After being away for months, I walk into Coffee Shop and order a coffee and cookie. The front, usually busy with the coming and going of people, is desolate, the tables covered with bags for pickup and delivery. I don’t recognize the staff. No one says my name or hello. It’s cold and unfriendly, almost clinical. Someone takes my order then directs me to the exit at the back where I used to sit. I manoeuver around the tables with chairs piled on top. It’s a ghost town, dark and quiet. No music. No voices. No laughter. We who sat at the back didn’t mingle or know each other. Yet we were Coffee Shop friends. We showed up every day at the same time between eight-thirty and nine, sat in the same seats, and ordered the same thing day after day. As I make my way to the door, I can’t help but wonder what happened to them during Covid? Frank and Wife: Are they having coffee at home, him reading the newspaper while Wife watches movies on her iPad? Does Frank rise every morning and dress in his expensive high fashion? Is his black hair styled, or has it turned grey? It would be a shame if he became dishevelled, all those beautiful clothes going to waste. Is Muffin Man still eating the top of the muffins, leaving the rest? Does he pick them up from Coffee Shop or buy them by the dozen from the grocery store? Then there’s Hat Guy. Does he walk around his house or condo, coffee in hand, hat on, talking to the furniture? Telling his silly jokes. I can’t forget Mafia Man: is he hanging out in the lobby of his condo mask on, making women giggle like schoolgirls? Did Job Hunter find a job or give up and stopped scrolling through his phone? And Laptop Goddess, I bet she’s on Zoom meetings with a suit jacket on top and pyjama pants on the bottom, laptop, phone, and iPad going at the same time. What about Chatty Lady, with no travel, what’s she talking about? Does Dating Woman put on her purple dress when she goes on dating sites? Maybe she has a torrid online romance. Or met someone and is with him, at least until Covid-19 is over. Dating Couple, is she dressed perfectly at nine in the morning? Or is she hanging out in her housecoat? Does he listen while she gabs to him over the phone? What about the random people who brought drama and conversation to Coffee Shop, disrupting our routine and the quiet? Where are my Coffee Shop friends? Even though I only had a good morning nod relationship with them, I miss them. I miss Coffee Shop. These days I sit at my desk with my coffee, put on music, pretend I’m in Coffee Shop and write my morning pages.
I watched Hold the Sunset, a British series on BritBox. The plot revolves around two widowed, retired neighbours, Phil (John Cleese) and Edith (Alison Steadman). They plan to marry, sell their houses and start a new life together. Their goals are hindered when Edith’s 49-year-old son moves back into his mother’s home after walking out on his wife and their two teenage children. He wants his comic books and youth back. He even hires their past housekeeper, who is also a senior. Then there’s the return of Edith’s dubious boyfriend from the ‘60s. Watching this show and other British dramas and comedies: Gold Digger, Flesh and Blood, Hope Gap, Mum, and Boomers made me realize the British are not afraid to make movies and television series about seniors. The problems they face with aging, starting over, and their insecurities.
Then there’s the American version of movies and television shows. I’m thinking of two in particular where wealthy seniors have cushy lives helped by exercise, hair dye, cosmetics, and Botox. Don’t get me wrong, I like to watch them. Nor do I want to take away the fantasy of having a perfect body while being romanced by an older gorgeous Don Johnson from women. But, from the reviews I read, some women left the cinema depressed after watching Book Club. Because they didn’t look like the characters or have the glamourous life portrayed in the movie.
It seems most American shows do not represent the average senior who is starting over after the death of a spouse. Nor do they deal with the pain when a spouse leaves. Or the memories that pop up out of the blue. They don’t deal with loneliness or the need for companionship in the later years. When they do, they make it look easy to resolve. I could be wrong. Maybe seniors prefer to watch glossy fabrications. Not me. I opt for the more down-to-earth British dramas and comedies that show the problems, fun and resilience of the Boomer generation. I relate to them and sympathize with the characters. Or laugh and say, “Hey, that’s me. That’s us!”
A friend’s photo of her fruitcake brings back memories of my mother-in-law and I baking Christmas cakes from a recipe handed down to her from her mother-in-law. The first week of October we would grind the fruit and soak the mush in wine and rum. It sat in a jar on the kitchen counter until the end of November. At which time we made the cakes under the guidance of her mother-in-law’s spirit who looked over us, making sure we followed the instructions. Once they finished baking, my mother-in-law poked holes on top of the cakes, poured wine over them and sealed them. Christmas week we iced them with marzipan and royal icing.
During the week of cake baking, my mother-in-law would invite my younger son, who couldn’t keep a secret, over for a visit-just the two of them. While I walked him over to her house, I would warn, “do not tell Nana what we are giving her and Poppa for Christmas.” But my mother-in-law was very persuasive with cookies and milk, and he spilled the beans. It worked every time. It was all part of the excitement and fun of Christmas.
My mother-in-law died in 1996. I didn’t make Christmas cakes that year and placed one less plate setting at Christmas dinner. It changed again when my mother died in 1997 and there was another empty spot at the table. The first Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve without my mother, and my mother-in-law was a comedy out of Christmas movie. It started with my stepfather criticizing the shirt I gave him. He didn’t think the material good enough quality, not for him. The colour might run in the wash. “Who washes in cold water?” he said. “Never heard of it.”
After he finished complaining about his gift, him and my father-in-law argued over centimeters and inches on the measuring tape. Over the years, when their spouses were around, they tolerated each other. Without their wives, there was no stopping them. It was war-all about the better man. The only thing to do: take them to the one place where they would behave. I rushed everyone to put on their coats and out of the house. “For the Christmas carols,” I said when my stepfather and father-in-law joined forces and fussed about having to sit an hour in church before midnight mass.
The next year I escaped to my father’s house in British Columbia and spent Christmas with my family. On the flight back, I realized Christmas of past years was over. The numbers at the dinner table were dwindling. My sons were growing up. Time to adapt, make changes and fresh memories. There have been many Christmases since those days and I have fond memories of them. But the ones of baking with my mother-in-law will always have a special place in my heart.
I am a word person, definitely not crafty. The most I can do is paint birdhouses and feeders or refinish a piece of furniture with fusion paint. But I find myself in a mask with five other women, spaced over six feet a part in The Georgina Art Centre painting Christmas ornaments. It’s terrifying for me, as it involves not getting paint on the floor. Not only that, everyone seems to know that the floral foam brick stuck in the aluminum pan is not a gift for registering for the class. I thought it was and removed it. Once the teacher sticks it back in my pan, she explains the project: Acrylic Pouring.
Soon we are smearing, drizzling, plopping acrylic paint on balls and wooden decorations. It all seems intimidating until I realize I play with words. I can play with paint – playing is playing. From play comes skill and I’m right. Turns out, crafting is not different from writing. At first you may not understand what you’re doing, make a mess, then you learn to play and it works out. Except for the paint on my coat, hanging at the back of my chair. Paint on my purse, sitting on another chair away from me. Paint on my glasses. Paint on my fingernails – how did that happen with gloves on? Paint in my hair. And of course, paint on the floor.
The conversation starts with hair. And people obsessed with their hair.
“Why is that?” I ask and tell her, if there is such a thing as reincarnation, I want to come back with dead straight tresses. She understands. We both have a curly mop with a mind of its own, especially in the summer heat and humidity. We are chatting on the phone, her with her coffee and me at the other end with mine, gabbing about everything like we do in Coffee Shop.
“I always wanted Ann Blyth’s hair,” she says. “She was beautiful, a porcelain doll in Mildred Pierce.”
“In my early teens I went through a Lesley Gore stage, styled mine like hers.”
She’s never heard of Lesley Gore or her hairstyles. Or, “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.”-Lesley Gore. Album: I’ll Cry If I Want To (1963)
Flashback to movie stars from the past: Grace Kelly, elegant with perfect hair. Lana Turner, hair spray queen, always played a tormented woman, like Susan Haywood. Rita Hayworth, the most gorgeous hair in Hollywood. Doris Day, a lovely voice, girl next-door type. “I loved Doris Day’s hair when she had the duck tail,” I say. “I had mine cut like that in my early twenties.”
Flashback to old television shows: Father Knows Best. The Donna Reed Show. Patty Duke Show. The Dick Van Dyke Show. Leave it to Beaver. We have our favourite mothers from those shows. “I didn’t like Donna Reed or Mary Tyler Moore as mothers,” I say. “Jane Wyatt of Father Knows Best was better.”
“Mary Tyler Moore had the most natural hairstyle of all of them,” she says.
Flashback to the seventies: Gilda Radner, fabulous curly, wild hair. “I wore my hair like Farrah Fawcett’s twisting it with the curling iron to make it curl the way hers did at the sides,” she says.
“I was all over the place with mine,” I say. “Short, shoulder length, to the neck, hennaed, streaked, frosted. At one time I had the Jaclyn Smith look.”
She laughs. “We were obsessed.”
“Why is that?” I ask.
The old dog doesn’t greet me. He hasn’t all summer. Instead, he lies on the cool cement floor in the barn. I walk pass, he opens his eyes, glances upward then closes them. His ribs, hipbones and the cogs on his spine are visible. Until this year, he’s always met me at my car for a head rub. Then he’d escort me into the barn. I mention this to the farmer. He looks down at the dog. “Well, I’ll tell ya, he’s an old guy, slowing down,” he says with a southern drawl. And I think: How come I’ve never noticed that he’s from the south. And how did he end up on a farm in Ontario?
Today, I’ve made the trip for peaches, and a watermelon I saw earlier in the week. None. “No peaches or melons?” I ask.
“Nope, two busloads of people showed up early this morning, so that’s the end of the peaches and melons for this year.”
I pick up three large beefsteak tomatoes. I eat a lot of them this time of year. Every week when I go to the farm to buy more, I ask, “how much longer before the tomatoes run out?”
The answer is always the same, “two, maybe three weeks, all depends on how many busloads show up.”
They come in droves to the farm to, ‘pick your own’ vegetables of all types, colours and sizes. In the spring: strawberries and blueberries. In the fall: apples and pumpkins. After Halloween, the farm closes. “Open maybe June or July next year, all depends,” the farmer says.
I look down at the dog and say, “See you next year, old guy.”
“All depends,” the farmer says and scratches the dog’s head. “All depends.”
For most people, January 1st is a time of reflection and resolutions. For me, it’s Labour Day. I set new goals and think back on past months. This year it’s been different. Sold and bought a house in the first two weeks of January, followed by months of packing and moving in the prime of Covid-19 to a town of six thousand people. But even with the constraints of the pandemic, it has been a wonderful summer. I walked miles twice a day, every day investigating my new surroundings. And I became a porch lady. I read, drank coffee, ate watermelon, mangoes and cherries while observing the daily buzz on our street. The cars, the bus, the remote control cars racing by followed by a group of boys-controls in their hands, the skateboarders, the basketball players. Packs of electric teenager girls on bicycles, giggling and yakking and, ‘oh my God, he said that.’ An overweight man on a child’s bike carrying groceries home, the people walking by and the friendliest neighbours-always a wave, a hello, a chat. They introduce their dogs: Justin, Randolph, Lily, Carmen, and Roscoe who is the keeper of the street as long as his leash lets him, then he does the perfect back flip into reality. All on a backdrop of blue sky, sunshine and leaves rustling in the lake breeze. Now it’s September, trees are turning orange and red. The days are getting cooler, the street quieter, my porch days shorter. It’s time to return to my desk, to write, to finish what I started, and set goals.
Because of social distancing, I’m not in Coffee Shop. I’m in my writing room, looking out my window to the empty street, thinking about matchmakers. I once thought of myself as a matchmaker. The first time in the early seventies in the Windjammer in Wasaga Beach, I tried fixing up my friend with the guy sitting at the table next to ours. I saw them as a couple – both short, cute, the same colour brown hair cut in the same shag style with bangs. In fact, they could have been identical twins. She took one look at him and shook her head. I was disappointed. The second time I told a guy who asked me on a date about a friend of mine. She went out with him for a while, then realized what I knew about him; he liked to party too much. I assumed she did too. I was wrong. The night I met the person who would become my hubby, I suggested to the man who asked me to dance that the friend I was with might be a better dance partner for him. They ended up dating for two months until she realized she was lesbian. Or she lied to him. I’m not sure since she disappeared out of my life. Probably made a vow never to speak to me again. Then I tried to fix up someone with one of my hubby’s friends. After that disaster, I gave up. But contemplating Matchmakers makes me wonder if there is still such a thing. The Hallmark channel feels there is since I watched two movies last night about Matchmakers. As my research tells me, they are an alternative to online dating. Years ago I worked with a woman in her forties who talked about a mediator, a go-between negotiating with a man she was dating. I thought it strange. But it makes sense now. Perhaps she used a Matchmaker. They meet clients, interview potential matches, and give dating advice. They also perform background checks, administer personality tests, and build psychological profiles of their clients. The cost? $5,000.00 to $10,000.00. Makes me wish I hadn’t given up matchmaking. I might have gotten better at it. But, in a way Matchmakers are a lot like writers: always on the job, always have eyes and ears peeled to their surroundings. And they know how to ask questions. The difference is, Matchmakers are not afraid to approach people to ask if they are single. Something I am not comfortable with. But here’s my question about Matchmakers. What happens if they fall in love with the person they matched their client with? What happens if the client falls in love with the matchmaker? It happened in both movies. Since they were Hallmark movies, it wasn’t a problem. Turns out the clients bumped into the men of their dreams and fell in love – just like that. Everyone hugged and kissed. Even the dogs they adopted cheered. Hubby says I shouldn’t trust anything on a television channel with a W on it. Is he right? Is a television channel with a W on it all about romance and no logic?
After many years I am packing up my writing room. It’s where I put on music and sit with a coffee. Look out the window and watch the leaves change from green to orange, snowflakes float, buds open and snow melt. It’s where I watch the grass grow, the lilac tree bloom, and spring arrive. Where my animals spend most of their day. They sleep while I write. It’s where my mind roams. Where I turn words into paragraphs and creativity rules. Where I wrote three novels and rewrote…and rewrote…
Books from the bookshelves are packed in boxes and labelled. Framed photos wrapped in bubble wrap sit on top of boxes. File cabinet cleaned of notes, short stories and forgotten manuscripts now typed and saved on an external drive. The bulletin board is clear of reminders and magnets with cute sayings. The shelf above my desk sits empty except for two Buddhas and a plant. I am moving on. To a new town. A new house. A new writing room where I’ll put on music, sit with a coffee, watch the seasons change and write…
Here I am on New Year’s Eve in Coffee Shop watching snowflakes fall. And I can’t help but think: Why is Abba asking Fernando if he hears the drums? And what was in the air that night? Why is it when hubby and I go to Home Depot we never get a cart? And I have to put everything down and get one, which is always outside. Why, do men turn into The Hulk the minute they enter hardware stores? And when they do handy man stuff at home? When I go to the grocery store for one item why do I end up juggling ten in my hands? Why is it when someone complains about winter, there is always one person who tells them it’s Canada, as if the complainee doesn’t know they are in Canada. But when someone complains about the heat in summer no one says, “it’s Canada.” Why is that? Why is it that duct cleaners phone from India? They live in a hot country, do they know what a duct is? Or do they think it’s our ducks that need cleaning? Why, when I type the contraction, it’s my computer underlines it and thinks it should be the possessive, its? And what time was Paul Simon singing about in, Late in the Evening? Why is it people take things literally? Like what I’m writing at the moment. Like the man two tables over talking about the fires in Australia and predictions in the bible about the earth ending by fire this time around. Why will someone feel the need to answer the question? Why are the Kardashians popular? And what happens to all the contestants who didn’t win The Voice? Why is it no one has written a reply to the song, How Long by Ace? My enquiring mind wants to know how long it’s been going on: two months? A year? Five years? Thinking of love, why do people post their love life on social media? If I invest a minute of my time reading all about the love of their life, cheering them on, liking their posts, I need an explanation when it’s over. So, like the Bee Gees are singing right now, maybe you can tell me how a love so right can turn out to be so wrong. I need to know. I need closure. I really do. Why is it my hair never does what I want and always, always, always does what it wants, as if it has a mind of its own? Why do I think it does? Why is it Monday has a bad rap when every other day is fine? And why if Monday is good to John Phillips does it make him cry? Why am I sitting here thinking of this, this & this? Because Annie Lennox is asking, Why? And on a snowy day Coffee Shop is the best place to let the mind roam.