In 1983, my family and I moved to Windsor, Ontario. We were extremely poor and had just overcome a heavy ordeal in Dallas, Texas. We had made the move during a time when it was hard to find work in Toronto. We left Dallas because it all became too hard with my parents working two jobs and it was hard to find affordable health care for us. My sister was sick was asthma. In Windsor she got better and my dad went on welfare for a short while. In turn, welfare opened the door for other charitable services for us. We settled into the third floor of a Victorian house downtown. I was nine years old at the time, but I do remember that it was close to St. Alphonsus Catholic School where I attended the third grade before we moved back to Toronto.
My parents are pretty humble and refused to use the television or the plastic covered furniture the landlord had provided us. Their intention was not to stay in that situation for too long, thus we mainly used the kitchen in the front, the bedroom in the middle, and the balcony in the back on hot days. My sister was still under a year old, her cheeks plump and rosy. I’d spend a lot of time with her pretending she was my living doll. Just before Christmas came around, two charitable groups donated presents to us. I got a wooden dollhouse to assemble, which delighted me to no end because I needed a place to play with my Barbies. My sister got a multi-colored ring stack. I’d pretend the rings were donuts for my fake food set which I also got that year.
To pass the time, my family took long walks along the Michigan River. My fondest memories include many sunny days strolling with my parents. My dad usually took on the stroller while my mom would pick crabapples for my sister and I. We would feast on the sweet and sour goodness that would burst out of the miniature green skins. My dad and I would challenge each other to see who could eat the most crabapples before out tongues would get red and raw. I won many times and still prod him about it to this day.
Weekly trips to the public library were mandatory. Since we didn’t use the television set, we’d read while listening to the radio. I would borrow Asterix comics and Tintin books that I would read out loud to my sister. My dad would read up on geography and history. My mom, however, was big on recipe books. There was a nearby fish market and my mom would select the best fish out of the reduced sale pile at the end of the day. With the eggs and canned goods provided by Goodwill and the Salvation Army, my mom had enough to concoct all sort of varied recipes for us. Almost every meal we had then was different. In fact, my mom has always been very good about using every single item we would have in the fridge. It’s a little weird for me to see bone marrow or brains as delicacies in restaurants nowadays, since my parents used to buy these things on the cheap to create the most delicious and humbly made dishes I’ve ever had. There was one particular dish that comes to mind when I think about Windsor. She made cod with a rich coconut sauce. The meat was juicy, but soft, and the freshly scaled skin melted in my mouth. The coconut sauce was so thick that it became part of the fish and you couldn’t tell it apart in taste or in texture. I believe that’s the first time she had made a big deal about the presentation of it too. Our plate set was a stained dark wood and she added paprika on the top of the fish for color. The salad was a mixture of greens, tomato, and sliced pink radish. Since my parents are Colombian we were also never without buttery white rice as a side dish. That night, dinner was like eating in heaven.
For my tenth birthday my mom had saved some money to buy a big cow tongue. It was, and still is, my favorite meal. It’s a tender cut that’s rich in fat and protein. When my mom fries it up I look for the tasty gristle at the end and we she stews it up, it dissolves slowly in your palette. I didn’t have a party that year because I was a bit of a loner at my new school, so my family was enough for me. That year, my birthday meal was cow tongue with side dishes I don’t even remember because the main dish was incredibly unforgettable. I also had a spongy and rich pound cake my mom had made from a Julia Child cookbook. For some reason the candles on the cake stood out for me because although the cake was big, it had no frosting. It was amazing because there was nothing to take away from the texture of the hot middle of that delectable cake.
One day, my mom had gone out to attend to some errands while the rest of us went for a walk. We were going to meet up at home a few hours later. By the time my dad, sister, and I had arrived home, my mom was nowhere to be seen. Another hour passed before my dad had started to look visibly worried. I fretted, but managed to ease my anxiety by entertaining my sister. I twirled my skirt to the radio beside her while she bounced and toothlessly smiled in her jolly jumper. When my mom finally arrived, my dad had worked himself into such a mixture of anger and worry, he greeted her with a loud, “Where the hell have you been?”
My mom looked at him with tears streaming down her face. She looked she was in shock. In her hands she held a giant white box and she placed it on our tiny breakfast table as she sat to catch her breath. Just before my dad said anything else, my mom let out a big sob. Unable to get a word out of her, my dad went over and gave her a sweet hug. I stood there mostly wondering what was in the box. She calmed down eventually and told us that on her way home she had stopped by a donut shop to grab a dozen donuts to bring home. She checked her purse and realized she didn’t have enough for it and settled for half a dozen. As she placed her order, she heard a loud horn in the back of the shop. The diner staff all came out and yelled, “ Congratulations! You’re our one hundredth customer!” The manager presented her with a bunch of vouchers for free donuts, a hat, and a check for fifty dollars. She said to us between tears, “I was just thinking how hard it’s been for us these past few years and this is the nicest thing that could have happened to us right now.” My dad’s face went from red with worry to soft with love for my mother. They both suffered a lot together and made sure my sister and I never lacked for anything. Finally, they had something spontaneous and wonderfully out of the ordinary happen to them.
I took my sister out of the jumper and served two donuts on plates without even asking. Normally, I would give my please and thank you to my parents, but after all that I wanted to celebrate. We listened to the news on the radio and later that night my dad clapped along as I listened to tapes of The Steve Miller Band and The Police in the bedroom. It was my own private donut party.
We lived in Windsor for about a year and came back to Toronto not too worse for wear. My dad found a job making conveyer belt motors while my mom to work as a lithographer and embosser for a card making company. Now they’re both retired and live in Niagara Falls. When my mom asks me for what I want for my birthday, I still ask her, even at forty-two years old, for cow tongue and a big cake with no frosting. Life is frosting enough as it is.