Petunias and Brown Betty

A singular memory of my childhood is the summer I spent with my Angus grandparents in Quebec City. I was nine years old.

My family had moved to La Tuque several months before my sister’s birth. The move, a difficult pregnancy, and a three-day labour left my mother exhausted. Caring for a new- born and two school age children set free for the summer was overwhelming. In an effort to help out, my grandmother invited me to come to Quebec.

My grandparents lived in a third-floor walk-up apartment on St. Cyrille Blvd. (now Rene Levesque) at the corner of Maple Ave. During the Depression, they moved from an elegant home on Fraser Avenue while my grandfather fought to save his book store. The store eventually failed but my grandparents remained in the apartment until my grandfather’s death.

A large porch extended the full length of the apartment overlooking the street below. The sun shone down on it all morning so Grandpa planted petunias in boxes that grew into a beautiful profusion of pinks, lavenders and burgundies. My job that summer was to water and deadhead, a responsibility I took very seriously. “A new blossom will not grow until the dead one is removed”, Grandpa explained. “We want lots and lots of blooms.”

The various rooms of the apartment were strung out along a narrow hallway stretching from the front door to the back bedroom: an elegant parlour with life size china dogs standing sentinel on either side of an artificial fireplace; a very large dining room with several china cabinets and a table for twelve; and a sitting room with three walls lined with books salvaged from the store that were the core of my grandmother’s lending library. There was a bathroom and two bedrooms, the largest of which looked out on the city stables. How I loved to watch the caliche horses going and coming each morning and evening. I imagined them to be my very own and gave each one a name.

Then there was the kitchen tucked into the middle of the flat. It was a very tiny room, only big enough for a stove, a fridge, an ironing board that dropped from the wall, and the food prep table where my grandmother sat to work her daily cross word puzzle. The sink was folded into a back corner beneath a set of cupboards. The dark, cramped room had but one window in the door leading to the back porch and another in the walk-in pantry. How different from my Willett grandparents’ large, sunny farm kitchen in the Gaspe that housed not one but two stoves and a pair of day beds.

Yet it was in this tiny kitchen that my grandmother cooked daily meals for two (three that summer) as well as large family meals for various holiday occasions: Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving. She carried dishes of food through the swinging door into the dining room in what I now recognise as priceless Spode and Limoges bowls and platters. Nothing was served onto plates in the kitchen and brought to the table. Glasses and desert dishes were cut crystal. I even ate my morning boiled egg from a silver cup. Such a little princess.

Lazy summer afternoons were spent in the park. A friend and I would meet there, walking by ourselves from our homes, carrying our dolls and their accessories along with several umbrellas. The umbrellas served to demarcate the various rooms of our “doll house”. Who today would allow two young girls to spend an afternoon alone in a park? The caliche drivers came to know us and would wave, pointing us out to their tourist passengers as a quaint part of the old city.

I walked a lot that summer – my grandparents didn’t own a car. I walked with my grandmother to buy groceries on Cartier Avenue or dolls’ clothes at Woolworths on St. John’s Street. I walked with grandpa to Earl Grey Terrace to watch ships sailing the St. Lawrence to and from exotic ports. On Sundays I walked to church with both of them. The Sundays that babies were baptised were the best. As a church elder, Grampa would walk the family to the font and stand, straight and proud, while the minister performed the ceremony.

Evenings were spent reading, doing puzzles, or completing paint-by-number kits. My grandparents didn’t have a television – televisions were still too new and expensive. Sometimes on our walks Grampa and I would stop and watch the news on a TV in a store window. I don’t think Grampa would ever stoop to that if he were alone. I was the excuse for him to take a peek.

I learned to cook that summer in the tiny kitchen. My grandmother must have had the patience of Job. How much faster and easier it would have been to do it herself. Apple Brown Betty became my speciality. Eventually I could peel and slice the apples myself, measure and mix the flour, oats and brown sugar, and work in the butter with my fingers. The final touch was the nutmeg grated by hand over the top before the desert went into the oven. So delicious served with a slice of ice cream!  Remember, Ice cream was purchased in a brick-shape wrapped in cardboard.

The days passed slowly with a pleasant and predictable sameness. I was loved and indulged. Before I knew it, it was time for me to return home.

I would be sixteen when next I lived with my grandparents for my final year of high school. Although I loved being back with them, life was never again as simple as the summer when I was nine.

 

 

 

 

 

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