You Always Remember Your First Lemon Loaf

You Always Remember Your First Lemon Loaf

My sisters and I spent summers with my grandfather in a very small East Coast - blink and you'll miss it - village called Goldboro. My Grandfather, Daley Henderson grew up here with an enormous amount of brothers and sisters. My parents both worked and shipping us off to Granddad took care of what to do with us on summer holidays. Kept us out of trouble. Susan and Cathy were 7 and 6 years older than me respectively. So you can guess how thrilled they were to have me tagging along with them. I was ghosted within hours of arrival and left to amuse myself. I honestly didn't really mind. Teenage girls aren't the most pleasant creatures to spend time with. Being the annoying little sister when they are fleshing out boy prospects and trying to be cool makes for an especially tense relationship. Better to keep my distance.

Goldboro was a place, but it’s also what we called the house. Going to Goldboro meant this house specifically. The tiny white house with the small front porch stood just back from the road, maybe 25 feet. The house had a very pitched roof and the body, trim and porch were all painted white. Nothing stood out. 

 

You entered the house through a screen door with a rudimentary spring closure that banged rather dramatically several hundred times a day with all the comings and goings of three girls. This brought you into a small vestibule which housed two important things. The rocking chairs that went outside when it was time to sit and rock on the porch, and the fishing poles used to catch perch off the government wharf. Straight ahead were stairs up to the attic. Turn left and you were in the living room. There was a small black and white TV with antennas on a small table that had a doily draped over it to protect its surface. An oil-fired stove sat against the panelling in the middle of the room. This didn’t get much use except in the spring when you had to banish the cold that was in every floorboard, every door handle, and every piece of furniture as the house had sat idle and unheated, waiting for our return. Grandads bedroom was off of the living room.

Through a swinging door, you entered the little L-shaped kitchen. Or banged into someone coming in the other direction. Bit of a crap shoot. Because we are good Nova Scotians, the kitchen is where we spent most of our time. The butter-yellow panelling was the backdrop to the Montblanc wood stove that served us for cooking and heating. The stove was yellow and cream enamel with black trim. The cast iron top received a weekly wire brush cleaning from my grandfather. The timing of the cleaning usually correlated with a granddaughter sleeping too long. The cleaning brush and burner lifter with the coiled handle was kept on top of the warming cabinets over the stovetop. Grandad kept the old wood stove going most of the time unless it was a really hot summer day. Due to Goldboro’s coastal location, chilly fog was present for the first and last part of most days. The harvest gold refrigerator had a working vintage radio tuned to a station out of Antigonish. On weekend nights the station would broadcast live fiddle music but mostly it just cackled in the background with sounds of news and weather.  

There was a small porch off the kitchen where a very old washing “warshing” machine was. I'm pretty sure grandad's hands were the spin cycle. I rarely went into the side porch, there was a door leading outside, but I preferred the front door. The grass was always really high around the side door steps and I’m certain my avoidance was insect related. The bathroom and the two smaller bedrooms where we slept were off the kitchen.  

Each door leading into these rooms was ill-fitting. The unheated winters followed by roaring fires in the wood stove were unforgiving. You would grab the white enamel doorknobs and turn them as you closed the door. Every part of the mechanism was loose. If you got it right the door would stay closed, this happened exactly 10% of the time. Especially with the bathroom door, so you were always yelling that you were in the bathroom when you heard footsteps so nobody would bust in on you.  

Being shunned by my sisters meant that I got one of the bedrooms to myself though because I woke up much earlier than they did. This solitary bedroom was a blessing and a curse. Ghosts were generally accepted to be real in my family. I was obsessed with reading the Maritime ghost story books that were always lying around. I liked being away from the bossy twins but the bedrooms were pitch black at night, and usually cold. The wood stove would be left to burn out until morning. The quilts were heavy and handmade and always smelled a little musty. And I was very good at getting my imagination going to the point where I could scare the bejesus out of myself.

My grandfather loved this place, he passed the winter in Dartmouth waiting until it was just barely warm enough to head back to Goldboro. He was a quiet listener. He loved to hear the tales of my day running the roads in this tiny place he knew so well. He had incredibly kind eyes, and you knew that he loved you. But he was not even a bit affectionate. He showed his love by teaching you things and listening. He passed his days in routine. Tea on the wood stove, early, really early. And he wasn't quiet about it. This wasn't a problem when I was younger, but later as a teenager wasn't a fan. His pants and shirt, although ironed, often had paint on them. A large white pocket protector with a pen and a carpenter's pencil ever-present. The everyday shirts were always pastel colours, peach, mint, and sky blue. Red was his favourite colour, that shirt showed up every now and again when he was feely frisky. Black-rimmed glasses, with a 60's vibe sat atop his nose. Sometimes with tape holding them together, often with little flecks of paint. His hair was white and fluffy and his clothes smelled a little of mothballs and sweat. The change in his pants pocket served as absent-minded clatter when he was lost in his thoughts. After breakfast, he would putter around the kitchen for a bit, stoke the fire, do the dishes. He would often sit a spell in the rocking chair and listen to his grandaughter’s plans. The big black wall phone in the kitchen with the ridiculously long cord would spring to life. It was either his friends who he went golfing with, one of them had built a 9-hole course on his property that they would either play once or twice to get in 18 if the weather was fine and the chores were done. Or it was his friend and neighbour who he had built the hobby gold mining machine with. Mr. Malloy, Slim, and Grandad were amateur gold miners. Because of this hobby, and because things were a little less controlled here, there were always little pill bottles of mercury around. Which I would find and play with. In the palm of my hand. It was entertaining for a few minutes. I seem to be fine. Mercury is used to separate the gold from the silt after the rock-crushing business is done. They would put the mercury “merkry” on a sponge and run the sponge along the conveyor belt to pick up the little pieces of gold. I spent many an hour in this makeshift mining facility in Mr. Malloy's shed. 

Goldboro after dinner meant it was time for Grandad to make another pot of tea. Get out the gingersnaps or ice cream and patiently teach me how to play crib. His crib board was a little custom number in the shape of Nova Scotia. The pegs would sometimes go missing and we would improvise with matchsticks. We sat at the kitchen table which was painted a faded apple green. I call it grandad green to this day. A colour which is present in my house in some form or another always. Beside the table was a double window looking out toward the side yard where a big crab apple tree grew. The windows were covered with lace curtains, pill bottles full of mercury lined the sill. At night it was absolutely black outside of that window. I always stayed in at night, the absence of light, the sheer darkness, was scary for me. If we went out onto the porch together to sit and look at the stars and fireflies that was ok.   

On rainy days when I wasn't following grandad around, or walking up the road to visit my great aunts, I would scour the house for treasures. Some of my favourites were a silver-plated mirror and brush set. All of the old dressers were filled with photos and papers and linens. On this particular day, while going through the kitchen cupboards, I happened upon a cake mix for lemon loaf. The old wood stove was still going. I decided to make a cake for everyone. Time to upgrade from cooking with a lightbulb.  

I dug out the Pyrex bowls and hand beater. I followed the directions carefully and poured the mixture into a loaf pan. Before putting the cake in the oven, I thought that I should add some more wood to the fire. The hotter the better right? I went to the porch and retrieved a couple of logs after hitting them with a stick to make sure they were spider-free. I got a chair so that I could get the handle that fit into the slot to remove the burners from on top of the stove. Using both hands, I slid the handle into the grove and removed the heavy cast iron burner. I jammed the wood into the hole and pushed it down with the handle like I had seen grandad do 100 times. I then replaced the burner and put the handle back onto the top of the stove. I opened the little oven door and put my loaf pan inside. 

The oven didn't have a window, so after about 15 minutes, I opened the door to check on the cake. It was on fire. Initially, I panicked. Then I decided the best thing to do was to remove it from the oven and get it over to the sink where I could run it under water. I did this successfully, turned the water on and put the fire out. While I had been occupied with the cake, the sun had burned through the fog. I left the still-smoldering lemon loaf in the sink and went out to play. I was gone for a couple of hours, poking around the wharf, collecting starfish (I killed so many starfish, I feel bad about it) and smashing periwinkles for future fish bait. I arrived back in the kitchen to find my grandfather tucking into a piece of lemon loaf. On his plate was a slice that was black on top and soggy, raw in the middle, and seemingly cooked properly on the bottom.  

I said “grandad! You shouldn't be eating that, I messed it up!”

His reply “nothing a matter with this dear” and he finished the whole piece.

When my grandfather died, we found that the whole bottom drawer of his dresser contained once-used tea bags. He had grown up during the depression and always held on to the feeling of not having enough. He simply didn't waste food. Even a mangled lemon loaf baked by a 10-year-old novice. 

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