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Pyrotechnics for Breakfast

(by Bex O'Brian)

When I was five years old, my parents took my sisters and me on a day trip out of Montreal to look for land, or perhaps a country house to buy. This was the sixties, when you could purchase property for a song. It was a bright sunny summer day when we drove up a dirt road to view 80 acres of abandoned farmland. At the top was a broken-down barn and, a little further on, a log cabin. Not the quaint kind, the kind people swoon over. This cabin could be used in one of those heart-rending ads pleading for help to wipe out poverty.

My sisters and I had been cooped up in the car for hours. Upon seeing the open fields, we flung open the doors and did a damn good impression of wood nymphs and fairies as we ran and jumped, laughed and picked wildflowers to make crowns for our sun-kissed heads.

That sunk us. My parents were utterly charmed and promptly agreed to buy the land. The previous owner, who was only too happy to sell, threw in the barn and log cabin for free; after all, both were beyond habitable by man or beast. Or so he thought. My father had other ideas. An urban-British man with fine hands, more poet than worker bee, he had a vision. That log cabin, with its porcupine infestation, warped floors, and wind howling through the un-clinked rough-hued logs, was going to be our country home, our refuge from the horrors of city life. The house and the land were christened Wickerby.

I won't tell you what the early years were like, what each weekend required of us poor kids. Suffice it to say, when we got back to the city Sunday night, my mother had us strip off all our clothes at the front door before we were lock-stepped into the shower.

Three or four years later, the cabin was within reach of being habitable. Of course, we had been living in it, along with the above-mentioned porcupines and a very nice family of bats. My mother (even more urban than my father, having been born in London's East End, the land of the Cockneys, not of flying mammals) was terrified when each evening they would zip around the house before they went off to kill, as I reminded her, thousands! no millions! of mosquitoes.

There was still no running water or electricity. But there was a huge cast iron wood-stove with an oven and six…I don't know what you would call them, burners? Each one could be opened to various sizes by a...I have no clue what that contraption is called either. I do know that it was constantly being misplaced. There would be my mother, swearing and burning the food because my father had banked up the fire too high, and she had no way to tamp it down, leaving her trying to simmer her custard or delicate sauce on an inferno.

There were only two rooms in our weekend getaway, upstairs and downstairs. We might have gotten away from the city, but there was no getting away from each other. Bored kids rough-housing around a huge burning stove in the middle of the room was a constant source of worry, and rightly so. I doubt there's one of us who isn't sporting a scar from burning ourselves, but only Mother managed to set herself on fire, regularly.

Winter. Drifting off to sleep in one of the four brass beds, warm under heavy blankets, I would hear my father say, "I'll wake up and stoke the fire during the night so you and the girls will be warm in the morning." Nice sentiment. Never happened.

Come the pale winter's morn, the house glacial, it was my mother, always an early riser, who would slip out of bed and into a moldy old beaver fur coat—this was before Gore-Tex, and in Canada, in winter, you wore fur—and go downstairs to get the fire started so there would be coals ready to cook breakfast: sausages, baked beans, stewed tomatoes, bacon, blood pudding, bread warmed in the oven.

A small but startled "Oh" was a dead giveaway that mother had set herself on fire. Then came the rushed footsteps, the front door being thrown open, another cry as the 20-below frigid air hit her, then finally the volley of swear words as she plunged her burning sleeve into the snowbank created by shoveling out the entrance to the cabin. For those of us sheltering upstairs, first we'd feel the blast of cold air, and only a few moments later would the horrid smell of burnt fur reach us.

Nothing enraged my father more than my mother's pyrotechnics. He would storm downstairs, impervious to the cold, and a furious row would ensue. He would call her incompetent, and she would counter that no modern woman should have to live this way. Upstairs, feeling now the first tendrils of warmth from the stove, I'd listen to the heated to-and-fro, and truthfully, could see both sides of the argument, but I was also getting hungry.

That was my cue. As the youngest (this was years before my much younger sister came along), it was my job to go downstairs, looking sleepy and cute, as well as cold and in need of nourishment and bust up the fight.

I knew the parental skirmish had passed when Mummy said, "Come, Love, help me get breakfast on.”

Perfect mornings were when the thingamajig was where it was supposed to be, and Mother and I, opening and closing dampers, moving eggs to the cool part of the stove, leaving the blood pudding and bacon on the hot part so it would get extra crispy, would create a breakfast that warmed us to the bone.

My mother wasn’t a good cook, or a natural one, too distracted, but what could be more elemental than cooking over fire? It was a wild, barely controlled experience, one we sought to master together. Nearly. Because I can proudly say in all the years I cooked on that stove I never set myself ablaze. Mother? Things did improve slightly when she got rid of that damn coat. Just.


Bex O'Brian was, until recently, a columnist at Salon, and is a contributor to Dorothy Parker's Ashes. She is the author of the novel Radius.


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