with someone, doesn’t matter where, and realize even for a split moment that I am on my own, a mysterious illogical panic consumes me and I franticly start looking around, pacing my head left and right, as if I am a silly chicken trying to cross a busy street. It is only when I find who I am looking for that I feel safe. I guess it is a mental scar I carry with me to this day.

The third memory to come from this trip is that Nana bought herself a black cashmere sweater. I could be wrong but if I had to make an educated guess, I would say she would have bought it either from Selfridges, possibly even on the same day I got lost, or perhaps from Marks & Spencer, her all time favourite store. Even back in the 70’s, cashmere would have been an indulgence. Nana was not one for indulgences. Like her, I myself am not one for labels.

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The label in Nana’s black cashmere cardigan. 2016.

On closer inspection, I see that the cardigan is made by Pringle. Not to be confused with the chips, I Google it and discover that it is Pringle of Scotland. Their history spans 200 plus years and as I read their story, these words stick with me:

Pringle received its Royal Warrant in 1956 awarded by Her Majesty the Queen. One of the most treasured notes in the brand archives is a note from Clarence House from the Dresser to Her Majesty the Queen Mother simply requesting ‘New Cardigan Please.’

I always thought that Nana had something regal about her. See for yourself.

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Nana and Papa in 1969

Nana bought the cardigan as a staple for her travels. Practical. Simple and beautiful. Nana and Papa used to travel quite a bit. Mostly to London and Canada, where she was able to get lots of wear of this beloved sweater. The temperature in Barbados never required the need for such a luxury. That’s because the average year round daytime high of 30°C / 86°F temperature means sweaters are not everyday attire. Queen, or no Queen.

I would travel back to London two more times. The second visit, when I got my ears pierced at the same Selfridges. This time I stuck close to my parents. The last visit was when I turned 13 and my sister and I went with our parents on a trip to Europe. It was on this trip that we were old enough to borrow Nana’s cardigan for the first time. Mum had ordered us only to pack shorts and the one pair of pants for the plane. Europe was sure to be hot in July. That’s what she said. Well Europe ain’t no Barbados. We were so cold that we each lived in our one pair of pants and both begged to take turns wearing the sweater.

Then when my oldest sister left for Toronto to go to art college, naturally she begged Nana to take the cardigan with her. You must understand that Nana did not like to part with her things easily. But for some unknown reason, she agreed. As I joined my sister in Toronto, the sweater became a coveted piece again. We took turns wearing it and loved it so much that one side of the label became unstitched. It’s where you see the safety pin. It’s been there and replaced several times with different sized pins over the last 25 years.

When our younger sister came to Canada to study, she naturally became the next in tow. Not intentionally, mind you. The cardigan travelled to her when I was busy having children in succession. No time for cardigans. Or showers. Or fashion. Life was a blur. Not for my little sister, ten years my junior. It was her turn to get love and wear out of Nana’s sweater. So much so that I forgot she had it.

Then a couple years ago, my little sister and her husband made the decision to return to Barbados. On a visit, I was sitting on her bed while she was going through her closet to decide what she would take back with her. That’s when I noticed it. Sure she would not need this in 30°C? I casually commented on this fact. She said nothing and kept it in her closet.

When the time came for our goodbyes, we did our best to keep the emotions to a minimum in front of our children. I attempted to be the stoic, brave older sister. My sister then casually handed me a gift bag with some tissue paper in it. As I pulled the tissue away, there was Nana’s cardigan.

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At the current moment, Nana’s cardigan is carefully folded in tissue paper and stored in a box under our bed. It is not a Murphy bed but I sure do love it and the story behind it. Part of me wants to leave the safety pin, a reminder of its travels. Call it for safety reasons. The other part of me wants to get it repaired because I am sure Nana would have wanted that. I did take the pin out of it after finding out just how expensive a Pringle sweater is.

As I started working on this story, my husband bought me my very own black cashmere cardigan for Christmas. He got it from The Bay. Now I can wear my own cardigan as often as I like and still protect Nana’s legacy. It’s in my nature to be protective. Our two daughters are already nipping at each other’s heels. Like Nana, I don’t like to part with things easily either. When the time is right, maybe I should let my daughters take the new cardigan instead.  Or I could surrender Nana’s cardigan to continue on its travels. I simply have not decided yet.

The Sisterhood by loopylocks

Between my two lovely sisters (neither of whom snore, to the best of my knowledge). Barbados. January 2006. [Photo credit: Andrew Hulsmeier]

The Utilitarian

It has been decided. Happiness for the greatest number of our family members lies in getting a family pet. Or stated differently, I have been outnumbered. I am not going to say that I do not like cats or dogs. Far from it. I do have a heart. A big beating one. I also believe there is merit to the notion that people who own pets live longer. The four pets I gave birth to certainly raise my blood pressure from time to time and unlike pets, they have been known on occasion to talk back. So I get it. But I also have a sordid history with family pets that I fear has tainted my eagerness to revisit this reality. My heart has been hurt. It really does not matter how many stories I tell my kids of my childhood experiences with animals. I have simply lost this battle.

My first memory of a cat came when my sister and I found kittens when we lived at Cleopatra. One had fallen in a crab hole during the day, outside our dining room window. Unfortunately for the kitten, it was daytime so the crab was not out scavenging. He was still in his hole and stumbled upon an unexpected surprise. Yelping for help, I saw the kitten from inside falling deeper into trouble. So I grabbed a kitchen spoon and ran to the rescue. I had to dig the opposite end of the crab hole to stop the crab from pinching the kitten who was now bleeding. It was quite traumatic. I remember the feeling of panic. From this experience I realized that I would not like to be a veterinarian, or a paramedic.

After a friend of my Mum’s imported some pedigree cats from London, we acquired two Persian cats. One was white and we named her Tallulah, after a young Jodie Foster in the 1976 movie Bugsy Malone. The other was a tabby that we predictably called, Tabitha, after the daughter in the hit TV show, Bewitched.  Gorgeous cats. When my Mum got pregnant with our first brother, Tallulah started bringing leaves into my parents bedroom and building a nest on our Mum’s side of the bed. It was intriguing and mildly disturbing at the same time. Then her behaviour changed. As we lived next door to the hotel, Magic Isle, some of the guests started feeding the cats. Gradually the cats began to spend more time at the hotel. When our brother was born, they simply stopped coming back.

Dogs did not fare any better. When we moved to our family home in Frere Pilgrim, I told my kids about Arnold, our beagle puppy. We had him for maybe a month. Adorable with his silky, long brown and black ears. But then he disappeared. Stolen for his cuteness we reckoned. Then more sadness. It is no wonder I identify with the character Sadness, from the 2015 Disney Pixar movie, Inside Out.

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I tell them about Myrtle, our Jack Russell Terrier. She was named after she ate our pet turtle as soon as we brought her home and before we had found the right name for her. “Myrtle the Turtle Eater”. She arrived after her predecessor died tragically in my arms not long after having him join our family. So tragic I forgot his name. He died after eating a tiny whistling frog in our home one afternoon. As he went into shock and started frothing at the mouth, my Dad got me to hold him on my lap in the front seat of our car while he drove frantically through a cart road as fast as he could to make it to the vet. Once again, the feeling of panic crept over me. I still have the image of the lifeless puppy on me by the time we pulled into the vet’s driveway.

Out of sympathy by the breeder, they promised us a replacement with the next litter. After all her siblings were carefully chosen, Myrtle joined us. Myrtle was a good dog. We let the turtle incident slide. Not her fault really. She thought she was big but as you can see from the photo, not so much. That’s the case with Jack Russells. Terriers they sure are. They like to run with the big boys, even though they can’t always handle the heat. Heat. Yes. That was the cause of her demise. She got out of her holding area while she was in heat and unfortunately, the big dogs in the neighbourhood had a field day with her. Poor Myrtle.

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Myrtle.

If only the tragedy ended there. When we moved back to Barbados after living in Jamaica, we got a cat that my younger sister, a toddler at the time, tried to ride like a pony. My Little Pony, My Little Pony… Poor thing. Sadly, a broken pelvis took care of all nine of his lives. Our sister had to live with the shame for many years afterwards as our aunt gave her cat gifts for years and years as a humorous reminder. The Cat Killer.

Even chickens became victims. Like the time my brother got a pet chick at a school fair. The same brother the cats had a built a nest for. He sure loved this little chick. A few days later, one morning, my older sister accidentally sat on it in our parents bed. He had put the chick in his t-shirt to keep it warm while he went to the bathroom. As we all piled into our parents bed to sing happy birthday as we normally did in tradition for whoever’s birthday it was, he stood at the foot of the bed and announced: “Where’s my chicken?” Everyone paused.  It’s lifeless body sagging in the t-shirt rendered our sister, The Chicken Killer. We still laugh about that morning even though there was nothing funny about his tragic demise.

Then who could forget Raj. Our black cat who was found by a family friend, starving on a golf course. He was so skinny and malnourished that he nearly didn’t make it. Slowly he thrived but then he thrived a bit too well. He would bring birds, rats, mice into the house. Like prizes to show us with great pride. As a teenager I remember being mildly grossed out. My Dad, however, was not amused in the least. One day, Raj brought in a dead small rabbit and carefully hid it in our living room, beside a bookcase of encyclopedias. No one noticed for a day or so until a deadly smell engulfed the house. My Dad found the prize and then Raj mysteriously disappeared. Dad said he ran away.

This is not to say that every family pet was quite so tragic. I happen to recall a ginger cat, Morris and a tuxedo cat, Sylvester. Both lasted a while but my memory draws a blank regarding their untimely endings so I am hopeful that they lived longer than our prior pets. My mind is clearly tainted with so much tragedy that it is hard to see the comedy sometimes. Unless you count the fact that both my sisters have committed serious pet crimes.

Back to present day. Seeing the signs on the wall over the holidays, I put my foot down. Nothing in a cage. Not fair to anyone. No dogs (for now). Cute, adorable, cuddly and all the whole unconditional love thing. But not interested in picking up poo off the streets of Toronto. When the sidewalks are not filled with snow, they are filled with enough stuff thank you very much. I also could not bear the image of another dead dog on my lap. No one believes me when I say I think I have PTSD.

I also am feeling bad for any of our friends or relatives who have allergies. It is really not easy to make everyone happy. Just know that I’m working on replacing our 20 year old vacuum so our home remains as hairless and dander free as possible. There was a time when even my husband threatened divorce if we got a cat. But then even he folded. I am the last one standing. Holding strong, but slowly falling.

When I tell my Dad on Skype of our interest in adopting a cat, he brings up the subject of Raj. But this time, he confesses that Raj never disappeared and goes on to explain the true story of how he ran away. And while I am sure it felt good to get that off his chest, I prefer the story from 30 years ago. You see, in the West Indies, for the most part, pets are like commodities. They are to serve a purpose. For safety and security. They are not people with fur. Not four legged friends. That’s how I was raised at least.

I start brainstorming and think to myself… what would Nana do? After all, Nana and Papa had cats at Tremont. For the rats. She called them all “Puss“. So if she could do it, I know there is hope. I decide I am going to be as rational about this as possible. Right, Rachel? We will not get a strange crazy cat from Kijii. Too many unknowns, including potential real killers.  Also not looking for steep expenses to fix a kitten and get all the required shots. I ask my youngest brother who has a cat what his thoughts are on a myriad of topics. He suggests that boy cats are more chill since his cat is a boy and in his experience, boys are not as high maintenance. I don’t disagree.

Then I remember our youngest went to the Toronto Humane Society on a class trip at the end of the school term. That is also part of what exacerbated this whole family request. Thanks THS. He had written this letter to a resident rabbit, Captain Pancake. Here was his first draft. The good copy was taken in hand to the rabbit:

Letter to Captain Pancake

Still holding strong I agree we will look for a boy, neutered cat who has had all his shots. Preferably not crazy. On our first visit we quickly realize that finding a cat to my standards is not that simple. There are many older cats. In the wintertime, not as many kittens get brought in. They freeze out in the cold so are not discovered and brought in as frequently as say, in the Spring. There we go again with the sadness.

The first potential cat has behavioural issues.  A 6 month old neutered male. The problem is that he was discovered abandoned in a parking lot and not taking well to human contact. Everyone at the shelter is concerned about his future to ever integrate into people society successfully. So we put in our paperwork and are advised to keep checking back. A cat will come soon enough.

A week goes by and the kids and my husband decide to go again for a “look”. What do you know, they find a girl kitten who was brought in that morning from a litter of eight, six boys and two girls. All the boys are adopted already. She 6 months old. A July kitty, like me and our two daughters.

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So naturally I concede. I know this is happening. A frenzy ensues on what we shall call her. I casually suggest a name that is also an emoji. I dunno, like Kiwi, Taco, Bubbles, KitKat, Rose, Luna, Fern. Efficient I think. I reckon that when I am texting about this puss, I have a shortcut other than just a cat face. A girl can wish. The happiness crew is not feeling it. I suggest Scully as our eldest is deep into The X Files and like the actor, she has green eyes. That daughter loves it, the other despises it. It gets vetoed.

So I put my foot down and tell everyone that since this cat is joining our family by utilitarian standards, I am taking charge of naming her. No one else. It’s the least they can give me since we all know this cat is literally going to end up in my lap. After everything I have been through with a long laundry list of pet history blues and how much everyone wants her, she owes me. She is destined to bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of us. There is no doubt she will be cuddled enough. As for me? Let’s just say this puss has a ways to go in stealing my big beating heart. In the meantime, I will call her Tilly. The UTillytarian Cat. Now about that vacuum…