A Painful State of Mind

For years, I have been searching for a rational explanation for my father’s mental illness – looking for anything that might help me understand the painful state of mind that made him so paranoid of everyone but his closest family (see my blog post Paranoid Dreams).

Since I have no background in psychiatry I can’t pretend to be able to understand his mental state: was his illness biological – a family trait? or a response to his environment? an inability to cope with life’s challenges? or all the above?

So I go back over his life to find clues or perhaps signs of when this sickness began hoping to know him better.

Bernie in a sailor suit age 2, 1926

Bernie in a sailor suit age 2, 1926

One of the earliest things that I know of happening to him, is that he was in a bus accident when he was about two years old. I remember seeing the old newspaper clipping, yellowed and fragile, that showed him still in his seat by the smashed bus window; a toddler, hurt and slumped. The accident was such that he had a flattened part of his skull (on the rear right side) for the rest of his life. The injury was apparently bad enough that the City of New York paid damages to my father’s family – money that later paid for his college degree at Pratt Institute of Art.

My father also nearly died of pneumonia when he was very little. There were no antibiotics back then to save you from deadly infections (penicillin wasn’t discovered til 1928 and not commercially produced til the 1940s) so the family relied on practices they knew from the “old country”.

He told me the story of how a man came and put a mustard plaster on his chest that burned. The man also cupped his back – the practice of placing the rims of hot glass cups on the skin to create a searing suction that presumably pulled the infection out of the body and brought down the high fever. My father remembered the pain of these procedures vividly. He also remembered, when he finally pulled through, the absolute delight of eating a baked potato.

When my father would tell me stories about his childhood sometimes they were full of wild fun, like a Dead End Kids story – as when he and his buddy would sneak into the movies through the alley door, and then eat raw garlic to breathe on people to get them to move seats so they could have the good seats to themselves… or playing street hockey on roller skates and zooming down the middle of streets jumping pot holes…

Bernie Safran boxing on the roof, Brooklyn c 1934

Bernie (on the left) boxing on the roof with his best friend, Brooklyn c 1934

Sometimes the stories were dark and scary – he lived in the Brooklyn neighborhood where Murder Incorporated operated – one time he saw a store that had been shot up with dead men inside, another time he saw a man shot and dead in the gutter…  His best friend was the local bookie’s kid, so they hung around the pool hall, ran errands for the bookie, and watched the tough guys place bets and play pool.

Bernie and Harry Safran c 1929

Bernie and his father Harry Safran c 1929

But perhaps the most negative influence on him when he was a kid was his relationship to his parents.

He wrote in his personal papers about how much he “resented, despised and hated his father until he was in college and began to develop a better relationship with him”. All through his childhood his father said such things to little Bernie as “when you grow up you will support me” and “you don’t know what you have cost me” , “You are a coward” ” You will never amount to anything” and “You have it too good”.

My father  also wrote about his resentment of my grandfather being stingy and controlling of money –  but he became that same person as I grew up –  spanking me in front of my friends when I was about 7 because I spent ten cents at the movies that he hadn’t given me permission to spend (I never forgave him for that) or fighting with my mother because she spent $5 he hadn’t approved of for a lipstick…(me never forgiving him for that either).

My father also resented my grandfather’s “violent temper” and says in his papers that he never wanted to behave like that, especially because it was embarrassing to him when his father lost control in a rage – but he was the same way. He could be terrifying in his rage – his face turned a deep red and one eyebrow would go up and his eyes would blaze – a sure sign that things were really bad.

As for his mother, she belittled him and used to tell him that he was very stubborn and had no patience. She would try to make little Bernie feel guilty by saying things like: “I have failed. You don’t love me” (she was the ultimate Jewish Mamma, and Grand-Mamma too I might add). Though she often neglected my father’s care and left him to run wild, she indulged him with praise for his artistic endeavors which perhaps gave him the insecure need to be the center of attention.

Grad photo High School of Music and Art, 1939

Bernie’s Grad photo from the High School of Music and Art, 1939 age 15

She saw herself as a revolutionary and a suffering writer and felt burdened by her responsibilities and disappointed in her working class life. She believed that people were actively trying to squash her dreams and her success with her writing. According to my mother, by the time my mother had married my father, my grandmother resented and despised my grandfather (a long story) and didn’t let him speak at the dinner table – saying he was a peasant and beneath her.

She was promiscuous and carelessly (or defiantly) brought her lovers into the apartment while my grandfather was at work. More than once the kids met men who were “sick” and needed to lie down in her bed…one time when my father Bernie was about 14 he walked in and found his mother ‘in flagrante delicto’ and threw the man out…

Whether any of this had any influence on my father’s mental state – we’ll never know.

What we do know is that my father suffered from depression in the 1950s. My mother told me that after they were married and she was working as his agent in the illustration business, she’d come home to find my father sitting in the dark, brooding. She thought he was depressed because his work was unsatisfying and not bringing in much money despite the long late hours he put into it. Perhaps that was the cause of the depression… or perhaps – since it was just after WWII, he was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his military service in Southeast Asia?

At any rate, he never sought help for his mental health, nor did my mother encourage him to get it. She never spoke of any of these problems to anyone – not even to her mother or sisters or best friends. She was his confidante and all his emotional support for their entire married life – she spent hours with him listening to and discussing his paranoid theories. She never tried to dissuade him from his beliefs or challenge him.

She told me once that to be a great artist you have to be very sensitive – more sensitive than other people, to be able to see and express things with raw emotion. She felt that life was just too hard for these people.She told me that she saw my father as a great artist and she felt it was her role to help him get through life so he could paint.

He had a few good years from 1957 to about 1962 when he was working at Time Magazine – he was happy, satisfied with his work, and enjoying money and fame. But even this came to an end in 1962 when he started to doubt the senior editorial staff at the magazine and to believe they were out to get him. By 1965 he was convinced there was a conspiracy to destroy him and from then til the end of his life in 1995 he believed he was continuously harassed and blacklisted by the corporation.

Bernard Safran, early 1960s

Bernard Safran, early 1960s

to be continued…

The Black Oil Medium

My father Bernard Safran grew tired of working as an illustrator in the 1950s – he gave the business ten years of his life after graduating from art school, but ultimately found the work unsatisfying and unprofitable.

Pulp covers by Bernard Safran

Two pulp fiction covers by my father Bernard Safran. Its likely he hired a model for the cover on the left. For the cover on the right – King of the Range – he posed for both men.

He had grown up on the great illustrators and thought that the business would be noble, but by the time he was in the business – it quickly lost its magic for him.

He cranked out work as fast as he had to to pay the bills, but it wasn’t work that he necessarily felt good about. He did it all including illustrations for an entire children’s bible, pictures for magazines like Outdoor Life and Boy’s Life, a billboard for beer (and I’d like to point out Jackson Pollock painted billboards), and many pulp fiction covers and books. Though he didn’t like the work – he said that at least it had made him disciplined.

Harry Safran by Bernard Safran, 1956 oil on illustration board

To practice capturing the character of a sitter quickly he let it be known in Brooklyn that he’d do a 15 minute oil sketch portrait from life for $25. This one is of my Grandfather.
Harry Safran by Bernard Safran, 1956 oil on illustration board

In 1956 he had enough savings to take 6 months off to rethink what he wanted to do as an artist. He felt he needed to refine his skills and refine “his eye” so he went to study the works of the Old Masters in the museums of New York City.  In addition to his studies he did a lot of plein air painting of landscapes and quick portraits to free up his brush stroke and learn to understand and capture the essence of his subject quickly.

He read everything he could find about the Old Masters and their lives and techniques including Vasari and other historical writers, and discovered a book by Jacques Maroger the former head of restoration at the Louvre in Paris who had written a book on just that subject. Maroger claimed that he had rediscovered the materials and methods of the Old Masters from years of working with their paintings in the labs of the Louvre. His book outlines his specific recipes for the oil mediums that he believed painters used to mix with color pigments to create paints. There are also recipes for the varnishes used to seal the paintings (and to provide shiny surfaces) and instructions for preparing boards and canvases with gesso.

Copy by Bernard Safran,1960, oil on illustration board 20" x 20.5 "Atalanta and Meleager by Rubens

Copy by Bernard Safran,1960, oil on illustration board 20″ x 20.5 “
Atalanta and Meleager by Rubens

My father cooked up all the recipes in the book and experimented with them to find which he liked best. He learned to use the preparations step by step and found that the black oil medium provided him with a versatile and satisfying product with which he could reproduce the brilliant color and sheer glazes of the Old Masters. This was a revelation to him. The medium gave him the freedom to build layers of pure pigment through which the light danced – creating paintings with clear color and depth.

He took this new method and began copying the Old Masters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It felt like he was seeing the masterpieces anew – he was not trying to make exact copies, but trying to deconstruct the methodology and character of the work so he could learn from the greatest painters.

Betty age 2.75 by Bernard Safran, 1962 oil on masonite

If you look closely at this painting you can see how my father worked the paint: using opaque whites and sheer darks to create the illusion of form in 2D. You can also see how the gessoed board was streaked in grey – techniques my father learned from Rubens.
Betty age 2.75 by Bernard Safran, 1962, oil on masonite, 18″ x 24″

He copied Rembrandt, Rubens, Velasquez, Titian and many others. Rubens’ paintings were the most magnificent to him – not so much the over the top subject matter with masses of pink flesh (though Rubens’ use of composition with these voluptuous figures was brilliant) but because of the way Rubens laid in the paint, and the lasting brilliant freshness of his works even after hundreds of years.

My father continued studying the art of the great painters for the rest of his life, especially when he felt he needed to refresh himself or to expand his knowledge.

Seated Nude (rear view) By Bernard Safran, 1983 revised 1994 oil on masonite

This detail shows how my father continued to apply the fundamentals he’d learned from the Old Masters throughout his career. With this example you can see similarities with the above portrait of Betty Age 2.75 pertaining to the use of opaque whites and sheer darks to create form.
This painting, however, shows his more mature style; you can feel the mass and warmth of the figure through the more densely and confidently applied paint.
Seated Nude (rear view), detail, by Bernard Safran, 1983 revised 1994 oil on masonite
(click on image to see 1 x1 view)

Like any great master – whether their profession is figure skating or piano or painting or martial arts – to make something appear effortless is the work of someone who knows intuitively, after years of studying the grounding principles of their chosen field, how to express themselves with confidence and ease of execution.

You can see development and changes in my father’s work through his lifetime, but the basic fundamentals of his approach with paint stayed much the same.

A note of caution – the Paintings Conservator I work with has told me that the Maroger method is not fool proof and many in the conservation field do not believe it is an authentic or successful process – within my father’s collection the paintings that were painted with very sheer glazes are stable; whereas the paintings that are very thick are very unstable.

For those of you interested in more detailed information about my father’s methods and his personal philosophy towards art, I will be writing more in upcoming posts.

Eating Wild Things in Jolicure

Labrador Tea

Labrador Tea

Living in the country provides many opportunities to graze and harvest wild berries and plants – particularly in areas like ours in Eastern Canada where there was a lot of abandoned farmland and nature had overgrown and reclaimed its place. We quickly learned to identify the plants in our vicinity and to learn which were edible and which were best left untouched.

We tried many things like wild Tansy Tea and Labrador Tea that grew along our lane way and along the edge of the forest.  We did it as more of an experiment to see how they tasted. They never became a habit like our Red Rose brand orange pekoe tea that we drank all the time. (Nor did we use them medicinally.)

LambsquartersWe gathered the wild greens called Lambsquarters. It grew like a weed in our garden so we were more inclined to rip it out of the ground than cherish it, but we did eat it in salads and cooked it like spinach on occasion.

The area we lived in (Jolicure) was connected to the great Tantramar Marshes – you only had to go a few miles in most directions to find your way to the these wetlands. So there were many boggy places around – not only in the marsh proper.

Not far from our house we found a lovely patch of cranberries growing in one such bog. We were able to pick these for ourselves every year, but we had to act fast because other locals would show up and pick them too.

Wild cranberry bog, photo by Chris Seufert

Wild cranberry bog, photo by Chris Seufert

They grew right on the edge of the forest in an old cleared field.

We also had raspberries near the house – but instead of local people, we had to be quick to get them before the birds and wildlife found them. They were hard to get quantities of – so you’d just eat what you could find right away and enjoy the sweetness in the fresh air.

Wild strawberries grew along our road and in various small patches near our house.

wild strawberries

Wild strawberries

We sometimes did manage to pick enough for a few pies – but again it was a challenge to beat nature to the prize.

There were other wild treats growing around our house like the patch of Fiddlehead ferns that grew in our backyard by a big old stump; we could harvest them once or twice a season for a few meals – usually as an accompaniment to the fresh trout my father caught in the lake.

Wild fiddleheads

Wild Fiddleheads

To pick blueberries we went to a commercial blueberry farm and used blueberry rakes to gather the fruit. Here we were guaranteed enough to freeze for the winter.

And on occasion we harvested the fallen fruit from abandoned orchards – though this fruit had to be used for making jelly – as it was generally worm ridden and had to be carefully cleaned for use.

We  experimented with our rose hips from the wild roses that grew along our lane. We made rose hip jam one year and brewed a tea from them on other occasions – rose hips are very high in vitamin C.

Rose hips, photo by Andy & Susie Vanable

Wild Rose hips

Once we tried making dandelion wine because our friends made some that was yummy and we had an endless supply of organic dandelions – but ours wasn’t a great success – it turned out more sludge than wine, but we tried.

We didn’t harvest wild mushrooms, of which there were many varieties. It was too chancy a risk that we’d poison ourselves and we didn’t trust our guide books for identification. Its important to really know what you’re doing with these things…

King Bolete mushroom (Boletus Edulus) http://northernbushcraft.com/

Here’s an example of what is considered an edible mushroom: “… An unknown bolete is safe if it does not bruise blue after being cut, is not red on the underside of the cap, and does not taste foul.
Small amounts should be consumed when testing an unfamiliar bolete.”

We had a stand of giant fungi that grew on our property along a tall stand of pines; a wind break treeline at the back side of the house. I loved looking at them with their big and brightly colored caps – but I was very wary of them and never touched them as someone had told me they were Death Angels, a very poisonous and deadly fungi.

I’ve since found out that what we had were toadstools; a kind of fungus that is also poisonous (you can die from renal failure after a long and horrible decline) and psychoactive. So they were pretty much just as bad as Death Angels  and  Death Cap Mushrooms (all three kinds of mushrooms are in the same family). These are the mushrooms famous in European folklore and fairy tales and you can see why…

Fly Amanita, Amanita muscaria var. guessowii

This is the same kind of yellow and orange toadstools that we had – ours were huge – like a foot tall and 6″ across: Fly Amanita, Amanita muscaria var. guessowii.

Toadstool, Fly Amanita

We had giant red toadstools too: Fly Amanita.

When I was in college at Mount Allison University a group of students got hold of a bunch of local, wild, hallucinogenic mushrooms which they happily ate until someone realized they were full of worms – upon which all of them got violently sick and apparently had really really really bad trips.

The moral of this post isdon’t eat what you don’t know!

1973: My First School Dance – an epic night

Port Elgin Regional Memorial Junior High School

Port Elgin Regional Memorial Jr High

My Junior High in Port Elgin, NB, was having a dance and I’d never been to a school dance before. I was 13.

Neighbor kids who went on the same bus as me were going to go – their older sister who was all of 16 (and promised my parents she was responsible) was going to drive them and they asked if I’d like to go too.

Surprisingly my parents said okay. It was June and pretty mild outside.

Giant 1970s car

The car we went to the dance in was giant like this one.

They showed up in the early evening to pick me up in a huge 70s car with no seat belts (at least none in use). By the time they finished picking up everybody the car was packed with kids – at least 5 of us in the backseat some sitting on laps and at least 4 in the front.

I was new to all this and had never done anything like this before. The responsible older sister drove us to a place near a lighthouse and parked and we all got out and she opened the trunk and out came bottles of really cheap wine – Baby Duckling or Gosling or something awful.

Port Elgin Lighthouse and Fort Gaspareaux

Port Elgin Lighthouse and Fort Gaspareaux

We slid down to the bottom of the grassy earthworks and the bottles were passed around. When everyone was feeling tipsy and it was getting dark we piled back into the car and went off to the dance.

The parking lot of the school was full of muscle cars and big 70s cars – some guys just sat in or on their cars all night smoking and being cool… some revved their engines continuously.

1973 Pontiac Trans AM-Super Duty

1973 Pontiac Trans AM-Super Duty

1973 Dodge Charger

1973 Dodge Charger

Inside the gym was where the dance was happening. I hung around and danced with my friends.

Towards the end of the evening a guy asked me to slow dance with him. I’d never seen him before – he was either a drop out or in high school  and he had no front teeth – no doubt from some fight he’d been in at the local pool hall. Well here’s where it gets interesting… we were slow dancing and he kissed me.

My first kiss – my first kiss with a guy who smelled and tasted of cigarettes and who had no front teeth (maybe that’s why I stopped liking the hockey player Daryl Sittler when he lost his teeth – too many memories). In fairness to this guy it wasn’t a bad kiss at all.

Luckily it was the end of the dance by then and the teachers turned on all the lights and ushered us back to the parking lot where a frenzy of cars were revving up. All of us got back into the big car with the responsible girl driving and for some reason we went for a speedy drive around the area.

I am taking the edge off this – she was driving REALLY FAST and probably more than a little drunk – the car was flying over bumps in the road like some 70s car chase in a cop movie.

train at night 2All of a sudden we were zooming across train tracks and as we looked to the side we were blinded by the brilliant lights of a train – its horn blaring…. everyone screamed and the rear end of the car bounced off the tracks just as the train went by behind us… it was that fast…

At least it was a sobering experience for the driver – no more terrifying racing around… it was a quiet ride home for everyone.

I never told my parents anything about that epic night because I knew I’d never get to do anything ever again (think about it parents: teens piled into a car driven by a wild teenager and no one wearing seat belts; drinking wine in a ditch; kissing a strange boy; nearly getting killed and only 13).

So because I kept my mouth shut, I got to go to more dances and go in more crazy cars (unintentionally I might add)- but there’s never anything like the first time you nearly die and get a first kiss all in one night.

And in case you were wondering – apparently me kissing this guy meant that we were going out and practically engaged. He showed up at the school the following Monday and held my hand and I had to explain that I really didn’t feel the same way – sorry

Betty c 1973

Betty c 1973 (badly damaged photo – I didn’t have blotches and black spots all over me at 13 – that came later in my 40s – just kidding)

Through the Eye of a Needle

My first sampler age 7

My first sampler age 7

My mother taught me to embroider at an early age and I’ve continued doing needlework for my entire life.

Detail, sampler finished age 7 Betty SafranWhen you look at the projects I did as a teen in particular, its obvious that I had a lot of time on my hands out there in that isolated farmhouse, and a fair amount of patience and skill.

My first learning project was a crewel work sampler when I was 7, and with it I learned all the basic stitches – the french knots were the hardest by far.

The Erica Wilson kit I made as a kid

Erica Wilson kit

When I finished the sampler, I  moved onto a crewel work pillow cover from Erica Wilson’s line of embroidery kits; the end product was fine enough to be used on the living room couch.

My sampler finished age 14

My sampler finished age 14

In 1973 after moving to Canada, my mother gave me a new sampler kit – this one was much bigger and more elaborate than anything I had done before. I worked on it feverishly and finished it in a year. It’s something that I am proud of to this day.

A friend of my mother’s made the same kit around the same time as me – hers was perfect with each stitch exactly formed and she criticized my work because it didn’t look like hers, but I felt that mine had more beauty and character (though I didn’t dare say so – I had better manners then than I do now).

The next sampler that I made  was counted stitch based on the pattern of an antique sampler in the Women’s Day collection of American Needlework. The sampler was worked on dark gray linen to look like a child’s school slate. It was even about the same size as a slate…

Original Slate Sampler  by Anzolette Hussey dated 1825

Original Slate Sampler dated 1825

I had to dye my piece of linen to match the original and then carefully reproduce the design. It was a wedding gift to my cousin so I embroidered that commemoration in the area that the original girl had embroidered her name. It was very hard work with a lot of eye strain due to the dark and somewhat shiny linen, but it was worth it.

After finishing the Slate Sampler I started a new counting stitch sampler for myself from the same collection.

I was challenging myself with more complicated work with each project – the stitches on this sampler were exact and exhausting

The Cat Sampler - detail

The Cat Sampler – detail

– in some areas there are tiny little features that are 1 x 1 stitching – one thread of floss across two crossing threads of linen

The Cat Sampler with my cat Nimbus

The Cat Sampler with my cat Nimbus

– extremely fine work (which I don’t think I could do now unless I had glasses like Professor Farnsworth from Futurama).

Professor Farnsworth of Futurama created by Matt Groening

Prof Farnsworth

It remains unfinished – one of many projects that I have to work on before I leave this mortal life… or I could just frame it unfinished – after all it is beautiful as it is.

Throughout my teens I continued to embroider on my jeans, jackets, on little sachets – on anything that I could think of like Christmas tree ornaments, and eyeglass cases.

Sachets filled with balsam c1970s

Sachets filled with balsam c1970s

I experimented with other needle arts too. I did needlepoint when I was a teen during the time that my mother and aunt were creating and selling needlepoint kits. I used their extra left over wool to make my own designs.

I also quilted at the Jolicure quilting club and while there worked on whatever quilt was being finished: stitching the tiny even stitches to pull the top and bottom of the quilt together with a thick batting between.

I pieced two quilts of my own: I have an entire quilt top which still needs quilting and enough patchwork squares to make a sampler quilt. Making the sampler quilt squares was fun; – I got to try different patterns and I soon learned that I liked the geometric piecing more than applique piecing. When I look at each individual square that I made I can remember the time and what was happening when I was working on it.

Unfinished patchwork star

Unfinished patchwork star

And through my teens I sewed and made some of my own clothes (from Vogue patterns naturally).

Speaking of unfinished projects I am now working on a needlepoint pillow cover of a tabby cat. Another intricate piece that despite the color guide requires some consistent counting to do right.

The Contented Cat by Elizabeth Bradley

The Contented Cat by Elizabeth Bradley; a work in progress

I put it away for a while and then rediscover it and always find the work soothing and enjoyable but it requires a certain energy that I find sometimes I can’t muster. I am already looking forward to making another in the series. When the pillows are done I will place them on my couch and not let anyone touch them – not even my beloved cats.

Note: as with all my posts – you can click on most of the images to see a larger version, then hit back arrow to go back to the post.

Happy Birthday Adele

On this day January 18th, in 1926, my mother Adele was born.

Baby Adele with her sisters Joanne (L) and Barbara

Baby Adele with her sisters Joanne (L) and Barbara 1926

She is now 88 years old.

Like her entire generation, my mother Adele lived through the depression, WWII (she made airplane parts in a factory during the war) – the Korean War – the Vietnam War – the Gulf War – the War in Iraq and Afghanistan and every other horrible violent human endeavor perpetrated through most of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st.

She witnessed the discovery of vaccines and antibiotics and the development and use of rockets and nuclear bombs and nuclear power plants. She had one of the first television sets. She saw the first satellite go round the earth and watched the space program and space exploration unfold. She watched all the Star Trek TV shows and movies – but loved the first series best. She watched the development and ubiquitous growth of computers and eventually got one in her 70s.

Adele (L) and her little sister Coline c1937

Adele (L) and her little sister Coline c1937

And don’t forget all the social changes – the fight for women’s rights and the advancement of civil rights – watched the population explosion, the use of genetically modified crops, the move of populations to cities, the building of high rises and sky scrapers, hippies – disco – punk … and on and on.

And through all of this she remained curious and excited by new ideas and new opportunities to learn. Anything and everything she wanted to know about – so she read continuously and watched documentaries and news shows, took classes and joined clubs, and she even took a couple of the Great Courses in her 80’s.

All of this would be enough to fill one life but she did more. She was an artist first and loved to paint in oils – she painted more than a hundred portraits of children alone.

Adele and Hightop

Adele age 18 and Hightop

She was creative beyond painting and art too – she made all of our family’s clothes using Vogue patterns and most often the designer line which can be very challenging in terms of tailoring and sewing technique. She hand pieced quilts and for a time was president of the Jolicure quilting club. She reupholstered furniture and one time not only made a new slipcover for a big old armchair but embroidered the whole thing with sunflowers. She did other needlework too – including designing and producing needlepoint kits with her sister Joanne (also an accomplished needleworker) and made beautiful and elaborately smocked dresses for her children and grandchildren. And as I wrote about earlier – she hand made books with calligraphy and linoleum cuts and used beautiful silks and Japanese papers to bind them.

Adele Safran c 1964

Adele, my beautiful mother, in one of her couturier suits c 1964

When I was little during the 1960s she taught me all about the stars and planets and we would go out at night in our little suburban backyard and gaze at the little patch of visible sky and see all we needed to see.

When the Apollo mission went to the moon I joined the NASA space club and she and I read everything together and made a beautiful scale model of the lunar lander and of course watched all the TV broadcasts of the mission together. And when we moved to the country in Canada, the sky was enormous and we were able to see the Andromeda Galaxy, and star clusters and planets and the northern lights…

The Black Pony by Adele Safran, oil on masonite

The Black Pony by Adele Safran (oil on masonite).
My mother won the blue ribbon for this work at the Calgary Stampede.

She was a great cook, and learned how to decorate cakes with frosting roses and flowers. She ground her own flour and baked her own bread – never ate store bought till she was too old to do it herself about 2 years ago. She grew and pickled and froze and preserved her vegetables (did I say she was also a gardener?). She made her own wine from raisins and bananas. And if anything needed fixing – well you just fixed it – no need to replace it.

She taught me to explore the natural world and learn about it and to love animals and plants and trees and to be free of fear but respectful of all of them.

So in short – after this long blurb, I guess I just want to say that she gave me a wonderful gift – her curiosity of the world and her fearless joy of living every day in it. And for that I am eternally grateful.

Adele Safran with her sisters Coline (center) and Joanne c 1988

Adele with her sisters Coline (center) and Joanne c 1988 in the backyard of the Red Farmhouse in Jolicure, NB, Canada


Please Note: Adele is now ill with advanced Alzheimer’s – this is a tribute to the woman I remember and love.

I will be writing in more detail about her remarkable life in upcoming posts.

Cold Water, Mud and the Heroic March of the Shower

Long Lake - Red House, photos by Bernard Safran

Long Lake – Red House, photos by Bernard Safran

We had a real problem in our old red farmhouse – a true lack of hot water. When we moved in there was a big old, cast iron, oil burning kitchen stove hooked up – attached to which was a hot water tank that was supposed to heat up when the stove was being used. However, no matter how hot or how long we had the stove/oven on, there was no hot water – some mildly warm water if you were being optimistic.

iron stove

This looks much like the awful stove we had when we moved in, but ours was black. It was powered with oil that came in through the wall from the big oil tank outside that also powered our furnace.

The stove just didn’t work – it was hot enough that I could rest my butt on the edge of it and keep myself warm (my jeans all became polished on the butt from this over the course of the winter), but for cooking or baking it just never excelled. In fact one time we had a fruit pie in the oven to bake for more than 6 hours and it still didn’t finish cooking.

Also, when we first moved in there was no shower and the tub was just big enough to sit in, in an inch of warm water and freeze. Eventually we started heating pots of water on the stove and pouring them into the tub to bathe in – but that wasn’t too satisfying. We finally ordered a shower to install in the tub from the Sears catalog and it arrived at some point mid spring thaw.

Imagine this fixture (see below) stuck onto the end of a tub with no wall behind it for support – it was truly free standing and wobbly and was probably the cheapest one available.


This is not a photo of our old shower – this one is in a barn.

And since our water was pumped up from a well located down the hill and had low water pressure, and we had no hot water, it really wasn’t all that.

The spring thaw in Jolicure was a serious situation for which we city folk were very under prepared. All the dirt roads in the area got slick with mud and treacherous with deep holes.

Our road in particular was impassible for weeks at a time every year. We didn’t just have deep pot holes – we had oozing, bubbling volcanic eruptions of mud, and vast bottomless pits of mud – the kind of mud holes that suck a rubber boot right off your foot and leave you squishing helplessly on one foot to retrieve your lost boot or worse –  takes both boots and leaves you in your socks.

The kind of mud that cars slowly sludged into and couldn’t get out of – that even tractors got stuck in. The kind of mud that you ended up covered in by the time you got home and there was no hot water…

Mud road JolicureWhen the thaw started that first year we lived there, my father would drive our poor blue Maverick down the road, gunning it to swerve around the obvious holes and careening around eruptions when possible –  to ultimately slide somewhere unpleasant… we got ditched and stuck in holes constantly. You cannot imagine how horrible it is to get behind the spinning wheels of a car stuck in a deep mud hole (well maybe you can imagine), all the mud just sprays all over you and into your mouth while you piteously try to push the car out of the hole, only succeeding enough for the car to swoosh into the next one. It was humiliating having to get a local farmer to come and pull the car out repeatedly – this even became impossible when the tractor could no longer get out and a second tractor had to be called.

The Coming of Spring to Jolicure by Bernard Safran, oil on masonite, 24" x 30" March 1981

This is a painting by my Dad, of my Uncle Lorne working on the mud holes on his road which was considerably better than our road.
The Coming of Spring to Jolicure by Bernard Safran, oil on masonite, 24″ x 30″ March 1981

We eventually had to park our car at the crossroads of Jolicure proper and walk in the 2 miles to our house carrying our food and anything else we needed for at least 6 weeks till the surface improved enough that a vehicle could get in. On foot, we learned how to spot most of the bottomless pits before helplessly pitching in, but sometimes the surface of the road was like a sheer membrane that when you put any pressure on it, the entire surface wobbled and moved and if it cracked while you were still on it you had to somehow get onto something solid or end up sucked into the road crying for help.

And so when our shower arrived from Sears, we had to carry it in for two miles through foot sucking, wiggly wobbly, erupting mud. The thing was at least 5 feet long and required a person on each end to carry it; we had to coordinate where we were going and try to avoid falling… which we could not. Some of the time we walked along the edge of the forest on the uneven ground that was covered with moss, scrub and lumpy outcrops of grass and small trees.

We did eventually haul that damn shower in to the house, and we did get it hooked up so we could have showers – but it wasn’t worth it –  there was still no hot water.

Tractor and wagon spring 1973

When the school bus could no longer drive down our road our friendly neighbor would pick us up in his big pickup with 4 wheel drive to take us out to the corner to get the bus. Then when the pickup couldn’t make it through we went on a hay cart – sitting on a bale of straw- behind his tractor. (I got chilblains on my ears and outer toes one spring during a snow storm sitting exposed on the back of the wagon). When the hay cart couldn’t make it we stood on the back of the tractor behind the huge wheels and hung on. When the tractor could no longer make it I got to stay home from school. Here my sister is coming home with some groceries thanks to our neighbor – Spring 1973.

By the next spring we got rid of that old oil stove and put in an electric range in the pantry and a Franklyn wood burning stove (just for heating) where the old stove had stood in the main kitchen (still the only source of heat for the hot water tank). And we sold the Maverick and bought a Toyota Land Cruiser 4 x 4 – that looked like it was game for anything, and guess what? It got stuck too.

Note: you may find me sounding whiny about the hot water situation – but understand this: a year and a half after moving to Jolicure, my girl friends at school (in grade 8) started fingering through my hair and scalp and remarked on how filthy I was – it was embarrassing – but worse than that my body was scaly with filth too. And, with the road impassable for weeks and no hot water – clothes didn’t get washed either. So hygiene became a serious issue for me. My parents were quite oblivious.