I think that’s the best word I can use to describe Edna.
For years a dear friend of mine kept telling me that I’d have to meet his neighbour, Edna. Edna didn’t need a surname. Everyone knew her: cookbook author, philanthropist, journalist, writer and local treasure.
I must admit I was nervous about meeting her. I don’t know why. I just was. I mean, in my travels I’d met actors, millionaires, billionaires, politicians, musicians, writers, lawmakers, forces of change and other noted people, but the prospect of meeting Edna made me feel like a deer caught in the headlights.
I didn’t need to be.
I met her in May. I don’t know what changed, what made me screw up my courage and ask my dear friend to arrange a supper for the three of us. Maybe I finally listened to him and believed that she was an ordinary person. Maybe this blog made me more confident about my writing. Maybe I felt that I was a ‘good enough cook.’ I don’t know what it was that made me send that email, but I’m glad I did.
Edna wanted Indian food for supper. I blinked when I read the email. We asked her what she wanted to eat. Nursing home food, although probably good for her, was bland and boring. She wanted something that was tasty—but not too spicy. I would have been very happy to make her a meal…but I was still hobbling about on my very sprained ankle.
Thank goodness for the very excellent South Indian restaurant that was about seven minutes from my office. Dinner was a takeaway of chicken kurma, rice, palak paneer, gobi Manchurian, pappads, parathas (because rice is well…rice), and onion bhajis. Dessert was vermicelli pudding. We drank strawberry-banana smoothies. Yes, it was a lot of food…there was enough to feed six people…but mummy always taught me to make sure there was plenty to serve and that no one left hungry.
Edna was in her chair, reading one of the short-listed books for her creative non-fiction award when we arrived laidened with sacks of food. Her eyes sparkled from behind her bifocals; a bob of snow white hair framed her face. She had a beaming, welcoming smile.
We talked for more than three hours as two of the nursing home cats, a plump black and white moggie and sniffy ginger tabby, inspected our food and us. They were used to a parade of people in Edna’s room. Her appointment calendar was booked weeks in advance—visits from friends, media interviews, fans who just wanted to meet the great lady. Evidence of their visits was everywhere: vases of flowers, plates of treats.
We visited my blog and called up my post about her apple fritters. Our friend praised my writing—and I blushed. Edna gave me advice and talked about her writing process. We are very similar. She beamed when she found out that I approach my personal writing in much the same way as she wrote: pages of handwritten scripts tucked in cabinets and books; pieces are written and re-written; we read voraciously. I don’t know if she ever read this blog—we explained the Internet and blogging to her. She was interested in the thought of all those people from all over the world stumbling onto this little bit of espace. I know she liked that photo and thought that the chocolate-maple syrup I made was quite good.
I learned that Neil Young once stayed at Sunfish Lake. I knew she was friends with Pierre Berton and W.O. Mitchell. We talked about books and food and cats. She was bright and aware. She asked questions and reminisced.
I told her that in primary school I won the Edna Staebler Award that comprised of a much cherished autographed copy of Sauerkraut and Enterprise.
“Oh! And what did you do to get that?”
“I have no idea…but I did it well enough to win it.”
Edna laughed. She had a great laugh.
She was very kind and posed for pictures with me and our friend. She autographed my copies of Food That Really Schmecks and More Food That Really Schmecks. She looked at my copy of her earlier book and asked where I got it from because it was an early edition. She could tell because the back cover illustration was wrong.
All too soon, our visit ended. Before we left, I gave her some baking—a loaf of coconut-banana bread made with pears and cherries. She worried that it was too big and she didn’t have a fridge, but she graciously accepted it and asked that I visit her again.
Two months later, after my summer class ended and the brunt of a very trying July passed, I called our dear friend and asked for another visit.
“She was just asking about you and she wanted to know if you could come by again.”
With all those people who came in and out of her life, I couldn’t believe that she’d remember me. Even harder to believe was that she wanted me to visit her again. I honestly thought she was being polite when I left her two months ago.
Like our first meeting, our August visit was at supper. We were to have Thai food, brought in from my friends’ restaurant, but because of unforeseen circumstances, our dear friend brought in Swiss Chalet. I brought dessert—cherry clafoutis. She praised the loaf I gave her before and loved this sweet. A friend of hers dropped in unexpectedly for a visit and shared dessert and our evening.
The cats remembered me. She remembered me. She asked me about my writing and the food I made. This time, she was doing all the asking. She asked me about what I did and what I studied. She was curious about what part of India my parents were from and what they did. She wanted to know all about me and my cats.
We talked about writing about food and cookbooks. Yet again, we found another connection: what made us qualified to write about food was the sole fact that we loved to eat. She thought that I would get on with her friend and cookbook author Rose Murray, and thought that perhaps something could be arranged.
We talked about books. She was getting ready for the awards meeting and gave me her opinions on the books that were shortlisted. She wanted to know what I was reading and if I'd read any of the books on her shortlist--I had. We talked about her cats and the ones at the home. We discused the weather. We talked about places we both visited. She laughed. She was sparkly and mischievous. Again, what should have been a two-hour visit stretched to more than three. I promised to visit again.
Edna Louise Cress was born on 15 January 1905 in Berlin, Ontario (now Kitchener). She studied at the University of Toronto and the Ontario College of Education. She married Keith Staebler in 1932 and divorced him 28 years later. She wrote 14 cookbooks about Mennonite cooking in Waterloo County and a number of creative non-fiction novels. Her articles appeared in a number of magazines including Macleans, Saturday Night and Chatelaine. She was a great supporter of our community and endowed a number of scholarships. In 1996 she was awarded the Order of Canada.
Edna lived life to the fullest for more than one hundred years. She was intensely curious, adventurous, always grateful, full of joy, outgoing, had a deep love of nature, and found a way to connect with everyone.
Edna Staebler died on Tuesday 12 September. She had a stroke three or four days earlier. When she passed, she was surrounded by her friends and Oliver, the black and white moggie, was at her feet.
I’m intensely grateful for having the opportunity to meet and spend those few, but wonderful hours with her.
I’ll miss you, Edna.
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