Pancakes, Mother and ghosts

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More ghosts haunt me each year. At approaching Easter, pale images coalesce, of supper on Shrove Tuesday—Pancake Tuesday in my childhood home. My mother stands at the white enamel kitchen stove; bacon strips and breakfast sausages sizzle in the cast iron pan, on the right front burner large enough to hold that family-size skillet. She mixes up the pancake batter before she starts the meat, because the batter makes better pancakes if it sits a bit. The galley kitchen is small and there is little room for her to move. But she is also small, and quick when she opens the oven to slip in the cooked meat to keep it warm. Leftover grease from the bacon is thriftily poured into a soup can kept on the middle of the stove, handy for reuse. Using a measuring cup, Mom ladles pancake batter onto the skillet, just so, always three equal pancakes to a batch. Those batches stack up on a plate in the warm oven.

Ash Wednesday comes tomorrow and begins the Christians’ forty days of Lent before Easter. It’s a season of abstinence–or at least moderation–and of penitence. Pancake Tuesday, also known as Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras, means we use up the household eggs and butter, symbolizing the fasting to come. This pre-Lenten meal in my home is always supper and the rich fragrance of smoky bacon, sausage, pancakes and heavy syrup. I set the table, my regular chore for years. That task barely sticks in memory. What revisits me from the Easter season are images of Mom, focused, busy, even beset. The pictures float in, bringing sadness for her. She gave to her family unstintingly, without seeking recognition. Her image haunts me, as does my lack of understanding, and I ponder if she found any spiritual fulfilment in the season.

Lent brings dozens of extra tasks for Mom. She makes hot cross buns. She buys new outfits for each child, including shoes and Easter headbands or bonnets. She writes and mails Easter cards. The Saturday before Easter, she boils and dyes Easter eggs, with our eager childish help crowding into the galley kitchen, spilling turquoise and yellow dyes on the floor. Mom makes pumpkin pie. Early Sunday morning, she and Dad fill a hat for each of us, fill them with dyed hen eggs and chocolate eggs and a chocolate bunny, then they hide the hats. We find our hats and eat the candy. Mom tells us to bring it all to the table, where we eat toast and the cold boiled eggs for breakfast. Somehow, she makes sure we four kids dress in our new outfits and we all head to church. Afterward, she cooks our big Easter Sunday meal of criss-cross-cut ham, and all the regular trimmings. Sometimes she lets me take the yellow and red Keen’s dry-mustard tin, ladle a small teaspoon into a dish, and add water to mix up some hot mustard to accompany the ham.

Lent seemed to begin and end in the kitchen. Sometimes on Pancake Tuesday Mom let us help out by making maple syrup. Maple syrup, as we knew it, started with the blue and white box of Mapleine. Seeing the little box was cause for happiness. The other maple syrup that come from a tree didn’t enter my awareness until years later. Warm Mapleine syrup still tastes better. It’s a sweet ghost, bringing essence of childhood, family, ritual meals and my mother. Boil a cup of water and add it to a pot with two cups of white sugar. Add the maple flavouring. Stir with a wooden spoon, occasionally sampling the too-hot syrup with a sacrificial finger. Stand out of Mom’s way at the side of the stove, because although she is busy, you know she is watching you.

“Call everyone to the table,” she tells me, as the meal nears readiness. We’ve got to be there when the food comes. It’s respect for the food, and respect for the cook.

Two or three batches of pancakes are piled on the first plate brought to the table, so stabbing forks can each spear at least one. The usual dinner order requires that dishes of food are passed around the table, but pancake meals disrupt that. The plate of meat appears next, also meant to circulate, but fingers compete for crisp bacon.

“Bring out the maple syrup,” Mom tells me, or my older sister, depending on who has landed the coveted position of syrup-maker. It’s always exciting to carry out the last item, a pitcher of the hot syrup. Everyone wants it first.

“Leave some for your sisters,” my mother says to the table in general. Three girls and a boy. She never tells us to leave something for our brother. With minimal speech, she mediates among the demands of supplying hot food, making sure it is fairly distributed, watching that the table is nonviolent, and slipping back to tend the next batch of pancakes. At suppers, before eating, we usually say a grace after everyone is sat down and before one bite is taken. You’d think we would say one on the evening of this Christian observance. But memories of any Pancake Tuesday prayer are crowded out by memory-scenes of Mom popping up and down to mind the kitchen and of our greed to get the hot food into our mouths.

For the child-me, those pancake suppers were happy, busy, delicious. Now, my stomach twists when I think of them, because they are entwined with images of my yearned-for mother. I miss her. The ghosts of Easters past rise to haunt me, ghosts with her face. I imagine Mom beleaguered by busy-ness, looking vainly for spiritual retreat and peace during Lent, the season for looking back. But, perhaps, the unfulfilled woman is only my imaginary mother. Perhaps instead she finds the season’s busy tasks fulfilling, as she looks after her family, shares the meal and the work of her hands, and seeks to uplift the days. She never speaks of it. But Tuesday evening, she starts with the requisite pile of pancakes and moves forward.

The unfulfilled woman who haunts me could—I’m struck–be me. I can never know whether my mother was really happy, and despite my yearnings, I cannot help her now. But nostalgic guilt and loneliness are chilly. So yesterday I stayed home and kept the oven on, made cheese bread, shortbread, and blueberry muffins, then shared the works of my hands with several neighbours. Tuesday, I’ll have a pancake supper, share it with friends, and banish some more ghosts. I now have a plan to use the weeks of Lent as a time of abstinence–mapleinefrom guilt.