Read more about Shannon Bramer in my interview with her, “Experiments with Voice and Fidelity to Lyricism.”
Recently I was in Port Dover, Ontario, where my mother lives. Whenever I’m in town I walk the beach, take photographs, say hello to the lighthouse with my girls, buy a loaf of blue-cheese walnut bread from Urban Parisian bakery, buy a record from the magical Robot Café and last but not least: troll the Giant Tiger for deals and nostalgic oddities. On my last trip I hit the jackpot when I spotted, all alone on the wrong shelf, a bottle of Maggi, or “drops” as my Croatian grandmother used to call the salty brown liquid in the little brown bottle.
It’s loaded with MSG and other multisyllabic additives and chemicals, and my Nana let my brother, Johnny, and me add as much of the stuff as we wanted to our Lipton Chicken Noodle soup, at bedtime. The soup was what she called our “bedtime lunch.” My brother I and would sit with her in her blue-tiled kitchen, in Winona, Ontario, windows open, moon in the sky, enjoying the soup in our pyjamas, listening to my Nana’s wonderful stories. She liked to tell us about her life in Croatia: about the little village on the Hungarian border where she was born, about her parents, about her twin brother who died tragically when his shirt caught fire in a cornfield.
The sight of the little brown bottle, with its unchanged red and yellow label, brought it all back to me in a rush of sadness and longing. How I miss that house in Winona! How I miss my Nana and Papa. How I miss being small and having a little brother, our soft pyjamas, my Nana’s sandpaper hands, and that soup! That crazy chemical yellow soup and the Maggi we added without restraint because my Nana thought it made the soup taste even better than it already did.
Once in a while my brother added too much and he had a brown puddle of noodles before him that he didn’t finish. I was always more restrained and cautious with those drops, older sister that I was — but whenever Johnny made a mess of his soup my Nana just used to laugh! My Nana cried a lot, for various reasons, some obvious and some mysterious, and I remember that too — but when I look at the bottle of MAGGI it’s her laugh that returns to me.
And so I bought the bottle of Maggi from Giant Tiger in Port Dover, not to give to my kids (poor them — I’m sure they’d love it!) but to keep in my cupboard, for fun, because I still need my Nana, and it’s so nice to be surprised by her little bottle of “drops” in my cupboard, among the olive oil and seaweed and sesame seeds. Her Maggi fills my grown-up, serious pantry with a bit of my childhood and my Nana’s wonderful laughter.
The Teal and Gold Bedspread
In a world of luxurious feather duvets, Walmart bed-in-bag sets, and funky IKEA bed-dressing and textiles, I have clung to the ancient teal and gold bedspread of my Croatian grandparents. Mostly it was my grandfather’s, because I don’t really remember my grandparents sleeping in the same room. This particular blanket was on the bed where my Papa used to sleep and snore quite loudly, which is probably why my Nana moved out of his bed.
It still smells sort of like my grandparents’ home: roses, Palmolive dish soap and a hint of frying garlic. Yes, I do keep this blanket on my bed! My Papa was a stocky man with an enormous, firm potbelly that my brother and I both loved. When he slept his tummy would rise and fall under that blanket; we would sneak up on him in the morning and jump into the bed with him and it seemed as if within minutes of our rousing him my Nana would have stolen into the room and the rumpled bed would suddenly be made, crisp at the corners, pillows hidden.
The Pink Housecoat
My Nana bought this rose-coloured, velour housecoat before she went into the hospital. She was 73 years old and dying of a rare form of lung cancer. Doctors believed it was related to chemical and/or asbestos exposure. My grandfather worked at Dofasco (a steel mill in Hamilton, Ontario) for decades and spent many shifts in the coke ovens. She washed his work-clothes every day.
Her body shrunk and shrivelled in that housecoat as several painful weeks went by.
Maybe it’s morbid of me to have kept the housecoat, but I did so because when I wear it I think I feel her still somewhere inside it and I feel less afraid of growing old, like I might be able to face the pain of leaving this world bravely, with grace, the way she did.
I don’t wear it all the time, but when I need too, it’s there.
The fabric is growing shabby and worn now, but I do not want another housecoat.
The Whiskey Stool
My grandparents, for better or worse, both liked to drink. Rye whiskey was the beverage of choice — they both had their own bottles, sometimes hidden, sometimes out in the open. I remember finding a bottle of the gold liquid in my Nana’s closet and being both startled and moved by the revelation of my Nana’s other way of being. The idea that she had a secret life, she who seemed to be so under the thumb of my grandfather, somehow pleased me. The bottle made me sad too, in a way, because I understood what drunkenness was and feared it at the time — but it also signified a rebellion, a fine thread of defiance in my Nana that I admired. There was always more to a person than what you could see; there was more to Nana and more to Papa, and when I grew up there was going to be more to me. I put the bottle away and felt guilty for snooping. Every so often I checked to see if it was still there.
My Papa used to spend a lot of time in his garage, sipping his rye and tinkering with his cars and farm equipment. When he came in the house he often situated himself in the basement, on his favourite stool, smoking and sipping his whiskey. Sometimes I would sit on the floor beside him and we would have long, interesting conversations. Wrestling was usually on TV; sometimes the radio was playing.
This stool was upholstered with a cherry red fabric that had become quite worn by the time he died. Now it wears a brown and gold fabric that matches the couch my husband inherited from his great-grandmother and which we had reupholstered at the same time. These sit together in our living room. Our children climb and jump on the couch, which is now over 100 years old, and shuffle the old stool around — often flipping it over to make a boat for their stuffies or pushing it into the kitchen and against the cupboard in order to reach the treat drawer. Its legs have a lot of wobble to them now, but it’s a sturdy thing, the way my Papa was, and it’s mine.
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SHANNON BRAMER is a poet and playwright. Her poetry collection The Refrigerator Memory was published in 2005 by Coach House Books. Two previous poetry collections, suitcases and other poems and Scarf, were published by Exile Books. Shannon’s first play, MonaRita, was produced in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in February 2010 and has since appeared in festivals across the country. Sometimes you can find Shannon in the playground, recruiting little poets: www.poetintheplayground.blogspot.com.