The woman in the picture above is Elodie Mary Gallien Wade.
And she was my Nanny.
Nanny was very close to my sister and I when we were growing up. Every weekend, my Mum would take us to Halifax to visit Nanny where she had her own little apartment on Victoria Road. We'd go to movies, the Public Gardens, the beach and sometimes, we'd just hang out in her apartment. It didn't really seem to matter what we did. We were always together.
When I was 15 years old, Nanny came to live with us. She had been battling the first stages of dementia for a while. For three years, my mother, my sister and I lived with a stranger who cried constantly, begging us to take her home.
She gradually withered before our eyes, at the end, an empty Alzheimers-ridden husk.
Twenty years after her death, I still carry the weight of grief, heavy, as apple peelings slip from my hands to the wooden board below.
I can picture my 18 year-old self, after her freezing February funeral, dressed in a black turtleneck, burgundy courduroy skirt, black army boots, and black pea coat, roaming the streets of downtown Dartmouth, chain smoking, blinded by tears.
Her death drove deep into my soul.
I will never get over it.
Born in Caraquet, New Brunswick, my Nanny moved to Halifax when she married my grandfather. She spoke little English, and seemed embarrassed by her thick Acadian French accent.
I wish I could tell her how I've tried to learn French, that I chose to study French as my university minor, because of her.
I love cats. My Mum tells me Nanny loved them too. Mum tells a story about a cat named Toni that would come to their house on Wright Avenue after the previous owners left him behind. Nanny worked serving night lunches at the VG hospital, and every night, Toni would walk with Nanny to the hospital, waiting outside for her, until it was time to go home.
It's these little stories I need, I crave, because I'm afraid I'll forget what little I can remember.
My other grandmother, Barbara Jean Ellis, was a great beauty.
She lives today with my father, her son, sucked into the vaccuum of dementia.
While I was growing up, she lived in Ontario.
I never got to know her and I'll never have the chance.
I have so many questions.
Last Christmas, I was thrilled when Sean's aunt offered me a box of her mother's cookbooks and handwritten recipes.
'I think you're the one that will appreciate them the most', she said.
She was right.
To me, Nanny Neil's handwritten recipes are something to be treasured; a small glimpse into a life I'll never know.
Mary Elodie Gallien Wade - Barbara Jean Ellis - Almina Eugene Densmore Neil - Mary Ellen Harris Shand - Ethel Melvina Craig Shand
Who were these women beyond my perceived notion of them as grandmothers?
What was it like to be in their shoes?
What would they think of me?
These questions fascinate me.
I've been wanting to share one of Nanny Neil's recipes for almost a year now. I approached James Ingram last spring with an idea for a project about grandmothers. This summer we spent a day shooting with Nicholetta from Pepper + Paint, testing my concept in her beautiful bright modern summer home on the North Shore.
Afterwards, I phoned James.
'It just didn't feel right', I said.
Maybe it's grief, maybe it's nostalgia.
Whatever it is, it doesn't feel light and airy to me.
I do know this.
Diving into the past, dragging up old memories?
It's complicated. And it hurts.
But it helps.
Nanny Neil's Apple Pan Dowdy (I've adapted the recipe directions to be more clear than what's written on the original card)
1 C brown sugar
1/4 C flour
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 C water
1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 Tbsp butter
1 tsp vanilla
4 C peeled, chopped apples
1 C flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 C milk
2.5 Tbsp shortening (I used butter)
- preheat 350º
- cook brown sugar, flour, salt, water and vinegar over medium heat until thick, about 8 minutes - remove from heat and add butter and vanilla - mix well and set aside
- in a buttered casserole dish, arrange peeled, chopped apples
- pour brown sugar sauce over apples and toss to coat
- Biscuit Topping - in a bowl, mix flour, baking powder, salt, milk and shortening only to make wet - drop by the spoonful on top of apples - bake 40-45 minutes, or until biscuit topping is golden