A World without Mia

Today’s morning broke on a world without Mia.

I knew, somewhere deep inside—had known since the night before. I smothered the sense of that knowing until I came home from work to face the accusatory blinking red light of the phone. Mia was gone, the ninety pounds of her unable to endure another day.

I did not trust myself to call her spouse, who had said that all that “they” could do for her was make her comfortable while waiting for the cancer to overwhelm itself and her life. After all, twenty-three years of fighting it off… the classic “courageous battle with cancer.”

He had been right, I suppose.

Being right is highly overrated.

Mia was 69 years and two weeks old. Didn’t even get the biblical threescore and ten, which seems enormously unfair for someone so feisty and fun with so much hard work under her belt. She is the first of my circle to leave. Dearest Mia, plenty of us will soon follow. The Boomers are the last literate generation, perhaps, but certainly the first poisoned one.

Somewhere among her effects is a red-beaded book with a hand scribbled memoir in it of our time in Yukon. Mia said it was the best present ever. Her presence was the best present ever in the lives of not a few people; so here’s the story.

A Few Reminiscences for Merry Mia
on the auspicious occasion
of her becoming a Sextagenarian
October 29, 2006
from her faithful pal, Wolffy

I met that rarest of creatures, a Scorpio who does not frequent the dark side, over a dog in Dawson City, Yukon.

Several dogs, actually. A truckload of canines. Pisspots of puppies. Cyclones of dog fur.

Image is public domain.

Image is public domain.

Mia hadn’t been in Yukon long but already she had acquired a man (well, a reasonable facsimile of one), a well broken-in Yukon truck, a teaching job in a Yukon town called Watson Lake, officially, but often referred to by those of us who didn’t have to live there as the Anus of the North, and a tribe of huskies. From the midst of this chaos she smiled merrily at me, convincing me that I really needed to complete my messy life was a big, gangly dumb puppy, to go with the hundred-pound wolfish, furry food processor already guarding my half-assed excuse for a tourist trap, an unheated, leaky trailer newly resurrected from the spring flood, when Dawson’s two rivers had combined forces to turn the town, and my trailer, on their heads. With that level of mess to clean up, the very last thing my life needed was an unschooled canine.

I bought a dog.

Its siblings sold quickly, too. Who could resist that twenty-four-carat smile from Mia?

I think that was the summer of 1978.

This brown pen suits my memory of visiting Mia in the Anus of the North. A lot of wood: log house, wood heat, and ten thousand trees standing around the cabin.

In those days I possessed very little common sense but a lot of gumption, a combination guaranteed to provide one with an eventful life. In this case, what brought me to Watson Lake was the truly stupid idea of starting one of my little stores there. Dragging along my own reasonable facsimile of a man, I arrived on Mia’s doorstep—cluttered with dogs, of course, it was.

That evening was my first taste of my new friend Mia’s warm hospitality. She dished out great food, the comforting kind that reminds you that spring will probably come again after all and life will get better as we traipse along the river of time. Long ago I’ve lost count of how often Mia’s welcoming smile has delivered to my heart just the cup of hot soup and the plate of perogies it was hungering for.

Mia wasn’t always a happy sprite, or course. She is human. I’ve seen her angrier than a wasp, which is fun to watch as long as you’re not the one who will be stung, and I’ve seen her sad, which is no fun at all.

Mia dropped into my store in Whitehorse one day. She didn’t seem herself. Even the shape of her was different.

There were good reasons for this phenomenon. First, those new bulges indicated that Mia wasn’t just herself—she was rapidly becoming two selves!

Then there was the lesson so many of us learned, to our loss, about faxes: they fade in sunlight. Sure enough, Mia’s reasonable facsimile of a man had faded away, leaving Mia the opportunity for untrammeled full-catastrophe living, North of Sixty, with a baby, by herself.

I suggested she join my own catastrophe and she took me up on the idea.

For the next year or two (it seems much longer in memory, perhaps because we worked so hard), Mia, her redheaded dog, Coby, and her beautiful daughter, Silka, were a big part of my life. Just about everything that could go wrong with a business short of arson or avalanche did go wrong with Conspiracy stores, Ravencraft store and our chocolate factory, but Mia never flagged, never lost courage, never abandoned or betrayed me, and never lost that twenty-four-carat smile.

That girl has grit. More grit than a gold pan and more nuggets, too.

Three snapshots from a pregnancy:

  • Mia’s delight in the unexpected capacity for expansion of a red batik sundress;
  • moving the heavy cash desk in the Conspiracy store out from the wall another few inches every week so that Mia could squeeze behind it; and
  • Mia on the stool in the back of our store, out of public sight, ravenously tearing at a meat sandwich I sneaked to her to supplement the strict veggie diet her sister-in-law, Kathy Cross, insisted on.

We were proud to be Yukon women, part of a tradition of strength, independence and innovation that ran all the way back to Martha Black, first female Member of Parliament.

Every March 8, International Women’s Day, a bunch of us came together to party, singing songs celebrating tough Yukon women, alternating with laments about the lack of real men north of Sixty.

Mia fit right in. So did I.

Little Silka, whose aunt was a popular local musician, soon picked up the tradition, singing in celebration of herself as a tough Yukon woman, starting about age two.

We were tough.

My favorite memory of toughness is a snapshot of Mia and me, dressed in our gold-rush-length skirts, humping a behemoth of an antique display case down one of Dawson City’s dirt streets by hand. Why we had to do this, I don’t remember. No doubt this monument to gravity was headed to my store, or from my store, and there was no man or machine nearby to do the job when it needed doing. We must have decided that a mere small mountain of glass and wood could not possibly defeat us. There we were, slogging through the muddy street—lift! Hup! Carry…carry…and down! Ha ha grin grin laff laff—almost six feet gained that time!

The score stood at Yukon Women 1, Display Case 0. Didn’t even crack a pane.

Then there was Teepee Toughness. Our Mia, with Silka and Coby the Irish setter and—I think—Kana the wolf-husky puppy, dwelt in a teepee. The real thing, miles of canvas wrapped over long poles Mia had found in the bush, not an easy task north of Sixty. If you’ve ever had wood heat, you know how heavy wood is. What you may not know unless you’re a sourdough is that the vast majority of the Yukon’s trillion trees will never make the grade as teepee poles. Like everything else alive and shivering north of Sixty, Yukon trees hunker down in the snow, what there is of it, and are content to remain short.

Never mind: Mia got her poles. She placed a little woodstove and a lot of bedding into the grass-floored structure and called it home (along with a peripatetic tribe of rodents).

It was summer, of course. Even Yukon women aren’t foolhardy enough to try winter in a teepee. It was indeed lovely inside, with the twenty-four-seven lambent light bathing Mia’s little touches in an ambience of peace, hope and an unhurried confidence in the future. Silka and the dogs enjoyed a freedom and closeness with nature few children or dogs can have nowadays, thanks to Mia’s pluck and determination.

Winter demands toughness of all Yukoners. Not for nothing is the newcomer denied Sourdough status until the second winter has been survived. Hacking a Yukon winter in a teepee is at the best of times not brave but just plain crazy. With a baby, it would have been madness.

Fortunately (I think), I had bought a house “on the marge of Lake Lebarge,” as Robert Service rhymed. Well… “house” is perhaps too fancy a word. It was more of a wooden box with a cardboard roof. Electricity had not yet reached that section of Lake Lebarge; so there was an ancient Lister generator in the garage, which we ran a few hours a day to keep the salmon and moose in the freezer frozen solid during the brief summer and to provide a few hours’ light in the winter beyond the four or five hours of sunlight that eked across the vast frozen lake.

There was a phone—a radiophone, which you did not use except in emergencies, which naturally occurred always on a Sunday morning when no one in town was working or on duty, anyway. The thing ran on batteries that invariably chose Saturday night as a good time to die. But, hey, that big pretentious box was at least some link to the so called civilized world.

The house was heated, too—Yukon style. In the kitchen stood a bowlegged cast-iron cookstove, crackling chattily to a two-level Fisher woodstove in the living room. The Fisher manifested a quiet, efficient, no-nonsense personality—it seemed to use every scrap of wood twice and you could, with practice, do anything culinary on those two surfaces, even bake bread. It only shortcoming was the whoosh of cold air it drew across the floor from the front door, which, I believe, we blocked off for the winter.

Baby Silka proved a tough little toddler in spite of her diminutive size. Bright, sprightly and imaginative, she accompanied Mom virtually everywhere, along with Kana and Coby. In a Yukon winter, going somewhere, even just to work, is not simply a matter of bundling kids and pets into a pre-warmed car and pushing the remote-control garage-door opener to a wintry world. Mia’s big red Dodge van stood outside, weathering the frozen slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Uninsulated, its walls and floors were so cold during drives through thirty-below—and worse—that one had to worry about whether just-purchased groceries would freeze solid on the 24-kilometer journey home to Jackfish Bay, Lake Lebarge. Coby in particular was not enthused about wintry trips in the van. Lacking Kana’s fur coat, especially between the toes, the poor setter was reduced to dancing on the metal floor unless he could claim the coveted spot on the warm engine housing between the front seats. No doubt each workday morning Coby watched anxiously as Mia commenced the arduous process of starting the vehicle, hoping she would fail so that they could legitimately stay relatively warmer at home.

We cabin dwellers faced a choice when temperatures dipped into the minus thirties or lower. At my cabin, a short walk from Mia’s house, I could either slip and slide my way down a forty-meter path, cradling my vehicle’s heavy battery, and keep it warm in the cabin’s wood heat, or I could get up every four hours and run the engine for half an hour, or I could run a line to the vehicle from a small generator in the cabin, a ferociously noisy invention that made the entire cabin shudder and jump as if its last moments were imminent. At the house, in theory, Mia could run the big old smelly Lister generator but, if I recall a-right, this proved somewhat theoretical. Alternatively, one could remove the battery to the house and replace it just before leaving for town, also a nasty, greasy business. The third choice entailed skirting the van with large slices of cardboard, leaving room to slide a couple of pans of coals under the engine area. Pans of glowing coals from the woodstove were much easier to carry than a truck battery. You placed the final bit of cardboard skirting to corral the heat, crossed your fingers, and went back to bed…briefly.

If only it was never necessary to go to town! With a baby, of course, it was necessary—often. Then there was the necessity of running Conspiracy stores. And water. Not to forget water.

Summertimes at the house on Lake Lebarge, we could run a hose out into the lake and pump a week or two’s worth of amply mineralized beige water into the holding tanks atop our water tower. That way we had gravity-fed running water. By September, however, we had to drain the system in preparation for freeze-up. September was the month you’d better have your wood in and your water out.

Lake Lebarge froze over in winter and, Yukon being semi-arid, there was seldom enough snow lying around to meet a human family’s water needs. Thus we added to our daily duties the filling up of water containers at the never frozen stream near the highway junction, four miles away. Heavy work! Efforts to make worthy sled dogs of Coby and Kana failed to relieve Mia of enough of the heavy work. No single mom should have to do all that she did. Eventually she caved and moved into town. It was the only sensible thing to do.

Who’s Kana?

Silka’s wolfdog puppy was born at Lake Lebarge, the littlest of eight adorable pups born to my bitch Sila. It was early summer, 1982, and the house was temporarily occupied by my new fiancé, his kids and me (I believe Mia was teepeeing). At six a.m. on a Sunday morning, when the pups were three weeks old, we were awakened by agonized puppy screams. The littlest pup was bleeding all over herself, her jaw hanging from her muzzle by a thread of flesh. Sila, getting up from nursing, must have gotten a foot somehow tangled in the little one’s mouth. Her claw must have ripped out the upper jaw as she extricated herself. She was a very upset mom as we picked up the puppy and cradled and calmed it while frantically trying to get the recalcitrant radiophone to call a vet out of bed. Miraculously, we reached one. Minutes later, with me still in nightclothes while holding the puppy, we were in our old Volvo, steaming for Whitehorse.

You can’t sew up a three-week-old pup, explained the vet but somehow she placed and taped the jaw back into its spot, giving the baby a very slim chance of survival if we bottle-fed her.

Baby Kana spent her second three weeks of life in a tall cardboard box, safe from her siblings and mom, getting a bottle every couple of hours while Sila hovered anxiously. The feisty little girl strove to thrive as if she knew there was a special destiny awaiting her.

Silka started life as a tiny human being—to this day she stands only five feet zip. If she was to have her own dog, the usual roistering, clumsy sled dog would not be a good choice. Kana would likely be a big dog—a white wolf with an adorable, permanently crooked muzzle—but, like many children who have had a brush with death, this pup had a sweetness and gentleness about her that made her an ideal companion. So, she became Silka’s Kana and lived to a ripe old age.

How did the crazy idea of Chocolate Moose get hatched?

Perhaps it’s best not to remember.

A chocolate factory on the marge of Lake Lebarge, off the grid, with no capital and no equipment. Now there’s a sure-fire recipe for getting rich in a single summer! Those stingy old tourists will just eat it up!

No doubt my crazy fiance’s unbridled enthusiasm for crazy projects helped launch Chocolate Moose. He ordered up special extrudable plastic from California to make our very own exclusive chocolate molds and sent me out to hunt Vancouver’s streets for items like belt buckles depicting a dogsled hurtling through snowy woods. He’d hitch such items and the extrudable plastic up to an old barrel vacuum cleaner et voila! A unique chocolate mold!

Why Mia and I didn’t simply chain him in the basement and put him to work turning out saleable chocolate molds, I’ll never know.

We were going to be Yukon’s first chocolatiers, which meant, among other things, that we needed to approach desirable retail outlets with display units. Ours measured about two feet square at the bottom and sported a smiley moose head at the top. For the rest of my life I will remember the arduous job of working a jigsaw by hand around those pesky antlers—ten times!

By the time I returned to the Yukon for the summer, however, we had it pretty well together: display units, tags, bags, molds and a small mountain of milk and dark Callebaut chocolate, buttressed by an even larger supply of “sludge”, the industry’s term for what passes for chocolate in ninety per cent of commercial chocolate bars.

Mia quickly became the Yukon’s first Mistress of Chocolate, flitting through the Lake Lebarge house like an oversized white butterfly in her apron and headscarf, from stove to fridge to yet another flat surface crowded with cooling chocolate molds, mixing and tempering and styling. There’s a trick or two to tempering the good chocolate but Mia soon mastered the fine art of getting the aromatic pot of liquid chocolate to exactly the right temperature despite the vagaries of the weather on the shores of the huge lake. Lebarge is big enough to grow its own thunderstorms. When we saw or heard one approach, we ran to put the fresh milk into the fridge—one crack of nearby thunder and its lightning were enough to turn it sour in a flash (ha ha).

People don’t believe an electrical storm can sour milk but it’s true!

Keeping the milk fresh for the milk chocolate was not the only struggle for Chocolate Moose. Like any chocolatiers, we had a batch or two bloom on us. Bloom, the white cast one sometimes finds on good chocolate, especially if it’s been through violent temperature changes, doesn’t hurt the chocolate but it does mean a trip back to the tempering pot.

Then there was the endless battle against dog hair.

Then there was the fact of an endearing small child underfoot in a chocolate factory.

Then there was the big old red van, charged in its senescence with delivering wrapped, labeled, perfect chocolate to our sixteen outlets in Whitehorse. I don’t remember what maintenance issues arose as I trundled down every road, mediocre or bad, in Whitehorse but they seemed to go on forever.  

Then there was the demand for our naughty chocolate designs, which we made out of sludge, probably because we secretly despised the penis-and-titty obsession (no, humans were harmed in the making of those molds, as far as we knew—they were sold to us readymade, as a secret weapon for making it big in the chocolate business).

We worked ridiculously long hours to make Chocolate Moose a success. Was it? Well, for one summer, Yukon visitors and locals had made-in-the-territory, unique chocolate to help them while away the hours on the highways. Somebody took fire from our idea and started the Chocolate Claim, still alive today in Whitehorse. As for Mia and me, at summer’s early end we totted up our hours and our money, divided the latter by the former and concluded we’d made $4 per hour—plus a lifetime of tasty memories.

And then there were weddings….

Surprisingly for two feisty Yukon broads whose cosmetic kits consisted of little more than a hairbrush, a toothbrush, insect repellent and some berry juice, Mia and I each married. Three decades later, the jury is still out on the question of how good an idea this was (particularly in my case). However, the marrying part was fun.

By the time my law-school wedding rolled around, both of us had reluctantly forsaken our beloved Yukon, I for Vancouver and Mia for Ontario, where Silka kept her grandparents delightfully occupied. Mia, however, was not going to let a few thousand miles stand between her and her friend’s wedding—the old red van was pressed into crossing Canada one more time and would arrive at our house on Grant Street in East Vancouver shortly before the wedding.

“Shortly” is an elastic word.

Another friend, flying in from Yellowknife where, she claimed, there was no shred of stylish clothing to be found, had, like Mia, asked me to shop for her. Hence the living room was hung about with five or six lovely outfits clearly too small for me, to the bewilderment of my groom, who more or less gave up on figuring out weddings at that point. As I recall, MJ, my YK friend, arrived an hour or two before the wedding, swiftly got dressed and left for the venue, looking spectacular. Between seeing to the flower girls’ shoes and flowers and the sparkles the two mothers wanted in their hair, I glanced anxiously out the window for the red van. Was it stuck on perpetually jammed #1 highway? Had it blown a tired tire in the badly named town of Hope?

I was nervously ironing my slip, ready to step into the wedding gown, my best man tapping his foot to signal that we were going to be late—hey, bride’s privilege!—when I heard the growl of the van. Mia screeched to a halt and leapt out of the truck. Seldom have I hugged anyone so enthusiastically: it meant the world to me to have her there. She jumped into an outfit, glanced at the poem she was to read during the ceremony, and stormed off to the wedding venue.

Mia eventually returned to the West and became involved in starting a housing co-op which was to be named for her grandmother. A solicitor was needed to do the legal work and at our fledgling legal firm I had one: my principal, Bryce, had become our associate. I introduced them: client and lawyer seemed a good fit. “See?” I said to my partner-husband. “We did need a solicitor.”

After a few weeks, I noticed something: Bryce’s lunch account had risen sharply. Come to think of it, I hadn’t heard a peep from my girlfriend in weeks. I called. “Mia. What’s going on?”

“Oh, Eva,” she said after a pause. “I think I’m in love!”

Correct diagnosis: she was. Some tumultuous months later, Mia was the most radiant bride I’ve ever seen. Her hug for her old Yukon buddy was so strong, my pearl-cluster earring popped out of its ear hole and rolled away into another dimension, never to be seen again.

And the rest, as they say, is history. Life became messy, as is its wont. We both ingested full plates of big-city life, the legal world, the business world, and life with teenagers. Lion’s Bay for Mia; Belcarra for me. Ontario for Mia; Hawaii for me. Cancer for Mia; fibromyalgia and bunged-up body parts for me. World’s Worst Divorce for me; rescue by Mia and Bryce. More cancer, now for both of us. Caring for our elders—years and years of it. Property management: success for Mia; failure for me. Grandchildren: two at last count for Mia; ??? for me.

And so it goes.

Now we meet, two senior ladies who have piloted the ship of life at full throttle and still want more. Each of us has cheated death more than a few times but now, before we’ve reached even our allotted threescore and ten years, repeating that feat looks more challenging than ever before. It’s not fair, to be cheated of our final sail through the quiet bays of old age to safe harbour. I want more of what we had, not just our crazy, vibrant youth but lovely sunny days like the weekend we went sailing on Mia’s yacht with our daughters, just us women on the Salish Sea, thumbing our noses at superstitions about women aboard ships.

My darling Mia, I am and always will be crazy about you, your independent spirit, your open heart, your warmth and humor. So glad that we have shared so much—thank you!

Love you forever,

Wolffy

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