The labor of women in the house, certainly,
enables men to produce more wealth than they
otherwise could; and in this way women are
economic factors in society. But so are horses.
-Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1898)

Spring is on its way and now's the season for deep-freeze diving; kind of like dumpster-diving without the muck and germs.
There are treasures to be found in Okanagan freezers! I'm not the only one who has mistakenly used one of the kids' markers, which the minute you close the freezer lid turns your label into a colourful smudge. I've frozen stuff unmarked, remarking that, “I'll remember what this is.” Of course I did not! And I know I'm not the only one who freezes excesses of fruit and vegetables during the seasons, enough to feed a family of ten for two years.
If things were to go according to 'plan' everything we put in there should be used by the next year same time. If that doesn't happen, things will slowly sink and disappear into the depths, where they morph into something unrecognizable...dried and shrivelled, colourless and freezer-burned.

-Cathi Litzenberger, ‘Kitchen Wit & Wisdom’ (The Vernon Morning Star, late 1990s)

In her classic 1929 essay A Room of Her Own, Virginia Woolf describes how children are nurtured at home in preparation for adult life. She invites us to consider the hundreds of meals mothers prepare and the thousands of plates and forks they scrub in the wake of those meals. What remains of this work? “All vanished,” Woolf writes. “No biography or history has a word to say about it.”
I think of my mother and the thousands of dishes she washed, meals she cooked and muffins she baked for our family. All of that food, this nourishment, those treats crammed into hungry mouths, vanished into eager stomachs. Adults usually expect some kind of recognition for doing their jobs even at the minimum level of competence. What recognition was my mother ever given for doing her job in the first place, never mind for doing it well? We enjoyed her food, to be sure – we appreciated it for ending our hunger and usually said a quick thanks as we hurried from the table. But I had taken the labour involved for granted.
It's easily done. While we have portraits of grand Christmas Dinner table spreads with the turkey rising majestically from the centre of the table like a gravy-caked Mt Fuji, there’s little surviving evidence of the work behind the scenes. There are no images or recordings of my mother whipping up cookie dough with a white spatula in our pink plastic mixing bowl. Nobody shot 8mm film footage of her putting on oven mitts to take out a hot tray of date cookies.
Her work wasn't entirely undocumented, however. Small samples of her efforts were preserved, thanks to the similarly under-appreciated abilities of that clunky phenomenon of modern convenience, the deep freeze.
We moved house during the summer between my fifth and sixth grades of primary school. Bridging our two Okanagan homes like a thread was the equipment of living: our old chairs and tables, arranged in new rooms. We also brought little treasures with us – heirlooms, photographs, and those little items we don’t even tell our siblings about, like my small collection of white and blue pebbles, scooped up from Miracle Beach during a summer trip to Campbell River on Vancouver Island. We treated these objects, secret and open alike, with respectful solemnity, even if prized jewellery was hidden in a box in a bedroom or the pictures hung in obscure corners. I put the pebbles in the top drawer of my dresser and shut them in.
Appliances, though, carry a faintly distasteful industrial whiff. Fridges and ovens are inelegant. They cannot be hidden in drawers and are not willfully displayed like chesterfields are. Like our living room furniture, stoves and ovens receive daily use, but are rarely treated with gratitude, never mind respectful solemnity. When our deep-freezer was first delivered, I immediately thought it was the perfect size for storing a stack of corpses. An entire section of the laundry room downstairs had to be cleared to make space for the machine. The very name, that strange and evocative compound noun, implied no-nonsense power. I felt bad for the instantly less impressive abilities of the refrigerator's puny ice-box upstairs.
The machine created new chores for my older brother Jason, my younger sister Alison and me. We were always being sent downstairs to pull out hardened loaves of bread, bags of frozen blueberries or containers of leftover sauce from some distant winter meal. We always knew when someone was downstairs opening the freezer because of the distinctive shriek the lid made when you heaved it up. It was a call of newness, bounty – but the kind of bounty that doesn’t come from wealth, but from careful planning.
These freezer retrieval chores ended when my family moved. Our new laundry room was just off the kitchen, so it now took mere seconds for mum to grab something and return to her boiling pot. The deep freeze sat heavily in front of us as we entered the house from the outside through our new, smaller laundry room. The freezer’s large, waist-level surface now made a good place to throw jackets onto.
In the spring of 2005, I came back to this second house after working abroad for eight years. I had the whole summer free, but wasn't planning on lounging around. There were plenty of books to read, friends to catch up with, postcards to write. Keeping busy helped diminish the shame I felt at becoming a boomerang-child cliché by living in my parents' basement at the age of thirty. My parents also helped: despite our inevitable little retreats into old habits, they treated me, for the most part, like an adult.
Most mornings I got up early and walked to the mailbox at the top of the hill to drop off some letters or postcards. Back home, my dad would have left for work just as my mother was sitting down for breakfast. I'd join her for coffee. We talked about our plans for the day. After a while she got up, pulled a recipe book down from the cupboard above the phone and started flipping through it. Reading out the name of a dish, she’d ask, “sounds good, eh?” Her mind was already ticking off ingredients. She knew what would work for supper because she knew what was in the deep freeze. She never had to rummage around. Food was labelled, rotated and removed from the cold darkness right on schedule. Her activities those mornings were so natural I barely registered them. I might nod or smile, then return to my coffee and the local paper, skimming the harmless whimsy of Mitchell’s Musings, the practicality of Kitchen Wit & Wisdom or the movie review in Jason Armstrong’s Aisle Seat column.
In the middle of that summer my mother died of a brain hemorrhage. There hadn’t been a single warning sign. It just happened. My grief was disorientating, like trying on a new pair of glasses and seeing the world immediately transformed. Everything is recognizable, but completely altered through sudden and dizzying focus.
Friends and neighbours kept coming by with food. These Tupperware-bearing visitors insisted my father and I eat, and we did – but not much, and without enjoyment. We’d pick away at casseroles with forks, or nibble on the odd celery stick from a trays of raw vegetables, the dip untouched, the cauliflower going brown. Most of the donations ended up in the deep freeze, stacked on top of rows of my mother's carefully wrapped and labelled baked goods. What else could we do with heavy glass casserole dishes and snack trays? The freezer was as busy as ever. But the flow was one-way.
At the time, it would have seemed disrespectful to throw these gifts out. On my subsequent visits, I had fewer qualms. The freezer was cluttered. I didn’t mind chucking out a half-eaten lasagne that had been languishing there for years. I couldn’t remember who had given what, so it felt like I was throwing out food that had been cooked anonymously. They were like restaurant leftovers that had spoiled.
But what about my mother's baking? I pulled out a wrapped package of cookies and pulled back the Saran Wrap. Dates rose from the golden dough as invitingly as ever. The cookies had not morphed into the unrecognizable “shrivelled, colourless” lumps described above by Cathi Litzenberger. I gave into curiosity and bit off a small piece. I held it my mouth just long enough to detect a hint of the original, gently spicy flavour still lurking beneath the frost-bitten staleness. Impressions of a hundred recess breaks and after school snacks rushed back at once. I savoured the taste and the time-travel for as long as I dared before spitting it out. This baking was the last tangible link to mum in her home. The food could live indefinitely in the deep freeze, but would thaw and rot not long after being taken out.
It  had to be done. The appliance, having outlived its usefulness as a food-preserver for a busy family of five, was reduced to life as an electricity-gobbler for my father. I wanted to take charge and get it cleared out. But at the same time felt I'd be cutting myself off from the last surviving evidence of mum's provision of nourishment. It was a dilemma almost as absurd as it was morbid.
The dilemma was dissolved when my wife Silmara and I stopped in Vernon one cold February evening. We stayed at the house for a night or two while my dad was out of town. I showed her how the brownies, blueberry cakes and lemon loaves had been so well preserved they might even appear fresh in a photograph. Silmara is a photographer. She looked at me for a moment and then, without discussion, we started unpacking the deep freeze.
We unwrapped peanut butter biscuits, loaves and cakes – heavy, solid – and arranged them on dinner plates. Unlike Litzenberger, my mother had clearly identified every batch with a ballpoint pen, adding the date in her polished cursive script. We placed these labels next to their respective foodstuffs as if they were price cards in a bakery or information tags illuminating small plastic recreations in a museum. “It’s like a bake sale,” Silmara said, photographing the food as if she'd been hired to promote a local fundraiser.
When she’d finished, I quickly re-wrapped all of the baking, still cold to the touch, in its original wax paper. I kept the labels, but took took everything else to the garbage bin outside. It was a cold night. The treats would stay frozen that night and the next. But they would soon be taken away for good.  
They were gone only in one sense, though. History might not have traditionally had a lot to say about women’s labour in service of their families, but it is starting to whisper. Home-made food frozen in the past to feed us in the future is an expression of care-taking and love that deserves gratitude and as much respectful solemnity as anything else we treasure from the past. And even when that food is thrown away, it is not “all vanished” – the beginnings of biography are found in what remains: photographs and words. Now they are the story, and – with all due apologies to the family deep freeze – tell it better than anything else.


What We Won’t Let Go
Today I am a thief riffling through a dead woman’s life.
Anise seed, spilled cinnamon and dried apple rings.
On the kitchen table cake recipes copied from magazines –
lemon loaf, bundt marble, streusel squares –
the instructions written with an air of levity,
an attitude conducive to rising. In the bottom of the stove
banged up pots and mismatched lids live on a shelf
above the hallway telephone two ceramic piggy banks,
an old man and woman sitting in rocking chairs.
So far, $340 has dropped from between the pages of books.

On the bedroom wall her husband’s war medals
framed in a silver shadow box. On a dresser
an empty cut glass perfume bottle, a matching tray.
When squeezed its green tasselled atomizer exhales
4711 Eau de Cologne, my mother’s scent. In a drawer
a nest of entwined nylons, a clutch of mismatched socks.

Down the hall in a storage locker an upright freezer
stuffed with one pound packages of lean ground beef
And day old Sesame bread. Beside it propped in a corner
an artificial Christmas tree, stigmata of icicles, tinsel tears.
Time to unpin the fairy tale lanterns and tuck them
into their narrow cardboard beds. I say a short blessing
and carry the dead tree to the garbage bin. Faint scent
Of nursery rhymes, everlasting ever evergreen.

-Heidi Garnett
(from Blood Orange, Frontenac House 2016)


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