For Susanna and Bella

“You zip the suitcases and I’ll start carrying groceries to the car,” I say to my oldest daughters on Friday morning. I bend down and pull on the handles of a plastic bin overflowing with pots, pans, spatulas and other tools. The weight of the load strains my lower back and I remind myself to bend my knees for the second bin. I’ll have to come back for the third one later.

Belén, Susanna and I are getting ready to leave for our biennial “girls weekend”, a getaway offered to any woman in the family older than twelve. Although we’ll only be gone for a little more than 48 hours, it appears as if we’re permanently relocating to another city. We’re hauling almost everything but the kitchen sink. Literally. Our baggage includes three kinds of electric mixers–a bulky food processor, an immersion stick blender and hand-held beaters–as well as multiple pairs of shoes, boots, jackets, games, books and art supplies. Which, considering how we normally travel (with one pair of underwear for a week in the backcountry), all feels very extravagant.

My sister and I have organized the weekend by ourselves and haven’t bothered our mother with booking accommodations or researching entertainment options. When my mom called me a few days before the trip she wanted to know if there were any details left to figure out, or what she should bring.

“What do I need to do?” she asked me on the phone.

“Nothing,” I answered. “You don’t need to do anything except be there and be happy. No complaining allowed!” Of course, she’s more than happy to enjoy the weekend without the planning and I’m not worried she’ll be grumpy. I’m simply stating Rule #1 of our family tradition.

On Friday evening, after checking out our downtown condo, we head to a local bookstore to browse and eat dinner.

“We’re pretty packed,” the host warns us when we approach his kiosk. Biting his lower lip and running his finger down the reservation list he adds, “It’ll be a while before I can get you a table.”

“Great!” I say, still grinning.

“Like an hour and half,” he clarifies, looking at me apologetically. “Do you still want it?”

“Mark us down,” I say. After all, we have no agenda and aren’t in a rush. We all split ways and wander in our own directions. I head to a book launch in one corner of the store, where the poet and musician Scott Nolan will be reading verses he wrote during miles of daily walks. Squeezing between book stacks and audience members milling around with coffee in hand, I find an empty chair beside an an old man sporting a beret and a young women wearing bright red lipstick. Eavesdropping on their conversation, I remember how delicious it is to be out and about in the world by myself.

At nine o’ clock all of us reunite over candles, flat bread pizza and West African peanut soup. The soup is underwhelming and tastes like diluted pumpkin puré, Susanna finds a curly black hair baked into the crust and Bella is exhausted after waking up at dawn and travelling all day to meet us. Still, we are together. The youngest two, especially, have been looking forward to this initiation for years.

“I feel so old,” Susanna repeats throughout the evening, without a single complaint about her pizza strewn with arugula. And not even a rogue hair can dim the shine for her.

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The next morning we walk a couple kilometres to an Etsy Maker fair. About halfway there we stop at The Don, a breakfast diner with a German Mennonite menu owned by a Korean family.

“What are the cracklings like?” I ask the waitress, trying to recall vague memories of my grandma serving them.

“They’re rendered pork fat fried in oil,” she replies, poised with her pencil and pad of paper. “People say they have a distinct flavour.”

“But you’ve never eaten them yourself?” I press.

“No,” she adds, shifting her weight, “but they’re really popular.”

“You used to love cracklings!” my mom interjects. “Or at least your brothers did.”

I order a plate for everyone to share while my mom launches into an explanation of our Mennonite heritage for the waitress. Once our food arrives, including the crispy pork fat that is just as good as my brothers always thought it was, we turn to Belén, Susanna and Bella for some conversation. What are their classes like? Their friends? What are the best parts of their days? The worst?

Listening more and talking less is something I’ve noticed in the generations who have gone before me. I remember my Grandma Mary sitting in her rocker, hands folded in her lap, silent in the midst of my aunts, uncles and cousins who gathered in her home regularly on Sunday evenings. My Grandpa Hans and Grandma Susie behaved similarly while hosting weekend reunions in hotels, listening to their kids and grandchildren visit and play games around them. I had observed their quiet and wondered if they didn’t participate because they couldn’t hear. Or was it because they couldn’t relate to the topics in the conversation? Perhaps, as people age they are less inclined to be the center of attention? Whatever the reason, I sense the same shift in who’s “got the floor” as my own family grows older.

The next morning I find Belén, Susanna and Bella huddled in the kitchen. They are talking in low voices and I draw closer to find out what is going on.

“Ha!” Belén laughs when I get too near. “Look who wants to listen-in now!”

“What to you mean?”

“Well, adults are always whispering and talking about things we’re not supposed hear. Now it’s our turn.”

Yes indeed.

I assume their conversation has something do do with the meal they’ve volunteered to prepare for us. My mom, sister and I are shooed out of the condo for a 2-hour walk while they work. They’ve already spent long hours on the phone deciding on a menu and figuring who would bring what. Susanna printed off recipes she’d found online and made colour-coded grocery lists. Days earlier I had dropped her off at the store so she could pick up the top-secret ingredients and when I’d returned home from my own errands I knew something was missing but couldn’t think of what it might be. Then I remembered Susanna. Backing out the driveway and returning to Superstore I found her, still combing the aisles for ingredients like fennel seed and and almond flour.

Now preparations for the feast are in full swing.

“Don’t look! Don’t come to the kitchen! You can’t see what we’re doing,” yells Susanna when we return too early from our walk. I flop on the bed and close my eyes while traces of citrus and chocolate, mingled with basil, waft into my room. Finally we are served freshly-squeezed lemonade, spaghetti with marinara sauce, salad and a buffet of handmade macarons.

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Besides the no-complaining rule there is one other tenet of the Girls Weekend: No Parenting Allowed. This means no rushing, nagging, pushing, cajoling, or telling anyone else what do. Although I cherish my role as a mother, the weekend is a vacation from that role, from all the orchestrating, programming, and managing of other humans. No one is in charge of what anyone else eats or drinks, when they wake up or go to sleep or what they do in between. We are all on an even playing field and it gives me a taste of what it might be like to have have adult children and enjoy their adult company.

“Pretend you are 21-year-old university students,” we explain to the twelve-year-olds at the beginning, “and we’re all just hanging out as friends.”

It’s not that I don’t want to be their mom–I’ll never give up that identity–but it’s refreshing to take a break from some of our normal interactions. Instead of forcing violin practice or reminding them to do their laundry we can all relax into simply being in each other’s company. And when we do, it’s a little easier for me to remember that I like these individuals just for who they are. Not as daughters or students or little mini-me’s but as the people they are becoming.

On Sunday morning everyone sleeps in and there is no time for anything besides packing. Once all of our kitchen paraphernalia has been stowed and our bags are ready we take one last look around the sparse, but stylish, space.

“It feels like there should be some kind of ceremony to celebrate the end of your first girls weekend,” I say to Bella and Susanna, who are putting on their jackets.

There are groans in response.

Then my mom sets down her purse and begins to pray a blessing on each one of the younger generation. It is ceremony enough.


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