Ed retired early from his job when his eyes went kaplooey. Kaplooey: Dad’s word for bodily stuff gone wrong. For his pal, Ed, kaplooey was rapid-onset blindness. This I pictured as heavy curtains yanked fiercely across waning light turning into endless night. An unfathomable calamity for a big, mysterious man who ended up, so I thought, trapped in a shrinking, dark world.
The story, as Dad told it, was that Ed had had enough of Northern Ontario by then, anyway. Nine months of winter, two months of bugs, a fishing season short as a fizzled firecracker, and American anglers ready for snow in July. Well, who could blame them since all they knew about Canada was the rogue Arctic air that barreled south in winter to white out their trim, tidy towns with flags aflutter? Who could blame Ed after three decades of steadily working his way up the rickety ladder to become the mine accountant. His wife, Ruth, didn’t need much convincing to leave, either. But she didn’t drive and now Ed couldn’t. They asked my parents, who were newlyweds craving fresh adventure after returning from the war, if they’d like to take a little drive together across the continent to deliver them to the Life of Riley in Kelowna.
Of course, my parents said “Yes!” eager for the next big distraction in their lives, still believing they loved each other and still dreaming about a shared future, wide-eyed and invincible in that smart, steady way of youth.
I pictured Dad in his grey flannels, gleaming wing tips and navy blazer – his idea of casual – as he whipped out a crisp handkerchief from the breast pocket to polish the side mirror of his maroon Dodge Deluxe with pearly grey interior. They left in mid-spring after the last snow and before the black flies. Ruth sitting in the back with Mom; Ed up front with Dad, his head bobbing with excitement while his milky old eyes rolled around like marbles.
There was no Trans Canada all the way yet, so they headed south, then west, across the States. Sedately chug-chugging along and stopping for lunch at small-town Mom-and-Pop diners; requesting a window booth, ordering ham sandwiches, and coffee and homemade lemon pie with clouds of meringue piled high. By late afternoon, they looked for signs advertising an economical motel near the highway exit with names like Rainbow Court or West Winds. They requested adjoining rooms on the ground floor so Ed didn’t need to navigate stairs and my parents could be right next door in case there was a situation. Situation: Dad’s code for the unexpected when he needed time to think about things.
I imagined Dad mentally listing the pros and cons of the proposed journey before agreeing to go and pondered the kindness of my parents accompanying these friends twice their age – older, in fact, than their own parents – who surely were set in their routines. My mother, never known for her patience and a resolute morning person, must have been frustrated waiting to get going each day right after breakfast. How she used to nag, nag, nag my sister and me to Stop dawdling. Hurry up. Finish your breakfast. Brush your teeth. Get to school Now! But she always seemed to have buckets of time for Ruth’s wackiness. She told us Ruth’s strangest habit was the Tiger’s Milk she drank every morning and called her Magic Potion. To make it, she travelled with a Waring blender and assorted weird ingredients she bought in Chinatown.
My mother was a terrible mimic, and by that, I mean wonderful. When Mom told people about that long-ago road trip, she dramatically recited Ruth’s recipe as though it were yesterday.
• BREW-er’s YeeeeEAST!
• Wheat giuuurrrrummm!
• Skim milk POW-der!
Years later, after Ed had died and Ruth moved to the coast, I witnessed the Tiger’s Milk ritual with my own wide eyes on the Sunday morning Mom and I went to see her new apartment in Kerrisdale. “Try it, sweetie. You may be surprised and like it. Think of it as a healthy milkshake,” urged Ruth as she waved the battered old blender jug under my nose. I wanted to gag at the foul smell of her gluey concoction. It looked more like puke than milkshake.
I was convinced she was a witch, with piercing eyes dark as coal that always seemed to look right through me, and a mop of springy curls that defied taming. This mysterious potion was just the latest evidence. I shook my head No! and looked at my mother pleadingly for salvation. She ignored me and turned away to admire a dreamy water colour hanging in the dinette. The artist was Ed, his spindly signature faintly visible in the lower right corner.
Years earlier, after our family had moved West, it was Ruth who told us about the Ogopogo the first summer we went to visit in Kelowna. My sister was skeptical, but I was convinced the fabled lake monster was real and that if I sat quietly by the shore, it would shimmer out of the mist like Puff the Magic Dragon and be my friend. I needed a friend that summer. Mine were all away at camp and my sister, three years older, was bossy in that timeless, superior big-sister way that made me want to steer clear of her.
I kept vigil every day for what felt like hours under the sparse shade of whispering pines, scanning the water for any telltale undulating humps. Ed was always nearby in a lawn chair, methodically weaving wicker baskets that came in a kit from the CNIB to provide jobs for the blind. When it got too hot, no matter how quietly I tiptoed into the lake, Ed always knew: “Stay close to the shore, honey. Don’t forget, I can’t save you but maybe the Ogopogo will.” His voice dropped ominously: “And if you believe in it, you will see it.”
I was terrified. How could he tell what I was doing? His threat of the invisible lurching into life scared me, however much I wanted to befriend that unseen Ogopogo. Ed’s tactic worked. I never ventured further than waist deep, just far enough to dunk my head for relief from the heat and hazy fingers sour smoke drifting down from forest fires high in the hills.
“How about a snort, Ed?” Dad asked every evening before dinner that summer, standing beside the bar trolley in the living room near the picture window where prisms of late-afternoon sunlight glinted off the tops of crystal decanters lined up like gleaming soldiers. Ed never refused. If he ever heard my mother’s sharp intake of breath from the kitchen as my father poured too-generous fingers of dark Navy rum over ice before adding a splash of Coke, he didn’t let on. They were an odd duo, my elfin father and lanky Ed, an Ichabod Crane type that my mother described as a long drink of water.
“Set the table, girls, dinner will be ready in twenty minutes.” Mom was scurrying between counter and stove, in her power zone briskly stirring this, flipping that, on a mercy mission to save Ruth from scorching and utterly destroying the entire meal. I was always hungry in Kelowna, leery of most things Ruth put on the table since I had heard the story about the Tiger’s Milk on their cross-country trek. The novelty of fried pork chops, Rice-A-Roni and neon jellied salads soon bored me, accustomed as I was to my mother’s splendid meals made from scratch that magically appeared every day at home.
She had a knack for garnish and making the mundane mysterious and tempting. Ordinary fruit salad sparkled as Ambrosia with the addition of ginger ale and lanky strands of pastel-shredded coconut. Plain old meatloaf got dressed up with a surprise layer of cheese and olives in the middle or artful swirls of mashed potatoes on top sprinkled with parsley and paprika. On special occasions, she adorned crown roasts with paper frills and a ring of spiced crabapples.
We had to eat every morsel on our plates to be offered her signature desserts; and oh, how she lived for those sweets she so lovingly whipped up and presented with a flourish at the end of every meal as the piece de resistance: Iles Flottantes, English trifle, lemon snow. If we didn’t immaculately clean our main course plates, not only would we miss these delights, but the congealed leftovers reappeared for breakfast the next morning. We learned to eat up, rapidly.
After dinner, Ed usually went back outside to his chair to weave some more, his face tinged golden in the fading sun, as he listened to the waves lapping gently where the lawn’s edge met the sandy shore. He sat until the last speck of daylight lingered in the western sky before gathering up his basket and heading inside. I wondered: How does he know when it’s dark?
On the last day of our visit, Ed arranged for a neighbour who worked at Sun-Rype to take us on a factory tour while our mother packed for the long drive home.
My sister and I were horsing around on the front lawn near the driveway when Dad said: “C’mon girls, let’s get mobile” in a careful, calm tone that always belied his exasperation with our antics. I was trying unsuccessfully to do a cartwheel. My sister was practicing her best double-jointed tricks, pretending to be an Egyptian dancer by popping her neck and elbows in-and-out in startling rippling patterns. Sometimes she bent her thumb backwards to touch her wrist. It made me quiver in wonder, every time, and ponder my own clumsy body.
“Stop it! It’s too creepy,” I protested but only half-heartedly because secretly I was fascinated by her slimness and grace.
“Girls! Girls! Stop your dipsy-doodling. It’s time to go or we’ll miss the tour.”
At the factory, we had to wear paper soda-jerk hats that sat like capsized boats as we made our way through the long, winding fruit-processing room where we watched an endless stream of cherries wildly tumbling along the wide rubber conveyor belt like drowning things trying to escape.
After the tour, we were given samples of dark red fruit leather, something we’d never seen. We stretched its stickiness to the point of breaking and dangled the skinny sweet threads into each other’s outstretched mouths like mother birds feeding their young.
“Don’t be ignorant!” hissed Dad. “You girls know better than that.” We stopped immediately and climbed wordlessly into the car, not sure why our bit of fun had embarrassed him but knowing that he was disappointed in us made my cheeks burn.
I don’t remember how or when Ed and Ruth disappeared from our lives. A few summers later when I was home from college, Dad mentioned Ed while we were sitting at the quay, enveloped by the tang of salt and diesel and billows of morning fog finally lifting enough for the tugs to start chugging along the inlet. “They’re like Ed, you know,” said Dad. “Those tugs.”
“Like Ed? Kelowna Ed? Whatever do you mean?”
“Stubborn. In a good way. Persevering. Finding their way clear despite all odds.”
“What ever happened to them? You were such good pals. Remember their house on the lake and how he weaved those baskets. I was water-logged waiting in vain to see that darn Ogopogo.”
Dad smiled sadly. “It’s a funny thing, how that guy saw things more clearly than anyone. Not sure why we lost touch. We just did. It happens, you know. People vamoose.”
Vamoose: The strange word rolled effortlessly off his tongue so smoothly. Did he know then that he was going to vamoose in winter? Or that part of me would always remain the watchful girl at the water, hopefully scanning every horizon for the invisible, the hidden. Forever searching for my Ogopogo Dad.
Jane Finlayson of Toronto, Canada has been published in literary journals including The New Quarterly, The Penmen Review (US), STORGY (UK), Fiddlehead (fiction contest winner, 1999; honorable mention, 2007), The Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Room, The Writers Block and Event (creative nonfiction contest winner, 2010).
Thanks for a great read! This essay brought back a lot of memories. Tiger’s Milk was a real thing; I remember my mother trying to get us to drink it. Blech!