Ten Parts Sugar One Part Dirt
There are red beets on the buffet at Pizza Hut. Others gorge themselves on pizza, I choose to double up on beets. It’s not that I’m particularly fond of a food that can dye both your fingers and teeth a shade worse than the stain of red wine. Instead, when the hurt of missing someone I knew for only five years becomes too much, the beets can still save me. I imagine she stepped out of chic cafes with white table clothed tables because of me. Fancy restaurants with French waiters didn’t welcome small children. Beets on the salad bar were most likely the only food she recognized here. Someone had described the taste of beets as being ten parts sugar and one part dirt. As my teeth crush the first squirt of beet juice over my tongue there is no dirt, only the sweetness that reminds me of candy she once gave me.
My siblings and I knew just up the stairs from the entry door of her condo was a grand china cabinet. The finger print free glass doors protected a small delicate tray with perfectly placed pastel mints. I would split the mints evenly with my brother and sister. Often I would stay longer than my brother and sister. When we were sure it was just the two of us she would remove a second tray from one of the many drawers. This tray would be entirely mine — a small gesture to show her fondness for me.
It wasn’t just the taste of mints that brought me comfort. It was everything about the memory of her.
She lived in a condominium in the northern part of Toronto. The building stretched effortlessly into the sky. In the back yard there was a lush pond with neon green lily pads. When my mother would drop me off to visit with my grandmother she would tell me that Kermit the Frog lived there -because I was five I would believe her.
I can still remember hot sunny days, my grandmother and I sitting by the side of the pond snapping lids off emerald green Perrier bottles as she taught me to read. I learned to read words in Harper’s Bazzar and Vogue. It was words like Dior and Cartier that first fell off my lips. We could have stayed there forever if time wasn’t as finite as life would force it to be.
The smells in the restaurant also allowed me to drift back in time. Instead of greasy pizzas being toasted in the ovens the smells seemed to be of dripping roasts and perfectly spiced plates of vegetable and I could still taste the flavours on the tip of my tongue. The booth was made of ripped plastic, but it easily could have been the round butcher block table of her kitchen. Closing my eyes I could envision her in a frilled apron with a plush oven mitt on one hand. With the other she would stretch the coiled phone cord cradled between her shoulder and head of French curls as she reached into the oven. She chattered with a friend about how she would miss her weekly bridge or bingo game — her granddaughter was over. The porcupine spiked clock ticked till the big hand and the little hand were diagonally opposite each other. With that we would gather two tv trays from a cupboard just outside the kitchen and retreat up only three stairs. In the room at the top of the stairs her perfectly polished fingers dialed the wheel of the remote. A florescent glow would fill the room while hearty flavours lined my stomach. I would pick the television show. Sometimes I would choose to learn the alphabet from a teenaged Vanna White, but more often than not I would scream “stop” just as the theme song for The Raccoons fought broke through the smells of almost devoured dinner.
On nights when she simply couldn’t miss an evening of bridge I would dial the phone early enough that I would catch her just as she enveloped her hands in intricate lace gloves. She would thumb through the TV Guide Magazine and tenderly note all the times The Racoons were on before I would be back with her. As I sit in Pizza Hut my mind can’t help but wonder what shows we would bond over now.
A pimply faced teenager is just outside the window. He is slurping, not from an emerald green glass bottle of Perrier, but rather from a “big gulp” cup — the glamour of my childhood would be lost on him. Pounding music from his Ipod is so loud it booms through the window carrying another memory with it. This time we’re driving in her powder blue Pontiac Grand-AM with peacock feathers in our hair and bronzed sunglasses. The hum of Anne Murray’s Snowbirds escapes my lips.
“I feel such emptiness within, For the thing that I want most in life is the thing that I can’t win”
As it does it sends chills down my spine. If wonder if she would have known those words would haunt me after she was gone. If someone offered me even a single second with her I would take it without thought. As I fasten the buckle on the Michael Kors boots I try on as an adult she is there. I imagine her in the change room next to me. I secretly wish that when I emerge from the dressing room she will be standing there. Lipstick smile and polished nails and the scent of her unmistakable French perfume drifting through the air. But she isn’t.
Cancer robbed me of that!
I dash into my condo in downtown Toronto. The building stretches into the sky but instead of seeming effortless the crane above it drips drops of sweat on me. Puddles soak my feet and in the reflections in the water I see ambulance lights. The clanging sound of streetcar bells is overpowered by sounds of the screaming sirens that filled the air the night they took her away.
She is lying on a stretcher, a thin sheet of scratchy cotton draped over her. Gone are the days of luxurious silk dresses. Her perfectly curly hair is now tosseled on her head- she smells of medication and not French perfume. My father goes with her and as we rush after him I turn. I have not even a minute to capture a glimpse of the condo that contains my childhood.
If I can’t escape to Pizza Hut I now eat pea soup to bring her back. The fatty pieces of smoked ham transport me to a moment where I stand pressing my body against the door of my father’s car. On tip toed feet I reach a golden can of Habitant Soup through the window and into his hands. She loved pea soup as much as she loved me. She also loved to remind me that if you loved someone you did everything you could for them. Nothing was ever enough. The doctors did everything they could, but it and my offering of pea soup were not enough.
On the day of her funeral a black limousine transported us to an ornate church. I clutched a thorny rose in my small hand, covered in one of her lacy gloves. The priest spoke of Pauline, and because to me she was always Nanny Polly I secretly wondered if they had the wrong grandma in the casket. My parents stood at the end of the service and with faces full of tears we watched as she rode in a hearse and not a Blue Grand Am. Bronzed sunglasses had been replaced by dark ones struggling to hide the sadness within me. I stretch my rose up to the chauffeur asking him to hold it while I click my seatbelt in place. I can’t remember the words to Snow Birds, and am confused as everyone references eagles wings bringing her home. She isn’t home here. The pond has been replaced and there are rows and rows of stones with names on them. Kermit the frog would easily get lost here.
A few years after she passed things would be removed from her condo. The china doll that rested in a brass crib, and resembled her trust in me is the one thing I ask the movers not to take. With arms that try to mimic the ones that wrapped me in comforting hugs I carry her. I tell her the things we will do in the new house. We can watch Racoons and eat misty mints and Anne Murray will once again sing about Snow Birds. I sit to remove my shoes and tenderly reach to — -
A pizza pan clatters from the counter onto the floor of the kitchen in the restaurant.
It snaps me out of the spell I’ve been under. Suddenly I have no appetite. Beets seem to bring less and less of her back to me. It’s the bitterness of lost memories that now squishes from the flesh of the vegetable. Dirt! I gather my designer coat knowing it would make her proud. On my way out of the restaurant I stop one last time.
“Excuse me, but there are no beets left at the salad bar.”