Most of us are entering our third week of self-isolation, limiting our contact with the outside world. I am staying safe and closely following the terrible spread of the coronavirus. Never could I have imagined the drama we are currently living through, and yet, it is unfolding right before our eyes… in our empty streets, in our schools that have fallen silent, in our shuttered businesses and even in our own homes that have been transformed into safe bunkers to keep an elusive enemy at bay.
What can we do to stay positive? To keep busy and to hold on to the belief that “it’s going to be okay”? Colouring rainbows, creating new cookies for the kids, perfecting a more flavourful pork chop sauce, reading about making jam or brushing up on our bread-making skills. Well, perhaps I might share with you what a busy white-haired lady like myself does when she no longer has anything important to do?
This afternoon, for example, after returning from my walk in nature, where life is springing back, I gently cooked a new papaya jam. Papayas that I had carefully washed with a kitchen brush, peeled and deseeded, before finely dicing them. The papayas’ sweet flesh spent the night in the fridge covered in three-quarters of its weight in sugar.
I was excited to try a new recipe and especially curious to see how it would turn out. Getting comfortable on a stool I had placed in front of the stove, I watched the mixture as it simmered. Despite being on low, I had to skim big milky bubbles from the surface a few times. Gently stirring with a wooden spoon, I waited until the small, hot bits of papaya became clear, bulging at the centre and thickening in perfect harmony with the syrup that was neither too runny or sticky.
I trust my fingers more than my eyes to tell me when it’s time to turn off the heat. Simply by touching a few drops of syrup flicked onto a saucer, I can tell that the jam is going to be delicious.
I finally did it! I finally went to Place des Arts in Montreal. Seeing an opera for the first time had been on my bucket list for ever, and I’m eager to tell you about this surreal and sublime evening this morning as I sit here and write.
I got there early, around 5:30 p.m. It was nice outside, so I went for a walk in the area for nearly an hour before entering Puccini’s kingdom, where an expert host was talking about the opera that was about to take place before our eyes.
I was already smitten. I knew the storyline. I thought I’d forgotten the music for Cio-Cio-San, the young geisha, but I recognized the famous musical melodies from Madama Butterfly when the host played a few strains for us.
As a young woman, before suffering the psychological blows of a horrible husband, I adored the human voice. Pavarotti was my hero, and he was often accompanied by Plácido Domingo and José Carreras. The power of their voices transported me. I was, at the time, a young thinker with bold dreams of rewriting the world’s history. And yet it’s that very sea of possibilities that carried me into narrow streams, forcing me to swim against the current towards my true self. I was 15, the same age as Puccini’s young geisha, and even back then I loved the human voice. I knew that this voice was a hidden treasure, a volcanic eruption able to soften the most terrible sorrows. And I would eventually use that voice to come back to life.
Thirteen long years wasted in a bad marriage had deprived me of books, music and divine voices. But I wrote a new story for myself. Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti. I escaped and found my life again. In 1980, I was free as a bird. I was 33 and Andrea Bocelli was 22. He sang like a god and I wanted to marry him. I felt this urgency to make up for lost time, but like Mom used to say: “It’s no use crying over spilled milk.” Most importantly, I had to go back to work to feed my children. And I did, for more than 30 years, with the an authoritative baritone voice.
So there I was, seated in the first row, right in front of the orchestra. The curtain, a huge Japanese screen, opened. We are in Nagasaki and then Goro. The town’s matchmaker is giving the American Lieutenant a tour of his new house. He introduces him to Suzuki, his future wife’s new maid. The American Consul is present and warns Pinkerton against his union to Cio-Cio-San, a young 15-year-old geisha, who is beaming with happiness at the thought of the forthcoming nuptials.
After the wedding ceremony, the bride’s uncle disowns her because Cio-Cio-San, lovingly nicknamed Madama Butterfly by her handsome American Lieutenant, has converted to her husband’s religion. The newlyweds then withdraw and sing a long love duet. Shortly after, Pinkerton returns to the United States. Three years go by and Butterfly is still without any word from him. In her heart, she is convinced he will come back to her. She even goes as far as to reject the advances of a wealthy prince whom she meets.
As Cio-Cio-San patiently awaits her Lieutenant’s return, the American Consul learns that Pinkerton has remarried and he must announce the news to Butterfly. She doesn’t believe him, however, and continues to wait in vain. She announces that if it were true, she would end her life.
She continues to wait for the return of her long lost love while filling her home with flowers and hope. One day, she learns that Pinkerton is returning… with his new American wife. When he arrives, Madama Butterfly lives the last moments of her life. She places her young son in the care of the new American wife and performs hara-kiri in front of the American Lieutenant.
I cried my soul out during the opera, and all my heavy memories dissolved in Madama Butterfly’s tears. I’m extremely grateful to the extraordinary Lebanese-Canadian soprano, Joyce El-Khoury, who interpreted Madama Butterfly, for her uplifting experience.
I have been wanting to write this letter to myself for a long time and I’ve been procrastinating. I systematically put it off until a tomorrow that never comes. What could I say or learn about myself that I don’t already know?
“So many things,” would reply the friend who suggested this exercise a while ago. Am I too afraid to dive into the depths of my mind? Or, worse, to venture into my half-empty heart? Who am I? What am I really? “Powerful,” would say that same friend, a yoga teacher. “Powerful and diligent.”
It’s true that I was once at the pinnacle of my field. I created something new; a restaurant concept that was unheard of at the time. I learned how to earn my keep. I surrounded myself with competent and important people. I was never afraid of asserting my ways in a world dominated by men, and I never hesitated to give my opinion when I knew what I was talking about.
Why would I write a letter to myself? Glory and compliments don’t come easily to me. Am I putting it off because I may be worried to find myself on a stormy ocean? I prefer writing to others; to those who are kind enough to read my letters. I write to them to expel the deluge of words raining down in my head.
“The list of self-criticism that cuts us down is long, dear Cora. Try to write this letter as if it were addressed to somebody else,” my friend suggests. “Imagine that you are sending a letter to a close friend who needs advice and wants to be comforted. Call her Corina. Try to convince Corina to soften the way she sees herself.”
— “Fine. I will write the letter,” I say.
I have known you all my life and you are my best friend. You are brilliant and talented. I remember your youth very well. You were audacious and creative, always the first one to find solutions to the preoccupations of a young woman.
I spent enough time with your family to know that the love between your parents was scarce. You suffered cruelly from a lack of love yourself. Your heart likely hardened as a result. Your calamitous wedding gave you three amazing children, and they allowed your heart to know the feeling of unconditional love. As a single mother, you had to work very hard to succeed, but you earned a living that surpassed your needs. Don’t ever forget that.
Your 13 years of imprisoned marriage to a mean man bruised your heart and you concluded that your heart must be defective. No one would ever be able to find their way inside.
Dearest Corina, I have known you forever and I understand. You did suffer from a lack of love, but rest assured that your heart works fine. And it returned to life during the pandemic. The universe has not forgotten you. It has offered you a tremendous gift by offering you the chance to realize your young girl’s dream to write. Today, writing allows you to connect with thousands of readers who no doubt love you.
You have everything you need, dear Corina, to be a wonderful person. Count your blessings. You are kind, generous, inventive and caring towards others, with a gift for words.
You are the person I love the most in this world, dear Corina. We are the best of friends, allies and sisters of all women on this planet. Brunettes, blondes, old, young, fair-skinned or dark; regardless of the names on our birth certificates, our hearts are all alike. They suffer, they throb, they cry and they explode with happiness when they recognize themselves in the mirror. That’s me! My heart goes boom, boom as I stare at my own reflection in the window at the coffee shop. It is I, Cora, who just recognized myself for who I am. My friend the yoga teacher was right.
You should try it! Write a letter to yourself, dear readers. Address it to yourself or an imaginary friend. Pour your heart out and cry a little between the lines, allow the excess grief to overflow into the margins; unfurl the bruising parchment and cut open the wound, if you must. This is all about healing our hearts.
P.S. I love each and every one of you, dear readers! If any of you wish to write your own letter and have it read by a caring heart, I invite you to mail them to me and I will read every one of them, I promise. Use a pseudonym like I did if you prefer. Send your letter, addressed as follows, to the company’s head office:
Letter for Madame Cora
16 rue Sicard, Local 50
Surely you remember Isabel P., the young lady who interviewed me a few weeks ago as part of a project to feature a well-known figure from the restaurant industry. Well, she appreciated the sincerity of my answers and was curious to dig a little deeper into my life. I agreed, dear readers, out of affection for you. I’m curious to see what these new questions are, so let’s go.
— “Which three words best define you?”
— “Vitality, creativity and courage. It sounds like I am tooting my own horn, but these qualities literally saved my life.”
— “What do you do to relax?”
— “I listen to classical music, mostly baroque, I string beads to create bracelets, I draw faces, I knit, I write haikus and I practice making a variety of jams. I am rarely immobile, except at night, when I’m glued to the couch watching addictive TV series.
— “Name a flaw you have finally mastered.”
— “With time, and especially once I let go of my work-related responsibilities, I am not as headstrong as I used to be. I do miss having power though. I am just an advisor at the company, which is now in the hands of the children. Often I simply sit there, chomping at the bit.”
— “What was the most beautiful day of your life?”
— “It will happen when a grandiose bird will deliver my remains at heaven’s door. My eyes will open, my heart will start beating again and a new life will open its door to me.”
— “Will you write your biography?”
— “No, not as such. I am dispensing a little of my life each Sunday, as memories resurface or by acting on an unexpected inspiration. Writing every day makes my heart lighter and keeps me in love with life.”
— “Do you have a spiritual guide?”
— “I like to believe that all of Heaven’s saints keep a close eye on me and protect and guide me when necessary. I do believe in the infinite kindness of a force greater than us.”
— “You have written close to 200 Sunday letters. Aren’t you tired of it yet? Do you look forward to moving onto something else?”
— “I love writing these letters! I consider them to be my “morning pages,” something writer Julia Cameron popularized in her book THE ARTIST’S WAY, published in 1992.”
Julia Cameron recommends writing three pages each morning in order to release your inner artist. These pages help to build strong writing habits. They amplify your creativity and writing skills. They help you focus each morning and teach you how to draw from your subconscious. These morning pages strengthen your self-confidence and allow you to free each day the emotions you often keep pushed down.
I wrote these “morning pages” for a long time and, by some miracle, they became the Sunday letters. I am very happy about that, and I have no intention of stopping.
— “Not many women of your generation took the reins of their destiny like you did. How did you do it?”
— “It’s a long story, but the short version is, I had the courage to leave the family home with my three young kids in tow. I was shattered, but with the love of my kids, I rebuilt myself. It would take a few Sunday letters to explain all of it in detail, but it will come, I am certain of it.”
Hope is the biggest gift we can receive on this Mother’s Day Sunday.
Go out, turn your face towards the sky, a bird will bring you hope and an angel will place it in your heart. With bright eyes, you’ll speak words filled with optimism.
HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY TO ALL OF YOU!
Early this morning, Morpheus was tugging on my bedspread to wake me out of my slumber. He had a brilliant idea to share with me: a fable about a clever frog who wanted to become as big as a bull. Morpheus wanted to know if I was capable of telling such a tale.
“I can certainly try,” I replied to the god of sleep. “Light a few street lights because it’s still dark outside and I’m looking for my slippers,” I tell him. I get up, dress and sit at the kitchen table as I try to turn on my iPad. Oddly enough, the keypad refuses to budge. Is it still in Morpheus’ arms? I touch the screen, I hit the keys. I am getting desperate, so I pour myself a second cup of coffee. Every time I have a problem with my iPad, my heart stops beating. I become paralyzed. I know nothing about how these writing machines work.
I might have a mind brimming with ideas, but I’m a happy dimwit who always ends up finding someone to help. Right now, however, desperation is taking hold of me. I am worried I will lose my idea, worried my tablet might be broken, afraid my precious writing will disappear.
I press here, I press there. I hit all the function keys. It’s all for nothing. I want to cry. Outside, dawn is barely breaking and I decide to make my way to the coffee shop. I tuck my iPad and notepad in my big purse, grab my car keys and try to behave as if everything will be fine. The weather has turned nice and the snowbanks are finally melting.
When I walk into the coffee shop, I force a smile. I sit at my usual table right next to a young man I have never seen before. He has a handsome face and is wearing a blue turtleneck and dark grey canvas jacket. The stranger appears to be straight out of a Charles Dickens novel. You should have seen him! I dare to glance at him quickly from the corner of my eye. And then I take a better look. He appears to be a typical young man who knows his way around computers. But how do I strike up a conversation? I am nothing more than a complete stranger to him. Worse, I’m a distraught old woman with a broken iPad in her hands.
The café is almost empty. I guess the mild weather means the regulars have better things to do. I’m almost alone with this modern Oliver Twist. I muster all my courage and start a conversation.
— “Are you new here? Do you like this place?”
— “I just moved very close to here, in an industrial condo.”
— “Oh, really! And what will you do in this industrial condo? Will you live there?”
— “Two friends and I have just started a business, an IT services company.”
— “Oh, that’s great! Coincidentally, I have my iPad here that refuses to work this morning.”
— “Are you working, ma’am?”
— “Actually, I amuse myself by writing stories.”
The young man extends his hand towards my table and takes my tablet. He turns it on, his fingers hovering over the keys. He taps a few times here and there, and just a few short moments later, he hands it back to me with a big smile.
— “The device isn’t broken, ma’am.”
I am beside myself. I turn it on and notice that the clever frog who wants to become as big as a bull is still there at the top of my page.
— “Thank you so much, young man!”
The gentleman gives me a fancy business card with his address, email and cell phone number on it.
I love small frogs and I don’t aim to become as popular as my Canadian heroes Heather O’Neill, Margaret Atwood and Leonard Cohen. I just want to be myself and improve my scribbling a little more each day.
A vision of a horizon that has been newly sown comes to me often. Will I have enough time for grace to embrace me, for a work of art to emerge from the ground?
I would like to jump into the void with you, hand in hand. I am deeply moved by your letter and I will answer you by addressing my reply not only to you, but to all women who have an enormous amount of experience and many desires. We all have our moments of overwhelming worries and oppressive uncertainty and solitude. Ten times a day I doubt myself. We grow older, and life takes twisted pleasure in throwing thorns along our path. Like a fashionable sock, hope shrinks in the wash. Our appetites get smaller with each passing day and sometimes we just don’t know which way to turn. Even our old prayers seem to grow dull and weak.
People used to tell me that wisdom comes with age, but when will that be? Do tell! Women who are advanced in years yet lucid, competent and insightful are all in the same boat. We work hard to be happy, and at the same time, our imagination dreams of seeing or revisiting Paris, Florence, the glass blowers in Murano and the Northern capitals.
I totally understand you, dear Héléna, and I’m glad you trusted me enough to share your tale with me. Ask yourself the hard question again that each one of us should ask ourselves: “If I had 12 months to live, what would I do with my time?” Didn’t your doctor give your spirits a jolt in 2006 with a similar question? You went on an adventure. You had your hopes and dreams set on so many things, but you didn’t take action and then an ultimatum sent you to a different continent. You were happy and content there.
It has already been 10 years since you came back from Europe and, from what you wrote in your letter, you are starting to fidget again. Your daughter is in good hands, soon to be married and yet, I hear you grumbling between the lines. Gloom has settled in, dear friend, and you don’t seem to know how to tackle it.
We all fall idle at one point or another. It happens to the best of us. I have often lived through times of despair/hope that remind me of traffic lights, staying on the same colour for just a little too long. Green/red, start/stop, and I would even add action/inaction or inaction/action. We must all be patient. This too shall pass.
I hope that, before I take off for my final destination, I will learn the rhythm of “stop and go.” Until then, I fight indolence by changing scenery, taking day trips here and there or short getaways on occasion and by planning a few new projects, just for the fun of it.
Dear Héléna, you may need to make a bit of effort, but you certainly don’t have to cross the ocean to regain your vitality. America is so big and beautiful! It’s just a question of leaving your shell and allowing yourself to indulge in life, have a good time, learn new things and meet new and interesting people. I insist! If you want to eat good tomatoes, you’re going to have to do what is needed to get your hands on delicious tomatoes. Step out of your comfort zone, pamper new tomato plants, water them plenty and wait for your harvest to be fit for a queen before you sit down to eat.
That’s the way it is for everything. I spent two days reading and rereading your letter before I sat down to write a reply. Friendship grows when there is will and transparency.
Héléna, spring is spreading its wings and so must you. Try new things like going to a café to write, take in a movie more often or start scouring flea markets. Sit on your porch and plan your summer. You want to focus on finding pleasure in your daily life.
Don’t fear, we all have the capacity to create a happy new life for ourselves. I was reading a magazine article the other night and the writer was saying that “nobody deserves second best.” She continued with 10 tips to develop our personal potential.
I will list them here for all our benefit:
1– Get to know yourself.
2– Discover your interests.
3– Set clear goals.
4– Make time in your agenda.
5– Be disciplined.
6– Be resilient in the face of adversity.
7– Set your limits.
8– Celebrate your victories.
10– Find inspiration.
Come on, my dear! Revisit your strengths and weaknesses and don’t stop at making lists. Choose clear, realistic and attainable goals. If you must, thumb your nose at the banality of everyday life and adjust your aim higher. Be tenacious. Don’t we have to knit tightly in order to stay warm in winter?
Celebrate each small victory! Send yourself a congratulations card, pop the champagne bottle, treat yourself to something nice or an item on your wish list. Reward yourself for your efforts.
Imagine, dear Héléna, a very long ladder, extended all the way to the moon; a ladder on which you can only climb up. Life is a long and generous ladder that gives us plenty of time to get to the moon and back, to win the jackpot, to finally get all that your heart desires, including love, if that’s what’s in the stars for you.
7:32 a.m. at the coffee shop
As you know, I almost always write my Sunday letters at the coffee shop in my village. After sitting there every morning for nearly a year, I have become a regular, like my friend Claudette, who walks in every morning with her pens and multiple spiral notebooks. She’s about my age I guess, and wears her hair in a thick, long white ponytail. We both arrive very early and get first pick of the best tables in the shop, which happen to be next to each other.
We both feel a sense of urgency to commit to paper everything that is percolating in our minds. Claudette likes to do her writing by hand while I hammer on my iPad. Just like copying nuns from years ago, we work in silence most of the time. We drink a few coffees each morning; we sit at adjacent tables, without ever engaging in a proper conversation.
And so after a while, I become curious to know what this strange, silent woman is writing about. Aside from her blissful smile and majestic sense of calmness, who is she really? All the mysterious notepads she is endlessly tweaking can only be a novel. Glimpsing at her papers from a distance, I rather get the impression that it’s a business plan – the draft of a grandiose project she is constantly fine-tuning.
Claudette always leaves her table at the same time and her departure makes me even more curious. Isn’t she retired? Where does she go? The days pass and Easter has taken over the coffee shop, which is suddenly crumbling under huge chocolate eggs, rabbits, ducks, multicoloured chicks and chocolate figurines of all kinds.
As we make our way together towards the chocolate display, Claudette and I start giggling like school girls on vacation. We go back to our tables and strike up a conversation. The thin spring ice has broken, and finally, we are having a proper conversation.
— “You know, Madame Cora, I make excellent chocolate myself. I sometimes stuff it with ganache and it’s even more delicious.”
— “Oh, really. Are you a cook?”
— “No, I’m a professional musician.”
— “And you know my name?”
— “Everyone knows who you are. You’re ‘the lady who writes.’ I’m Claudette.”
— “Delighted to meet you, dear Claudette. I must tell you, I am very intrigued by what your writing, it seems to be very important.”
— “You are quite correct. I’m working on a project that is very dear to me. I’m getting on in years and I absolutely want to make it come true.”
— “May I ask you what it’s about?”
— “I finally sold my last house, and now I want to buy an even bigger one that I will transform into a type of commune where I and five or six elderly people can live together.”
— “Oh, I see. And you’re writing your business plan. Is that what I see you working on every morning?”
— “Exactly. I’m an artist and a musician, but I have both feet firmly planted on the ground. When I was planning the sale of my house, I was preparing to move into a big building where I was going to be very happy.”
— “I have been there for six long months and I miss the feeling of a real home. So I decided to use all my savings to create a better situation for myself and a few other people who would agree to live together.”
— “Wow! You have so much passion and drive! I have watched you write, cross out and start again for several months now. This project clearly means a lot to you, but is it feasible? Who would be in charge?”
— “Each one of us would contribute an equal amount of money required to buy a house big enough to lodge five or six people, 65 and older. We would each have our own room and would pitch in to do everyday chores and cover common costs. If needed, we could put together a committee and agree on a decision-making procedure.”
— “You impress me, dear Claudette. Do I have your permission to ask my readers what they think about this idea of yours? Just to get their impression on whether or not this project could work in their opinion.”
Dear Jocelyne B. from Shawinigan, I’ve just read your comment from March 12 in which you tell me that I’ve inspired you to “write a book to your grandchildren” and that you can’t wait to start writing in a coffee shop near your home like I do.
You write that you already have a title in mind: “Grandma’s tales.” You also mention you would like me to sit next to you to guide you. What an honour you are doing me, dear Jocelyne! I will be near, and I will help you understand that the master of this universe is infinitely good and they don’t send us projects we can’t accomplish. If you’ve been seized by this desire to write, it’s because you are more than capable of making it come true.
Search in your talent drawer and put your creativity, originality, the love you have for your grandkids and your audacity to work. It takes courage to follow our calling and become the person we are meant to be. It takes tons and tons of courage to allow our ideas to reach across a sheet of paper, to dare to believe that we are worthy of the beautiful phrases we are about to make visible.
You should know, dear Jocelyne, when I write each morning, I hesitate, I get shaky and I doubt that my sentences are even worth reading. And then Sunday night comes and I see hundreds of positive comments and I breathe more easily. I decide to keep at it and to dig deeper into my mind where the best words hide.
Don’t worry, the vast sky is filled with inspiration and wonderful stories to tell. This heavenly sky is also the biggest souvenir warehouse in the world. Each and every one of us possesses their own locker that matches the size of our memories. You will never run out of ideas, my friend. Sharpen your pencils and get used to leaving the house. Do it! Strengthen your muscle that resists the temptation to clean and do the laundry and the thousand and one chores that will try to distract you from your goal.
I have to tell you, Jocelyne, I love your title! “GRANDMA’S TALES” is very appropriate, lively and piques my curiosity. You will no doubt put a lovely photo of yourself on the cover and your grandkids will be very proud of their grandma.
I’m as curious as Australia’s central bearded dragon, so I couldn’t resist visiting your Facebook page. What a beautiful face you have, dear Jocelyne from Shawinigan. What a gorgeous head of silver hair and a great smile! Even your attractive glasses are the perfect accessory for the writer you may one day become.
I’m with you, dear friend, and with all the women who dare to express the best of themselves. Telling stories from our past helps to pave the way forward. All our memories help us learn to live better; we should almost frame and hang them in our living rooms. Dust off the faces of those we have loved and lost, and of all those babies that have grown into adults while our hair turned white.
Dear Jocelyne, you will have so many things to say, so many faces to remember, so many pages of the calendar to turn. You’ll remember all the birthdays and festive cakes, whose flavour you have perhaps forgotten.
I started this type of adventure myself and I always get the impression that I’m only at the beginning. Writing allows me to age while continuously reconnecting with my youth. Get a taste of this medicine, dear friend. You will eventually wrap your own life in thin lined paper like me.
Dear Isabel P., what a nice surprise! Your interest in me is refreshing and I am happy to answer your questions. I gather from your letter I received yesterday at the Cora Breakfast and Lunch head office that you work in communication. Your latest project is to interview a well-known figure from the restaurant industry.
I have to tell you, dear Isabel, that I am truly honoured you chose to interview me. In today’s world, full of young and older chefs, you easily could have asked a bright rising star. You chose an old hard orange instead; a colourful blood orange at that, but one that is getting harder by the day... Go on, dear Isabel, and get your list of questions! I am rarely at a loss for answers.
— “Madame Cora, I should first tell you that I’ve decided to take a personal approach. I read your Sunday letters and I’m positive I know what your readers, who toured Gaspésie with you last summer, are really curious about. They’ve heard all about your professional path, your awards and the number of restaurants you opened, but they actually want to learn about your relationship with food, your preferences, your habits and what you cannot get enough of.”
— “I love this type of interview, dear Isabel. Start your inquiries and pluck this rare bird bare!”
— “Alright then! What is your favourite recipe to cook?”
— “Spinach puff pastries (spanakopita) because it’s what my children and grandchildren prefer to eat and because I’m very good at making them. ”
— “Who is your favourite chef, other than Cora cooks?”
— “I have two: Matthew, our bright young corporate chef at the company, and Éric, an old prune who’s my age. He’s a dear friend, a chef by trade and a graduate from the great culinary schools in Switzerland. Éric excels at sauces, and his caramel, I must admit, is better than mine. I’m not kidding! ”
— “What’s your go-to food when you feel like a real treat?”
— “For the longest time, when I had to work fast, it was pizza and lasagna. Comforting, delicious and filling. A single big meal every day saved me time. The way I eat today is a lot healthier. I accompany each meal with raw veggies (radishes, Nantaise carrots, celery sticks, pickled daikon and Lebanese cucumbers) instead of bread. I prefer fish and seafood to meat, but well-done lamb chops make me drool.”
— “Are you the sweet or salty type?”
— “I’m definitely salty, even if as a young woman I couldn’t resist sugar pie. I no longer eat dessert or sweets; maybe a bite or two when I have to taste dishes at work and a good dollop of jam on toast when I make some.”
— “If you could only eat one type of dish for the rest of your life, what would it be?”
— “Spinach puff pastries (spanakopita), in moderation, accompanied by raw veggies. And if there was no spinach left on the planet and the price of lobster was still reasonable, I would eat a big one cold with mayonnaise or warm with garlic butter morning, noon and night.”
— “Which country do you appreciate the most for its culture or cuisine?”
— “Greek cuisine, obviously, because I know it very well and master it like a chef. It’s the one good thing my husband gave me, along with my three children.
— “Do you have any weird cravings? Something that might raise eyebrows?”
— “Not really. I eat a lot of fish, smoked herring, dried capelins, plenty of smoked salmon and cod, fried calamari once in a while and big Argentinian shrimp on festive occasions.
— “Are you a finicky eater, someone with a taste for fine dining?”
— “Not at all! My specialty is breakfast food and I would walk on my knees all the way to Boston just to taste a new amazing breakfast.”
— “Do you believe a man could seduce you by appealing to your stomach?”
— “What a question! I have been marinating for so long in the waters of celibacy that I despair. When men look at me they see a success story; but it has been checkmate for this queen’s heart for nearly 60 years.
— “When you opened your first small breakfast restaurant, in 1987, breakfast wasn’t known as a trendy or popular meal. What made you decide on making it your specialty?”
— “Believe it or not, an angel from above put the idea in my head. The heavens had mercy on me when they sent a buyer for my house. Selling my property allowed me to open a small restaurant and make a living. Inspired from above, I focused on morning dishes and my creativity did the rest.”
— “Do you have a particular weakness? Something you are unable to resist?”
— “Unfortunately, no. But if one of these blessed mornings all the great poets magically came back to life in my backyard, I would absolutely have to prepare a huge table of all my best breakfast specialties.
— “Thank you very much, Madame Cora.”
— “Thank you, dear Isabel.”
7:34 at the coffee shop
Last night, I dreamt of a tattoo. How strange it was! It wasn’t Picasso’s dove or Napoleon’s emblematic bee. Nor was it Mount Fuji, which I contemplated from near in 2015, the beautiful yellow Cora sun or anything so special to me that I’d want to have it inked onto my skin.
I rebel against this type of thing. And yet the woman who woke up in my bed this morning was staring at her arm. She was running her fingers over a blue tattoo made up of 8 numbers and 4 letters approximately half an inch tall.
This woman in my dream wasn’t me; she was the FEAR WITHIN ME; the fear of becoming weaker; the fear of losing my faculties and the terrible fear of dying. I must admit, I have an almost excessive attachment to this life on Earth and I quickly become agitated when I imagine my last hour.
The fear was active and verbose the entire night. It had the horrible idea of getting a tattoo. It knew to put it on my dominant side and even knew which colour to choose — the same blue that can be seen from the Baie-des-Chaleurs, where I was born.
This bold bodily artwork is increasingly common. No doubt these treasures, often hidden under clothing, pay tribute to the animus who feed them. The illustrations sometimes look alike, but the grain of each individual canvas is unique and renders them impossible to duplicate.
It’s the FEAR in me that orchestrated everything. It had this lifespan tattooed in permanent ink on my left arm while I slept. It inscribed my birth year, the name of my father’s mother’s — which is also my name — and the year of my final departure: 1947-CORA-2047.
This dreamlike tattoo doesn’t represent an artistic trend or a creation worth exhibiting. I know the FEAR that lives in me; it has all my qualities: audacious, enterprising, clever and tireless. The tattoo is a subtle exhortation to the Master of the Universe. A pact written in my flesh. Two dates that guarantee me 100 years of existence.
My FEAR has so much to say, and it always needs to be right. It doesn’t want to die either. That’s why it persists, coming to me in my dreams, taking possession of me as I sleep and filling my head with recipes for longevity.
It is even whispering instructions as I write this letter, dear readers. It is telling me to keep my tattoo to myself because it is similar to the markings seared onto slaves’ bodies long ago. The epitaph on my arm instead serves as a powerful talisman: to keep my body alive. This FEAR knows how tightly I grip this life here below. Since it would do anything to urge me to keep on living, I forgive its nocturnal misdemeanours. I know that this tattoo is a message of hope, a supernatural deal with the ever after.
My long life crumbles, thins and exhales a bit more each day. The rest of my life lives in a roofless house from which thousands of sentences ride away; flying with the wind. I like disappearing gradually, finely sliced until there is nothing left. Week after week, my letters rest on the previous one like the steps of a long staircase leading to paradise. Word by word, I climb towards the end at a snail’s pace.
I don’t use this old head of mine very much now, and my crooked fingers still type mistakes on the keyboard. One morning, while the world is starting to stir, or perhaps as I sleep, a kind elf will come and rest his hand on my forehead and close my eyelids. At that very moment, on the fifth planet of Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, the lamp-lighter will light a lamp and a new star will be born.
Carmen, the person who usually sits at the table next to me at the coffee shop, asks what I am writing about.
— “I’m writing about death, dear Carmen. About my fear of dying to be specific.”
— “Don’t worry, Cora dear, “when we die, we either fall asleep or we wake up.”
— “Who said that?”
Carmen doesn’t remember.
7:30 a.m. at the coffee shop
How can I fill this strange and silent morning with words? How can I deconstruct the unusual silence that clutches each table? I sit alone in the sadly deserted coffee shop, waiting for humanity to awaken.
Outside the wind blows over the snow and turns it into rivulets of slush. The weakening winter insists on staying awhile. It doesn’t want to make room for spring just yet. Around 9:30, a few sleepwalkers looking for fellow humans enter the café. Their eyes are half closed, their faces downcast and their stomachs empty. They make their way to the pastry counter, trampling the imaginary clouds under their sleepy feet.
My fingers wave a few polite “hellos,” but the sleepwalkers don’t notice. When the espresso machine finally ejects its steam, a few of them open their eyes. The thick white foam of their lattes trembles In their clasped hands. The comforting liquid goes down their throats and snaps most of them awake.
The coffee shop is getting busier. The staff is all smiles now and 10, 12 hands are moving to and fro behind the counter. At that moment, a strange Earthling in sealskin boots enters and sits at the table next to me. He looks around at the crowd of regulars and asks me how he can order a meal.
I hurriedly explain to him in detail how he needs to go to the long sandwich counter, make his selection and then place his order. I readily recommend the generous smoked salmon sandwich on black bread, topped with thinly sliced red onions and a mix of dressed mesclun.
Oh, my! The incredibly handsome face of this man from the Great North spins me right around; his almond-shaped eyes are dark and pierce right through me. I look at him while he stands in line in front of the coffee machine; he appears even taller than a superhero.
My heart beats faster. My fingers are frozen on the keyboard. They hover over the space bar for so long that they even slice a nicely worded sentence in three. I close the iPad.
Where does this ecstatic female suddenly come from? What are these burning cheeks? Where has this racing heart been all her life; these eyes waltzing across the room, these arms stretching as far as the 55th parallel?
A pleasant waitress brings the newcomer his meal at the table where he’s seated. He takes off his parka and places his leather mittens under his chair.
The man looks straight at me and says “Inuktitut, my language. Am Inuit from Nunavik. My grandparents were living in an igloo.” And so on, so forth, this heavenly Thor of the Great North
chews and cobbles his English explaining to me that he came to my village to visit his wife’s parents.
— “Because new baby arrived last month.”
— “I understand. Congratulations on the baby!”
— “Thank you, Ma’am. I now have six children.”
My heart, lonely in its desolate Sahara, is getting desperate. For a brief, fragile moment, I had met great beauty, a magnificent face, the man of my dreams.
I love beauty, such as Michelangelo’s David, Milo’s armless Venus, Rodin’s Thinker and all the great masterpieces made by human genius. So naturally, I like well-made things and handsome men who are pleasing to the eye.
I must say in all honesty this man from the North Pole was particularly splendid. He embodied all the beauty and simplicity of the wind, snow, ice and sun.
— “Cawww, what a crush!” my friend the crow would say.
— “A total crush!” I would quickly reply.
10:35 a.m. at the head office on Wednesday morning
Argh! This morning, I am irritated. I have been waiting for three days for the confirmation of a meeting and nothing is happening. I have checked my text messages and emails every 10 minutes since yesterday. I’m waiting to be contacted by the person I am supposed to meet this week. But I wait in vain.
This is a decisive meeting for me; one that will nourish my intellect and mental well-being. This long wait annoys me and distracts me from all other thoughts. I drink two coffees in a row and still NOTHING. Hiding away in my office, I learn the meaning of new words: grumble, gripe and grouch, like a teenager deprived of Netflix.
When I finally calm down, all I can think of is writing to you. Yes, dear readers! You are my favourite refuge, my island of happiness where I love to lounge. I still can’t tell you about the purpose of this important meeting, but if the outcome is positive, it will fill my heart with joy; and yours too indirectly.
Sometimes I think that I’m too old to rise to new challenges. But then I think of one of my favourite icons, Iris Epfel, and I bury this nonsensical idea of being too old at the bottom of my secret garden. My enthusiasm is revived. Becoming an entrepreneur back in the days served me well. I excelled at what I did and I was fearless. I remember it well. I rushed like a bull into the matador’s red cape in the arena.
My cell phone rings twice for something or another, but not for what I was waiting for. I don’t answer. After I calm down, I leave my office, taking you along as I roam the long corridors of the head office. I pour myself a third coffee in the kitchen. Would you like a cup?
Did you know? My baptismal name is Marie Antoinette Cora; the name of a very important French queen, the wife of King Louis XVI. A queen who died at 37, guillotined at 12:15 p.m. on October 16, 1793, at Place de la Révolution (now called Place de la Concorde).
In those days revolution seethed through the crowds and anything could happen, a queen could even lose her head. Coming from Austria, young and noble Marie-Antoinette arrived at the court of France when she was just 15. From the very beginning of her marriage to future King Louis, heir to the throne, it was obvious she found it hard to adapt to French customs and, once she became queen, she committed more blunders, often unwittingly, which gradually alienated the people and had a disastrous effect on her public image.
Poor queen, and happy me, who still has a good number of years ahead! I love life, it’s ups and downs and its many-faceted beauty. Now that all the arteries of life have opened up, maybe you and I could start thinking about new adventures. Pour yourself another coffee, sit down quietly with a notepad and let’s write down a list of all the things we’d like to try before we leave this world.
We can start by writing down in no particular order everything that comes to mind, and then we’ll order by priority. The goal is to identify the experiences, wishes, dreams, desires or challenges we’d like to pursue. In other words, let’s create a bucket list. I’ll share my own list with you below. I’ve done it before, during the pandemic, but maybe I am a lot more audacious today? And maybe bucket lists are like smoke detectors: It’s best to check them once in a while. So here’s what I would like to do before my heart extinguishes:
1– Visit Paris, one more time, especially Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Mère Poulard in Mont Saint-Michel and Les Deux Magots, a café where Verlaine and Rimbaud, my favourite poets, once frequented.
2– Go to the opera for the first time in my life because I’ve never taken the time to appreciate the beauty of the human voice before. I made up my mind and I am going. I will see Madam Butterfly in Montreal this spring. It will be a nice gift for my birthday, in May.
3– Visit Sweden and, more specifically, the boutiques of fashion designer Gudrun Sjödén and her collections that are in tune with all of nature’s colours. In another life, I would have loved to have been her neighbour and been employed in her workshops.
4– Visit Iceland, the home country of my favourite writer, Andur Ava Ólafsdóttir, who wrote Miss Iceland and The Greenhouse. To go around the island a few times and admire its spectacular beauty.
5– Find a haiku master and take one of their creativity classes for sheer pleasure and to improve my poetry.
6– And of course, publish a new book or two before my thoughts completely dry up, like an abandoned well.
Someone has in fact made me a book offer. I said yes, and now I wait in vain for this darned meeting to be confirmed and I’m just about to run out of patience. It’s the most precious goal on my bucket list. I want to do it and I know I can do it well.
RING RING! RING, RING!
– “Hello, Madame Cora. I was supposed to confirm our meeting last Monday, but I was at a book fair and completely swamped. The fair’s huge hall was packed and fans waited in long lineups at every kiosk to speak with the authors. I apologize, dear Cora! The good news is that there is a reading boom happening. It’s my third book fair this season and it’s been crazy!”
The editor enthusiastically confirms our meeting for Friday morning. Finally I can calm my nerves. People still love reading and apparently they love it more than ever. Perhaps I will get the chance to meet you, dear readers, at one of these book fairs? My heart fills with hope; my life expectancy has just lengthened by a few years. Paradise can wait a little longer. May it wait until all my words have left me.
📚 📖 📚
7:35 a.m. at the coffee shop
I write just like I knit, with different coloured wools. I’m careful not to drop any stitches or leave holes in my knitting. I always have an imaginary pattern in mind: a jacket collar or sleeve. I wait for creative inspiration. It sometimes takes its time but it always fills up my blank page in the end.
I might write about the man who’s seated next to me, waiting for his wife; or about Carole, whose birthday is today. Humans are lively chatterboxes and it’s relatively easy to knit clothes that will suit them. I listen, I look around and I take notes on my bright screen. Even the smallest bird could understand that I am interested in people or, at the very least, in those who dare to leave their hideaway and have something to say.
Lately, I’ve had a vision of a finished novel; one I have typed with my own fingers. I picture it in my mind like a huge belly ready to give birth. In my mind, I hear complete sentences and mismatched chapters in need of fresh air.
It feels as though it has been a long pregnancy and I look forward to giving birth. I would like to be in front of a large mirror to be able to see what I am carrying. An angel’s wing? A new way of writing? The sudden burst of beautiful ideas? A primal scream giving a voice to my writing?
I rid my mind of all the burdensome memories and live in the everyday moment of life, where luck sows its golden seeds. My hands are empty and I don’t even have a draft in mind. I wait and let spontaneity and creative intuition take their course.
A different man arrives at the table next to me, sits down and smiles at me. He politely asks how I’m doing and what I may be writing about. How can I explain to him that I don’t really know? I could tell him that I’m giving birth to a few New Year’s resolutions, but I prefer to keep quiet. I return his smile. He gets up and heads for the counter, where he picks out a pastry.
He returns to his table with a coffee mug overflowing with thick, white foam and a fresh raspberry pavé. I congratulate him on his excellent choice of pastry. Fresh raspberries are quite rare in the middle of January. The man smiles at me again and replies that he loves life with a capital L. How amazing!
This type of invigorating encounter is one of the reasons why I get out of the house. His name, G. Ladouceur, suits him to perfection. In French, “G. Ladouceur” sounds like “I have sweetness” or “I have softness.” He spent his life working for the bank Desjardins, happy like a king in his court. He’s been retired for 10 years and cares for his mother. In his spare time, he builds, paints and varnishes cute little goldfinches, blue jays and ruby-throated hummingbirds, which he offers as gifts. He enjoys travelling south. He’s been to Cuba more than 15 times!
–“Yuck! The food is horrible there,” I hear the old me say in my head. Mr. Ladouceur goes on and tells me he’ll be leaving the Quebec winter behind in a week to spend two full months at the Paseo el Prado hotel, in Havana.
–“Incredible!” replies the new me, as gentle as a domesticated rabbit. Adios, amigo!
I enjoy writing in a coffee shop. I don’t really understand why or how, but I’m certain that being surrounded by people helps me concentrate. I often get the feeling I am sitting in a translucent bubble, sheltered from discordant noise. I love the mornings I spend writing while finishing two or three coffees. I rarely eat before I finish a letter, unless I skipped dinner the night before. When my stomach starts to rumble, I usually polish off a cheese croissant while typing away and then “case closed,” like my 10-year-old granddaughter would say.
This morning, asleep in the dawn’s cold light, I dreamt about this infant book growing in my womb. In the dream, I caressed each and every single one of its pages; I turned them, taking extra care not to hurry the paragraphs or weigh them down unnecessarily with incongruous adverbs. The text needs to breathe and drink in the meaning of each word. I also had to think about the accuracy of the chapter titles; gently harmonizing each story with the veracity of its twists and turns.
A chapter cannot look like an out-of-season vegetable soup or overcooked pasta au gratin. The backbone of a text can’t lose its poise or waltz aimlessly from left to right. The direction must be as straight and solid as the Eiffel Tower. I climbed it myself and I can attest to its solidity.
“I eat my hand and save the other one for tomorrow.” It’s a local expression that is especially timely because I’m famished! They opened a McDonald’s in my town, right in front of a grocery store and kitty corner to a drugstore. When I went past this McDonald’s the other day I was reminded of the times I brought my kids there for birthday meals. I take it as a hint to make a sort of pilgrimage to the golden arches in honour of these happy times that I remember so well. The kids would each order a Big Mac, fries and soft drink; I would always get the Filet-O-Fish with tartar sauce, fries and cola.
I walk into our local McDonald’s suffering pangs of hunger. It’s not very busy for a lunch hour. To order, I pretty much have to tap my own selection on one of the large computer screens. I get it wrong a few times and a very young lad offers to put my order in for me. I don’t take the fries, but I order my Filet-O-Fish, the one with two filets, and a cola. It is totally delicious! The open kitchen is now occupied by young teenagers at work, something that was utterlyunthinkable at the time we came here to eat here (1975-1980).
So, dear readers, I thoroughly enjoyed my lunch and I will go back soon for another delicious, lightly breaded fish burger served in a gently steamed bun with a tasty tartar sauce. It’s so good it’s hard not to lick your fingers!