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January 2020
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The Smell of Bacon

My Mother on Her 32nd Birthday

The smell of bacon always reminds me of two things: the old cast iron skillet my mother used for frying, and the radiator in front of the stove where I used to sit on cold Nova Scotia winter mornings. The radiator was in close proximity to the buttermilk biscuits she used to make, and as each one came sizzling hot out of the oven I would pop it in my mouth, often nibbling off the crunchy bits to get to the doughy center.

I always wore flannel Lanz of Salzburg nightgowns, and liked the feel of the hot, dry, suffocating radiator heat wafting up through the grills onto my naked legs.

I liked watching my mother cook, especially when she cooked my favorites. My favorites were lamb chops, French Canadian pea soup, lemon cake pudding, and biscuits. My mother was a private person—introverted and holy in her own quiet way. I never heard her say anything worse than “Hell’s Bells” or “I’m really cross,” and these mild oaths were uttered only if my brother or sister or I crossed the ample, generous line that defined the mere outskirts of her temper. Because I could never know her in thought, I enjoyed these peaceful moments of non verbal communion, these mornings with the delicious smells of biscuits wafting out of the oven, the wonderful feel of my small self perched on the hot radiator, of my Lanz of Salzburg nightgown billowing like an unruly helium balloon.

These serene moments with my mother come through the filter of many years, with a stillness bereft of sound, like a frigid winter day when the temperature plummets to 45 below. On those days the air is so still it’s almost eerie. Its crispness can be felt, rather than heard, in the sense that it is so pure that it literally hurts to inhale. So were these fragmented moments–crisp, clear, pristine and gloriously silent, before I lost her and the precious sound of her silence for many years.

With my father, sound had a different quality. It was loud, reverberating, and filled with an angry red rage. I saw his anger as red, but I saw other colors too. The mustard hue of the covered trashcan he’d kick across the floor with his foot; the slamming refrain of brown kitchen cupboards. I could turn down the volume of his voice if I withdrew beyond the ferocious shattering quality of its sound, but I could never tune out its vibration. It was the bass of a persistent HiFi stereo whose speakers might have blown out from the sheer shock of Hard Rock’s punishing keen. But there was no escape from the droning bass, buzzing on and on through light years of time and space. It’s a sound I can’t turn off or tune out, even now.

My father’s presence in a room had the effect of shattering my own personal silence. I had grown up used to having my own private reveries interrupted, and coped with the intrusions by making good my escape–usually upstairs in my bedroom, where I’d sequester myself behind the pages of books. My father would rarely venture there. The preferred audience for his verbal penetration and deafening drone was my mother. He could talk at her for hours, fortified and strengthened, it seemed, by her almost martyr-like surrender to his decisive attacks on the university colleagues he so reviled and resented. My mother would listen, her mouth pinched into a furrowed line. She would listen and exhale. Only exhale, before retreating back into a world beyond sound and silence.