My Grandad and Me
When I was a child, all of the Father’s Day gifts went to my Grandad, Peter. I still remember the excitement of creating and painting him a pottery heart that proclaimed “I love U Grandad” - the one he still keeps in the bedroom I used to sleep in as a child.
My Grandad has been my inspiration for many things: travel, writing, gardening, all things British.
Today, on Father’s Day, I’d like to share (in my words and his) some ‘quaint little stories of us’.
Peter: Looking after Natasha growing up, and bringing her to school and picking her up after school, were happy times - although she was rather naughty once for putting chicken bones down the toilet.
Natasha: I loved living with my Grandad - except when I had to eat chicken, of course.
Peter: For some reason Natasha didn’t like chicken, and suddenly we noticed that there were never any bones left on her plate. Then one day after a chicken dinner, the toilet wouldn’t flush. So with my son Stephen’s help, we had to take it apart to see what was causing the blockage. Well! Now we knew where all the chicken bones went.
Natasha: My Grandad grew up during WWII, a fact I attribute to the childhood phrase I heard so often: “eat everything off your plate” (it's what led to my desperate chicken flushing act).
Eating everything up was easier said than done sometimes - unless I was getting a roast with my Grandad’s brussel sprouts and famous roast potatoes, perfected from his time as a cook in the Royal Navy.
Peter: I was drafted into the Royal Navy and spent 27 months in service. The cooking class started with about ten of us, and we had two really nice and friendly chief cooks.
My first stop after cooking school was at Chatham Barracks. Duty cooks start at 4 am until noon. We were sleeping on bunk beds and us cooks had a sign on our bunks for the early call, because the watchman had to shake us. When we got there we always had a cup of tea first, and then we started cooking for about a thousand men.
One day we were told to pack up all our gear; we were all going to a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm Base in Gosport Hampshire. I was to be attached to a group of six Wrens (Women's Royal Naval Service - WRNS) who were very friendly from the start. In fact, because I was the only male cook, they asked if I would prefer to use their lounge room rather than being the only one in the men’s.
Then they asked me where I slept. It so happened my bunk was on the second floor near the windows. Why they asked me I found out the next morning at 4 am, when I heard them all shouting, “Peter, Peter wake up!” while they were on their way to the gallery. This happened every time we were on duty, and they must have wakened many others, especially all the Peters.
Anyways, they asked me to do all the frying and I said that was okay with me.
Natasha: All that cooking practice came in handy later on. The chicken was an exception.
Actually, I think my mum cooked that meal.
Peter: When she was little, Natasha would always follow me around and watch me shave. I think she always waited for me to put a dab of shaving cream on her nose.
Natasha: I remember that I didn’t like being locked out of my Grandad’s washroom when he was inside; I always wanted to be with him. Sometimes he’d be reading a book, and the waiting never seemed to end. Sometimes I’d worry he was going to try to escape, and might climb out the too-small square window in his washroom.
While I waited for him, I’d stand importantly in front of the full-length mirror in his room - the only one in the house - especially if it was following that one time I snipped a chunk of my hair off to make my new hairdo look just right.
Peter: There were two socks of mine that I named Sleepy and Sneezy, that could talk only to little girls. One day while pushing her Cabbage Patch train that went pop, pop, pop, they started to talk to Natasha while I was asleep. The socks were of course on my feet at the time, and resting on the coffee table.
Natasha: I loved those chats with Sleepy and Sneezy. I remember being endlessly fascinated and delighted with the two of them.
My encounters with those socks were just one of the ways that Grandad always made me feel safe. As I grew, I continued to feel - whether I lived with him or not - that my Grandad was my home.
And so, it felt natural that when I was a little older, my Grandad would take me on the first plane ride that I remember, back to his home.
In England we visited family, my Grandad’s old home, the hospital where my mum was born. We also returned to the farm he stayed at as a boy during the war.
Peter: One night two bombs were dropped in the field very close to the farmhouse. Windows were shattered and there was glass everywhere. However, we were lucky that the bombs dropped onto soft earth, or it would have done much more damage.
I received a small cut on my right hand from the glass, but this got exaggerated when I went back to school a day later, into: “I hear you got wounded.”
The bombs were the last straw for my mum, who said, “We’re going back home. If we’re going to get bombed here, then we might as well get bombed in London.”
So we all moved back home to my mum's relief, for now she had her gas oven, electric lights, the refrigerator, and her gas copper in the corner of the scullery to wash all the clothes and sheets in once more.
Natasha: Visiting that farmhouse was one of the highlights of our trip together - which is saying something because there were so many other wonderful experiences over those three weeks.
Seeing the large craters still in the earth from the bombs, walking past the little church my Grandad used to climb to the top of as a boy; these were the details that would stick.
Peter: I promised Natasha I would take her to England when she was 16. She kept talking all the time and asking questions with anybody she met.
Why, on the flight back home, she kept asking me to ask the lady sitting next to me all sorts of questions. Then when she wanted me to ask her name and her persisting “go on, ask her” I did - although she must have heard Natasha asking. So I did ask, and she gave it, but added that she had a boyfriend. She thought I was going to ask her for a date, I think. At that point I asked Natasha to stop asking too many questions.
Actually, that lady was quite attractive. Hmm.
Natasha: What did my Grandad teach me about what it means to be a human? That you don’t need to talk nearly as much as you think you do. That quiet can go a long way. That support and love don’t need to be showy grand gestures to matter more than anything else in the world. That family and history and time together matters.
Peter: Today Natasha helps me by cutting the grass, weeding and other little chores around the garden. She also buys little gifts from the shop that sells British foods and sweets that I used to buy when I was living in England.
Natasha: That’s because my Grandad taught me that the best chocolate is British chocolate.
Dipping some chocolate biscuits into a good cup of tea makes almost everything better.
This Mother's Day: Turn Inward
Well, it’s here, the day I wrote about both loving and dreading. I woke up lazily, knowing I would have hours to myself before my 16-year-old son wakes up. I cuddled my dog, watered my plants, stepped out on the balcony. Thrilled at the idea of reading my new book, but then knew I had to write.
Mother’s Day is so complicated for so many. And sharing stories, as I argued we should, IS important. But as I saw a message from another mother this morning wishing me a Happy Mother’s Day, I reflected on how, for awhile now, many women have been shifting the discourse away from having the men or children in their lives celebrate them, and turning to women, instead - women who know all too well what the day, and often the title, has meant to them.
Take, for example, the fact that one of my earliest thoughts this morning was to turn to a friend who has suffered a miscarriage. A mother who does not get the recognition she deserves year-round, in particular deserves to receive a message from others on a day like today. My next thought turned to a woman who suffered multiple miscarriages many years ago - again, she needs others to reach out. My next thoughts went to the fellow single mothers in my life - some who, like me, raised their baby on their own from the get-go, and others who lost their partners somewhere along the way.
But of course, I also message the other mothers in my life who come from traditional family structures, full well knowing that many of these friends also have complicated interactions with the day, and that some will not get the recognition they deserve from their partners or children, either.
I have long participated in the wishing of other women a Happy Mother’s Day. But recently, another mother pointed out that we can wish ourselves a Happy Mother’s Day, too.
In practice, this has been something I have done to varying degrees in the past. I have told myself many a time that I will be doing something nice for myself on this day. I have bought myself flowers, and books, and attempted to participate in that more consumeristic version of what it means to celebrate a person (even though anyone who knows me knows I am highly critical of consumerism. Go figure).
I think, though, that I was trying as best I could to insert myself into the narrative of what it looks like to celebrate a mother on this day. But as I have learned this week, even the woman who created Mother’s Day made a push to dismantle it when she saw that it had become another Hallmark holiday.
So yes, we should continue to share our stories and alter the dominant discourses around Motherhood and Mother’s Day in order to be more inclusive. I also think that the simple act of not only appreciating our fellow mothers but OURSELVES as mothers is part of the shift, too.
What does it look like to appreciate ourselves?
I think it can look like flowers and books (or whatever other treat we might enjoy). But maybe, it can also look like a chance to slow down and take stock. Perhaps:
Regardless of how you choose to spend this day - I hope that you find some space in it to appreciate yourself, and honour the person that you are. Happy Mother's Day.
"What’s hard about solo parenting a teenager right now? Everything that is hard about parenting a teenager during a pandemic for two parent families."
Oh, definitions. So tricky.
I have read numerous articles and posts over the years from the perspective of a “single parent”. During Covid-19, I have seen a few more.
Sometimes, those articles are written by parents who are indeed single, though they co-parent with the child’s other parent and have shared custody. Other times, they have sole custody, but every other weekend, or another given block of time, goes to another parent. Different still, there are those who raised their child as a single mother, and then re-married - but they still identify with this term and they still parent much as they always have, very much independently despite their new relationship status. And sometimes, a single parent is the only parent in a child’s life, all of the time, 100%. I belong to that last category.
Yet occasionally, the articles come from those who don’t belong to any of those categories - from those who are actually not a single parent at all. This often includes those who live apart from their spouse for any number of given reasons, or for a certain length of time. While the term “single mother” does encompass all sorts of realities - this is not okay.
While I firmly believe that every person is entitled to process the various experiences they go through in ways that will help them, I also believe that co-opting the term “single parent” is unhelpful. As a single/lone mother, when I originally read the headline, “The relentless anxiety of being a single parent right now”, I thought with pleasure that I was about to read relevant material about what it is like to be a parent like myself who is going through this pandemic solo - beginning, middle, and end. But as too often occurs, it was not written by a single parent at all - it was written by a parent in a nuclear family, whose partner was currently away. As an actual single parent - I find this truly problematic.
I don’t say this to diminish the experience of having to do it all while your military spouse is away while a pandemic begins to unfold, but I say this as a person who has no spouse to come back to help, ever. We are it. As I consistently tell my students - words are powerful. We need to use them appropriately, and with care.
And you know what, I’d like to actually share a different narrative of a single parent during this time - not that it can’t be scary and terrifying to do all on your own (it can), but that we are actually enough. Single mothers are actually just plenty without another parent around to help.
Let me be clear - this does NOT mean that there are no single/lone mothers who are currently struggling out there. Absolutely there are, and especially right now - not because of any failing on their part, so much as a real lack of systemic equity and support.
We hear constantly that one person cannot speak for a whole group of people. Let me be clear, I am not here to speak on behalf of other single mothers who have their own story to tell. I am here to speak only on behalf of myself, full well knowing that there are others like me.
The term “single mother” typically has a given narrative attached to it, and I’m looking to disrupt that narrative, because it just doesn’t fit me. And because I don’t like seeing a term that is continuously used to stigmatize women like myself being picked up and dropped off at whim without consequence.
My story is that at 19 years of age, I brought into the world this incredible little human. That little human is now much bigger than I am - 6’2 at 16 years old. He and I navigate this pandemic as best we can, while he celebrates his 6 month anniversary six feet away from his first girlfriend. I am so proud of him.
This pandemic started with so many low lows that I could not fathom getting through it with our relationship still meaningfully intact in any way. Two people, stuck in their tiny 700 square foot apartment - one with developing executive functions, and the other with not nearly as much patience as the situation required. Hardly ideal.
And with a 16-year-old in self-isolation, it is true that I don’t need to have the energy levels of parents with small children. I know that there are many single/lone mom’s out there who are single-handedly surviving a situation that requires energy levels that are exhausting for me to imagine. No other partner to tag you out for a brief respite or to get some work from home done - or to go grocery shopping. I remember the exhaustion of being a solo working mom, and envisioning it while during a pandemic...well, I just took a deep breath to steady myself. So in some ways, I do not envy the single parents with young ones right now.
But there have been many times throughout this pandemic that I would have traded with them in a heartbeat. Parents of teenagers, or those who remember being one yourself - you know what I’m talking about.
What’s hard about solo parenting a teenager right now? Everything that is hard about parenting a teenager during a pandemic for two parent families, only with no other adult present in the home to reassure you and comfort you and love you while you move through it.
But I also get other things, and those things truly are enough.
I get to read, side by side with my teen - the guy I spent 16 years reading to and with, after a six-month hiatus. Those first moments in the morning (okay, very late morning, when he eventually wakes up), reading side by side with our dog snuggled up, and tea and cookies ready to go? Absolutely one of my favourite parts of each day.
I get a kid who knows what it means to be responsible. Zac does his chores and cooks fairly consistently for the most part, which means I am free to mainly focus on a few little decluttering projects, organizing, disinfecting the groceries that come into the house (a bigger job than I thought it would be!), and trying to figure out how to put up shelves on my own so that everything doesn’t slide straight off of them.
I get a kid who, despite having the ability to stay locked in his room for an entire day, makes real attempts at balance (if only for my sake) in a time where only so much is within our control.
I get a kid who does his schoolwork each day and jokes that going back to a regular course load - or life - after this is going to be hard and take some serious time getting (re) used to. Because I’m not helping a younger child navigate his schoolwork, I get the best of both worlds, really - I’m a stay at home mom when I want to be, checking in to offer drinks or a snack, but the rest of the time I can be found where I am now, in my bedroom, working or writing or worrying or reading.
I get breaks from others who love this kid so much. He walks with my mom - at least 6 feet apart of course - and they continue to banter and to share a close relationship that I am so grateful for - a reflection of her involvement with Zac from day one. With a teen, I am also able to leave for my own breaks, taking our dog for walks that sometimes last up to 3 hours.
We have virtual hangouts with others throughout the week - from family overseas that we will no longer be able to visit this year, to close friends who are now scattered around the world. We compare quarantine experiences and stories - including with those who are still living in Wuhan, China, where we once lived – and we enjoy virtual movie nights, game nights, and house-bound challenges with those closer to home in my attempts to continue to prioritize family time.
And though we can no longer get too close, we get to continue our visits to my 91 year old Grandad - one of our most favourite people on the planet. One day, we went by to rake the leaves in his front yard (ever the gardener, his yard has always been important to him). Half way through, he surprised us by bringing out a paper plate of the rock cakes he bakes that we love so much. I’ve tried to convince him that rhubarb pie should be there the next time we visit (with the rhubarb that he picks from his garden!).
Most importantly right now, I get a kid who stays away from his friends and his girlfriend and anyone else, because he gets it.
This new normal - and I can’t stress enough that this is an extremely privileged experience of a pandemic – has, overall, forced a more manageable and relaxed lifestyle for us both - one that it turns out, we both really needed, despite its real difficulties.
Because it turns out - there is both joy and relentless resilience in being a single parent right now - just as there always is.
The Bubble Tea
I discovered bubble milk tea (otherwise known as zhen zhu nai cha - gotta know how to order the good stuff!) in Bangkok, Thailand, on a trip where Zac and I met up with Auntie Jenny and Uncle Matt. Jen ordered a tea first, and from then onwards, we were hooked. When we returned to Wuhan after the trip, we realized that we had actually long been surrounded by bubble tea - but we'd had no idea what we'd been missing out on.
While we did shop around and get our fix from a few different locations, we quickly discovered that in Wuhan, there was a magical place that stood out for delicious milk tea. From the line ups, we understood that this was actually the go-to spot for the majority of bubble tea drinkers, but the wait was worth it, so waited we did. The place was called Coco, and just the simple act of getting this tea had the ability to fuse joy into our day.
After moving back to the GTA, we were in Markham trying to transfer my money (with little luck) from the Bank of China into my Canadian account. Lo and behold - we spotted a Coco.
I cannot describe to you the immense joy that discovery created.
Since our move home, Coco has opened up in several locations, including near Dundas Square and China Town/Kensington Market areas in downtown Toronto. We have never once deviated form our original order - the original pearl milk tea - though there are so many tempting drinks that come out of there.
If you have not enjoyed a drink from Coco, I highly recommend you do - as soon as we are able to go out and about. May I suggest the original pearl milk tea? :)
Well, since we're on the topic of food, we clearly can't NOT mention the noodles.
Our favourite noodles were re gan mien (meaninglessly translated as hot/dry noodles), and I believe most of Wuhan shared our opinion. They had a unique peanut flavour to them (via the sesame paste and oil) that we could not duplicate after our move to Shanghai - though Shanghai brought us xiao long bao (delicious soup dumplings), so I can’t complain too much.
As news of racism in the GTA spread faster than covid-19, good news also popped up, such as this story about people flooding to Wuhan Noodle 1950. When I read this article, I was excited to realize that I wouldn't need to wait until our next trip to Wuhan to eat our favourite noodles. Though I WILL need to wait until I can leave the apartment for more than a three hour dog walk.
In the meantime, I'm going to try my hand at making my own at home this week, and you can, too!
The Street Food
As I continue my reflections on our time spent living overseas in Wuhan, I feel myself starting to get hungry. We ate a lot over there.
Zac and I consistently devoured street food in Wuhan every chance we got. Our favourite market with food vendors was the Ravi Shinger market (named for the fancy hotel right next to it). I loved the market for its simplicity. And I loved what a visit to the market represented - slowing down, meandering, enjoying beautiful colours and fresh fruits and vegetables, and of course, eating food cooked for you for about $1 Canadian.
A trip to our favourite market meant about a 25 minute walk each way, though we would sometimes ride our bikes there as well. We’d stroll around, taking in the sights and smells, and contemplate what variety of foods we would settle on for lunch or dinner that day (if it was up to Zac, dumplings were usually involved!). We sometimes did this on our own, but we also enjoyed spending time with our friends there, too.
Something I’m missing a little bit as I hang out in self-isolation.
We didn’t confine our street food experiences to only one market, though (of course not!). There was a university market nearby (Wuhan is a big university city), and just about any time we went out and about, there were delicious opportunities waiting for us.
Last post, I shared one of my biggest sources of amusement in Wuhan. This time, I'd like to share one of my favourite simple pleasures of living in the city.
If asked to sum up Wuhan in a few key experiences, the dancing would absolutely need to be a part of that list. At home, traditionally dancing is seen at special events - certainly not by the side of the road or for no given reason. Doing so would generate a fair bit of stares, but not so from Wuhan residents (visitors to the country, however, yes. We loved watching).
In Wuhan, it was a daily experience to walk by a group of women (and the odd man or two) dancing together to music. This might be at the side of the road if an open space were available, in a square of some sort, or in a common area such as outside of a plaza. If there was enough space, it was fair game. It was relaxing, simple, and a good way of incorporating exercise and social experiences into daily life. It's no wonder that videos are popping up of Wuhan residents dancing during quarantine.
I loved it. And sometimes, got dragged into it, much to my child's delight.
Wuhan Photo Shoots
As promised, I'm reflecting on our lives in overseas, and some of the things I enjoyed most.
When you live in Wuhan and you're not Chinese, you are constantly observed and frequently approached for a photo shoot. When requested, Zac sometimes obliged, but his smiles were fleeting and then it was time to stare at me with loathing as I documented the entire experience with glee.
Window into Wuhan
A few years ago, when I would come home to Canada over the summer, people would ask me where in China I was teaching. Responding with "Wuhan" often did little in the way of explanation, so I would add "...it's in Central China". My questioners would nod vaguely, unsure of where I was talking about.
Clearly, not so anymore.
Wuhan was my first home away from home, an introduction to a new and different and completely exhilarating way of life. As the world has learned the name Wuhan, with a dose of fear and a sprinkling (or torrent) of racism on the side, I have been missing the city and worrying about the many people who still live there.
Though I also spent two years happily living in Shanghai - a much more well known city - it was living in Wuhan that gave me access to an authentic, immersive, and heartfelt Chinese experience. It is where China won me over and where I fell in love - with the people, the food, the markets, the dancing, the culture, the everything.
Wuhan was our first introduction to Chinese culture. It will always hold a chunk of space in my heart. For the next little while, I'd like to share it with you.
Natasha is a lone mother, big time traveler, and avid tea drinker (with cookies). Find her on Instagram @ https://www.instagram.com/natasha.steer/