Beatrice, The Beav’, And A Thing That Went Beep In The Night

Across our street in the summer of 1960 lived a three year old curly-top redhead known as Little Beatrice (pronounced btreece to rhyme with geese), and all I remember about her is the little song she sang the day the Caterpillars came and scraped off the six inch layer of crabgrass and rocky soil that were the Barkers’ front yard, in preparation for the laying of new Kentucky Bluegrass sod. I won’t go off on some folksy tangent here about Kentucky Bluegrass; it was just the standard choice for new lawns in our neighbourhood.

On the day between the removal of the old and the arrival of the new, Little Beatrice popped out of her front door, surveyed the scene in bemusement, and then, after a minute or two, and approximately to the tune of Three Blind Mice, began to sing: “The yard ran away! The yard ran away!” Enchanting! In hindsight, I think this may have been my first intimation (being only seven myself) of just how impossibly cute and clever a toddler can be. Little Beatrice is pushing sixty now, God willing, and almost certainly has no memory of that inconsequential episode, but  her little ditty has stayed with me ever since, and I like to think she’d be slightly charmed to know that I still sing it silently to myself whenever something I expect to be there… isn’t.

I had it in mind to turn that tiny moment into some sort of existential jewel, but it wouldn’t come, so I’ve simply deposited it on the page unadorned. Similarly, I’ve been thinking for days about how to take the night before I turned five, two years earlier— the night Sputnik One was launched and Leave It to Beaver premiered—and turn it into a Cold War parable: maybe something about a shared moment of childlike wonder across the ideological divide. Similarly, no such luck.

Actually I don’t remember the first time I “met” the Cleaver family, and even once I did I was decades away from realizing that I was watching anything other than a rather realistic (yes, it was actually like that!) depiction of a WASP suburban boy’s life often spookily similar to my own. It turns out I was also partaking of Great Art. Maybe I’ll elaborate upon this sometime. Or not, if I find I have nothing new to add to Beaverology.

I do remember the Sputnik flight, though I don’t remember actually seeing the thing . All of our Biscayne Bay neighbours were out on their front porches; every few minutes someone would shout, “Oh look! There it goes!” and then some killjoy (probably named Gord) would yell back something along the lines of, “No it’s not, you jerk! Any schoolkid knows that’s just Bellatrix or, under its Bayer designation, Gamma Orionis! Sheesh!”


The next day there was a little fifth birthday party for me, and Billy Eakin (two from left, top row) gave me (sitting, left) a three-stage rocket like the one that had put Sputnik into orbit. I was crestfallen, though, to find that it wouldn’t blast off if you lit it, because it was actually soap. It looked more realistic than the one above, but the rope on the end was a giveaway.

Oh well. Next bathtime I asked my mother for my rocket soap, but she said, “Oh no, it’s the wrong shape for soap, and you could take an eye out with the pointy end, or strangle yourself with the rope. We’ll keep it in its wrapper and give it to one of your cousins for Christmas. Years from now this will be called regifting and will carry a social stigma, but here in 1957 it’s just what you do with unwanted, life-threatening, rocket-shaped soap-on-a-rope.”  As always, thank you, mum, for yet another existential jewel.

Pattypans, Patina and Homecoming Plans

One day in 1958 a hapless door-to-door salesman came to 48 Biscayne Bay to show our mum an Atomic Age precursor to the Me Generation food processor. When you’re five, a mother is just an old person who’s not quite as old as a grandmother, and it didn’t occur to me then that she was in fact a fairly young person with a pretty good line in childish mischief. The guy never had a hope of selling her that machine, but that didn’t stop her allowing him the best part of an hour to put it (and himself) through its paces. He made us kids some quite lush and tasty and ever so slightly crunchy milkshakes which included “… raw eggs, ma’am, shells and all!” Then he produced a bag full of pattypan squash from his magician’s case. I don’t remember what he promised to do with them, or why such a cute, unassuming and easily managed little vegetable required the full force of Atomic Power to be unleashed upon it. I do remember that he “…musta pushed the wrong button, ma’am!”  and suddenly globs of tepid gelatinous yellow matter were flying everywhere, all over the kitchen. Some of it got me smack in the mouth. If you don’t count Libby’s canned pumpkin pie filling, it was my first encounter with squash of any variety, and left me with an aversion I didn’t shake until some time in my thirties. Mum managed to keep a straight face as the salesman wiped down various kitchen surfaces as best he could while offering assurances that “This almost never happens, ma’am!” and in her fun-loving spirit she allowed him his finale, which was a perfectly passable take on French Canadian pea soup. She even held the straight face as she said, “Well, not today, thanks. Maybe I’ll order one sometime from Eaton’s on my Revolving Credit Plan [which I understood to mean at no charge].” Cruelly, she omitted to mention that his next prospect, Mrs Tucker at number 46, was an actual French Canadian, an unusually fiery one at that, and that perhaps minestrone or simple tomato soup would be a safer offering if he indeed got as far as her kitchen.

I’d intended that at this point I’d segue into something about ghosts, and then remembered I don’t believe in ghosts. Not yet. The great storyteller Stephen King is moving me in that direction; thus far we converge on something I’ve been calling “domestic patina” and which Mr King in his deceptive simplicity calls “leavings”. In both cases we are talking not just about fossilized puréed food (me) or decayed human brain tissue and bodily fluids (him), but also about some sort of long-lasting (vibrational?) imprint on a place, left by stuff people did and said— maybe even felt— when they were the inhabitants. Walls, ceilings, floors…maybe even the air. In my dotage I’m coming to feel that if there are no leavings then perhaps equally there was  no point.

When I move back to Winnipegland, as I plan to do next year, I think I’ll invest in a deerstalker hat, a magnifying glass and an ear-trumpet, and go a-hunting. I will start by knocking on the door of 48 Biscayne Bay, wheedling my way in with a gift of pattypan squash (and my recipe*) and finding what may be there to be found.

*Drop these little beauties whole into boiling water for a minute and a half, then arrest cooking with a cold water rinse. Snip off the green stems, halve or quarter, and gently sauté in butter with red and/or green (or even purple!) bell peppers. Sprinkle to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg. The nutmeg makes this. Serve alongside any sort of fish you like.