“This is good …” Mom said.
It was about six o’clock and the sky was already dark. My father would be home in a few minutes, stomping the snow off his boots as he came through the door, bringing a draft of icy wind with him. But now it was warm around the fire Mom had lit in our huge stone fireplace a half hour or so earlier. I could see the reflection of the flames echoed in the tall glass window next to it and the whole wall of stone and glass seemed to be ablaze.
My sister and I sat on the fire-place bench with a small plate of crackers between us. We were each sipping from a tiny liqueur glass … hers was filled with tomato juice, but mine contained real sherry. “Old Hermit” Mom called it. It was her favorite. Years later I learned it was a very modestly priced home sherry. But in those days I assumed it was a rare delicacy since it had been forbidden to take even a sip until I was fifteen.
But I was fifteen now and was allowed to have a small glass of sherry in the evenings as we waited for Dad to walk home from the Baie D’Urfe train station. Mom felt that her daughters should learn the social graces at home and at the appropriate time. Which apparently was fifteen for drinking sherry.
So we would sit by the fire and wait for Dad to arrive. Mom in the style of those long ago days of aprons and feminine deference, would have a cold beer on ice and there would be the enticing smell of dinner wafting invitingly from the kitchen. Dinner was at 6.30 … on the dot. We ate together every night, except for Fridays when I had a late class at the Conservatoire in Montreal and had to catch the 9.25 train home. Then my dinner would be plated and sitting on the counter, waiting for me to put it into the oven to heat it up. Which I never did, in spite of Mom’s objections. I ate it cold. And sometimes when she wasn’t hovering in the kitchen, I ate it standing up and minus a napkin. Right from the plate on the counter. There was a large gap in our priorities. For me social graces were very far down on my list and prone to be displaced whenever I could get away with it.
Now we were sitting by the fire, waiting for Dad to come home. And to have our dinner.
“This is good …” Mom said.
” What? Whaaaaaaat’s good?”
Holding my glass of sherry, I raised my eyebrows in a studied mixture of query and contempt as I stretched out the question with a slightly curled lip. I didn’t like anything I considered “syrupy” or “goody-goody”. I was a serious budding young feminist who firmly eschewed anything smacking of emotion, which I was firmly convinced contributed to the bondage of women. Women in aprons particularly. I loathed aprons.
Mother looked over at me, her rebellious spawn sitting awkwardly with a glass of sherry and confrontation clearly flickering in my eyes.
Her face softened. Then she whispered gently, “This moment is good. The moment. We are all here together, waiting for your father to come home. It is snowy and cold outside, but we’re sitting here next to a warm fire. We have our cocktails and cheese and crackers.”
She looked out the window at the snowflakes whirling against the glass. ” Look at how beautiful the snow is! Now look at the fire, the way the flames move and split and become ribbons of light. Look … they’re climbing up the chimney.”
Her eyes began to glow. She spread her arms out to encompass the entire room. ” It is a good moment. It is GOOD,” she said.
I sat silently and watched her hands and eyes. There suddenly seemed to be light everywhere. I saw the flames cascading down the window panes, the lambent light streaming from the fireplace across the carpet and dancing over mother’s face.
“We have to recognize these moments as they happen. Now. Not in ten years, when they will be memories. We must enjoy them NOW. How sad to miss them and only later realize what we lost.”
She looked over at me and saw that I was listening. That I was receptive. That she could give me a gift I would carry in my heart for the rest of my life. So she added the crucial coda, the magic formula which would give me an endless cache of happiness, a way of seeing things which would offer me access to that thing we call joy.
“It isn’t the big things. The big moments. It’s the little ones. It’s a sip of sherry by the fire, it’s the smell of lilacs in the spring when you stand under the tree, it’s an instant when you share a joke with a friend.” She paused a moment and considered her next example. She knew that the ” sweet smell of a baby” wouldn’t impress me nor any mention of avocados, but she had a sure bet with the next one. ” Or putting your head on the cat’s back and hearing her purr.”
She’d made her point.
We sat for another ten minutes or so before Dad arrived. I looked at the sherry sparkling like amber in my glass. I wiggled it to make the wine swish and watched the colors emerge with the motion. So many shades of gold and amber in that tiny glass! As I looked up I could see Mom smiling at me. Her eyes were shining.
And I thought I could see tiny flames from the fireplace reflected in them
More than forty years have passed since Mom gave me her secret. And I can think of no other lesson which brought me so much joy. Daily doses of it. I don’t need occasions or treats or lavish shopping sprees. I find joy in a myriad of tiny pleasures which await me every day. I have only to discover and be aware of them.
And as I sit here at my keyboard, there is a little plate of crackers beside me. I’ve put tiny smoked oysters on them. Ordinary canned oysters, which are now not the delicacy they were when I was a child. And I have a small liqueur glass filled with Sheffield Cream Sherry, the nearest substitute I can find for Mom’s Old Hermit.
When I close my eyes, I can see the fireplace in my childhood home, smell the logs burning, see my sister’s hand reaching for a cracker and Mom’s smile as she tell me to “sip slowly”. I can imagine the sound of Dad stomping the snow off his feet and the gust of cold air as he sweeps into the room. It is all long gone now.
But my heart insists it is real and I’m sitting with my family waiting for my Dad to come home. And the tears which come are touched with joy.