(by Bex O'Brian)
What my mother loved was the sea. Lived for it. To see my mother wade into the ocean was a thing of beauty, elemental, accepting. And, really, if the woman was forced to live on all things sea-born, she would have been perfectly happy. My sister Sophie once took her to Hawaii, where, to my sister’s horror, Mother insisted on eating the seaweed meant solely as a garnish that accompanied each groaning plate of fish.
I think her passion sprang from her summer holidays spent in St. Osyth’s near Clacton-on-Sea, Essex. Money was tight, so my grandmother sent the kids out to collect what they could: cockles, mussels, clams, oysters. How a woman who hailed from the middle of Ireland knew how and where to look is something of a mystery.
But in the 1960s, my parents bought a large piece of property in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. The land was cheap because it was designated farmland, but it had such poor soil and so many rocks and boulders dumped by the last receding ice age that, from what we could tell, nothing had ever taken root there. Ignoring all the evidence, my English father, walking stick in hand (he was never without it, mostly because the shaft was hollow and on weekend mornings was filled with enough whiskey to nicely propel him through the day) proclaimed himself a gentleman farmer.
Needless to say, no farming of any kind ever happened, but what did happen was gardening. My father devoted his gardening passion to the vegetable patch. It took a couple of summers and mounds of shipped-in dirt before he had anything remotely resembling a carrot or a green bean. I remember the afternoon he pulled a carrot out of the earth and gave it a quick swipe before handing it to me, saying, “Taste this.” I held the carrot a moment, the two of us expectant. I took a bite. It did taste different, only because I had never eaten so much dirt before. The carrot, however, was a carrot.
Where was my mother? Usually sitting under a shade tree reading a book. The landlocked Canadian countryside wasn’t her thing, with its ominous pine groves and ponds full of tadpoles and bulrushes. For a London-born native, it was all too native, too wild. But sometimes when she was young, she would be sent off to forage behind the caravan park in a small glade near her home where, if she was lucky, she’d find mushrooms safe enough to eat.
I remember asking, “What do you mean 'safe enough?'”
“There were three sorts, all very similar, but one of them would make you deadly ill. Granny, ferreting through my haul, was never quite sure which was which. She hoped, as she sautéed them in butter, that the poisonous ones would reveal themselves. It was so very exciting to eat them. One could die!”
It was a relatively cool day, a bit cloudy, when Mother closed her book and said, “Let’s go mushrooming.” It was a week or so after my grandmother died. They didn’t have a close relationship, and there had been no outward signs of mourning. But believe me, my mother had never suggested anything like this in her life, and she certainly hadn’t ever walked off into our large tract of dense Canadian wood, with a string bag, and with just me following.
The slow wander, hither and yon, stopping every couple of feet to push aside a fern or check under leaf clutter, was so not my impatient mother that I thought she was possessed. Eventually, I too fell under the spell, and that hour we spent picking mushrooms was the strangest and most magical I ever had with her.