By Madonna Hamel
As my deadline for my art installation inspired by the aprons of Prairie women and pioneer elders draws close, people continue to give me stuff. There are clippings, hand-written invitations found in old photo albums (you know, before we took pictures of ourselves with telephones and tinkered with them using an ‘app’), a cheery poem about the many uses of flour sacks, a recollection quickly jotted on a notepad by Vi about how she and her sisters would cut up old dresses and turn them into bib aprons. (Wow! There’s a workshop in the making.), yet another copy of “My Mother’s Apron”, this time in the form of a dedication from a daughter to her mother, a woman who “never took off her apron, even when it embarrassed me when friends came over, until she lay down and died”, Johanne’s mother’s apron made on her loom, the pale blue and cream threads so finely woven the patience required for such a skill reminds me of the cross-stitching on several of the aprons given me by the United Church and Mennonite thrift store women. I just wish I could find, inside those pockets, the secret to such patience and dedicated focus.
But of course, I know what the secret is: these women were born before the Age of Distraction. Or chose to ignore its many poisonous ‘gifts’. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon (fine, I’m a curmudgeon. Lump me in with many of my favourites: Nellie McClung, Chief Piapot, Wendell Berry, Henry David Thoreau, and, on a good day, Thomas Merton and, on a bad day, Mother Theresa. In short, all critics, if not sufferers of some gastrointestinal ailment, are curmudgeons, critics of a world too much with us); I am stymied by how quickly we praise multi-tasking and so-called labour-saving devices. How did we come to get busier and busier, making more and more money to buy more and more things we suddenly “really need”, so we can get busier and busier and by more things to bring us hankered after happiness?
As a curmudgeon I qualify. That is, I feel compelled to list, on a daily basis what has brought me genuine happiness and what, it turns out, I could jettison and never miss. And my gauge as to whether I’m getting too frenzied or manic in my running about, whipping up all manner of insignificant sound and fury, is the old “time to visit” test. Am I , as good ol’ George Hayes likes to say, “a good visitor”? If I don’t have time to have a latte with Caitlin when I drop off my timesheet, or can’t squeeze in a tepid cuppa at coffee row with Maurice and Maurice on my way to the mailbox, or ask Judy about how the calving is going, or “what exactly is a flapper pie?”, then I am in trouble.
These aprons have become for me symbols of not just dedication and service, but, in their very material, they serve as a reminder to care about the quality of my work over the quantity of jobs performed and money made. They belie patience, attention to detail, precision, artistry, a meditation in the calming, mind-quieting practice of doing a job over and over ,and doing it well.
Once, in art school, a learned professor of fine arts from New York City was touring with his talk on design and decorative arts. “You will notice that the work of filigree and infinite patterned framing and scrollwork on many of these paintings has gone unmentioned for years, decades, as if it were secondary to the figure front and centre. But in fact, these detailed patterns are what pull us in and hold us there. They calm our brains, like a prayer or a chant or a breath, repeated over and over until we slow down and join in the rhythm of the piece. “ \Go with the flow instead of trying to push the river, he was saying. He may as well have been talking about these aprons.”
In case the fellas feel left out, I have a few aprons worn by men as well. In honour of my old chum in Quebec, I have made sure I mention the men. It is no coincidence that all the Quebecois men I know, more lovers than fighters, are also amazing cooks. My brother-in-law, Sylvain, makes a mean tortiere and beef stew. My ex was basically king of the kitchen and I was relegated to the porch, so I didn’t even bother faking an effort at culinary know-how. In Val Marie, Dede is known for his pickled beets and herbal concoctions. And then there’s Paul’s stories of sausage – making parties, the gatherings around tables laden with the recent hunt, surrounded by men in oil-clothe aprons.
I asked both my ex and Sylvain, how is it cooking comes so naturally to them? Both replied: I watched my mom. I enjoyed the fun of creating something from nothing. I grew up around women and it was way more fun making things in the kitchen than sitting around in the living room or on the porch smoking and drinking.
One of the many Prairie memoires I’ve discovered on the shelves of the Swift Current SPCA bookstore is “Coming Home, Saskatchewan Remembered” by Ron Evans. He, like so many of these memoirists, writes about backbone in the form of indispensible guidelines: values. (You know, that quality nobody seems to be discussing in the election race south of the border.) I’m not talking about deals at the latest mall, nor am I talking about rules you should live by, according to my quirks and cults and preferred flavours of the month. I’m talking about the elements of a simple and caring life that make it work living. That, at the end of the day, make you feel good about yourself.
Looking back on his life and his rush to succeed and prevail in his career, Evans writes:
“That world has largely disappeared, dissolved like mist on a prairie morning, a wisp or two left in the low spots.
One thing remains: stories.”
The stories Evans recalls are the ones told over the kitchen table, with his dad, the RM manager, and the neighbours dropping by, needing relief in all its guises, from jokes to welfare. But Evans sister recalls none of these stories and it takes her husband to remind her that she was with the women, making the coffee and setting out the food for the guests. Like Evan’s sister, some of my male friends were also helping in the kitchen preferring to be busy with their hands, or running to the garden for berries and vegetables, than sitting with the men. The stories they heard would have been different. Not better or worse, and with familiar shadings, just slightly skewed in a different direction. These men today know how to mend their socks, make pies, grow prize tomatoes and lend an empathetic ear.
A black friend in Memphis, who knew how to throw a cocktail party and tie a bowtie, as well as raise a tent in two minutes and make dessert over a campfire, put it like this:
“In my culture, women ruled. You didn’t talk back to your mother. You watched her like a hawk, picking up tips, wasting nothing, learning the rhythm and flow of every day and adapting your cooking and cleaning accordingly. You told stories while peeling potatoes. You sang, too. Some folks might say I was ‘tied to my mother’s apron strings’, like that would be a bad thing. My brother, he followed at my father’s heel like a hound, and he took to drinking just like my daddy. So…you never know what you’ll turn out like. If they raised you well, you can be your own man – or woman- no matter who showed you how. All’s I know is, like the Sr. Rosetta song goes:
‘My mama taught me how to pray.
My mama taught me how to read.
My mama taught me how to sing.
If I die and my soul be lost.
Ain’t nobody’s fault but mine!’
Well, my mama taught me how to cook. So if I die from malnutrition, ain’t nobody’s fault but mine. Now hand me that apron on the back door. We’re gonna make some of her chili cornbread!”
Madonna was a CBC writer-broadcaster for a couple decades and won awards for music documentaries. She lives in Val Marie, working on a book and continues singing and songwriting. For comments you can reach Madonna at firstname.lastname@example.org