Salsa Madre


It’s the same with families and ceramics—you don’t quite know how the tile will crack

Come on in, don’t be shy. My name is Bernadette. And you are? Jan. So pleased to meet you, Jan. Father René told me that you would stop by. Yes, I always work here, out under the carport. I like the sound of rain falling on the roof. You’re from Montreal? Toronto. Ah. That’s a long way. I have a niece who lives there, on Yonge Street. Twins in a stroller, maybe you have seen her? They’re a handful of trouble. Well, this is my summer project—should be finished in the next day or two. Sure, photos are fine. You might find the ground more stable for your tripod over on the path.

These are my tiles and pots and cups, arranged by colour. I do the actual smashing on the concrete, and I shape the pieces afterwards with nippers. I use an outdoors glue to fix the ceramic to the bathtub. Here’s a nice piece of Limoges that Madame Benoit passed on to me. Look at the pink dress on that courtly lady, but see how it’s cracked underneath? There’s gold paint on it. I’ll be using it somewhere special.

Today I prayed that the paint inside my shrine would stay put. I will not be ashamed to ask for that in the church, since my work is to glorify the Mother of Our Lord, so the paint should not flake no matter what I do. Not to say you shouldn’t prime carefully. After all, our God is a busy God. I’ve seen shrines where the sun gets in and the paint hangs down in sheets around the head of the Holy Mother. She stands there as if she’d got her head up under a string of washing. Shame.

Mind you, not many people bother to keep up their shrines any more, and I don’t know that you’re going to find anything other than empty ones around here. These days people prefer deer on their lawns, or roosters or kids fishing. Down on Rue Bonaventure someone has a Montreal Stadium being attacked by a giant polar bear. Not many people feel that much faith any more, or if they do, they keep it up their sleeves and not in their gardens, except at Christmas, and then it’s the plastic statues. Violette La Caisse bought an entire set on sale at the hardware store and they faded after two years. You can’t make holy things out of plastic.

I’ve been doing mosaic stars on my bathtub, rays or petals of one colour and centres of another. I stick them on first, and then I fill in the gaps after with little bits left over. Mother Mary approves of recycling. She gave birth in a barn, after all, even though where she is now she probably has most things in gold and jasper. I gave her statue a clean this morning. She looks nice lying on the grass, doesn’t She? Resting. Just like my mother used to have a lie-down after lunch.

I expect Father René told you that I was once a novice. I was about to take my vows when God came to me in a dream. He said go to the general store, so I did. I was so shy! The store was nothing like the supermarkets we have now. You could get anything there. Violette La Caisse was working the till that day. Urgel Beauregard from up Lac des Tortues way came in. I didn’t know him from Adam, but I heard him say to Violette that his wife had died and would she have him, because he had six children and didn’t know what he would do. And Violette said thanks for offering, but she had enough on her hands with the rush on sugar pie orders, and she turned to serve me and I looked up at Urgel’s big empty eyes. He drove a truck for the paper mill, and I brought up all those children in this house and we had two more of our own. Good kids. They all pitched in.

Now I’m going to tell you what happened to my son Henri. It’s nothing you won’t hear from down the road. Still, I’d rather tell you in my own words. People say that divorce is the worst thing that can happen to a family, but there are worse things. It’s the same with families as it is with ceramic. You don’t know quite how the tile will crack, even if you think you have a rough idea. I’m talking hairline cracks, places where it’s ready to break and we can’t tell until the hammer comes down. Well, whatever went on used to happen in the vestry. And in the end my boy Henri got so quiet I knew something was up. He was not the only one. And next thing they sent that priest to the south of France so that he could do it all over again in the sun.

When Henri turned sixteen he went to work in his uncle’s fish shop in Montreal. Plenty of boys do it. I suppose they think there’s more to life down there. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? When we have all this sky up here. But at least he told me he was going—he could have gone to do squeegee like that kid down the road. I left him alone. You have to let people work things out, but I never stopped wondering how he was, and I never stopped praying for him. He was a good kid.

You know, about this time last year the Virgin Mary appeared to me behind the barn. I was spraying the lettuces with a slug killer that I make by boiling up cigarette butts. It works a charm. Well all of a sudden I had this feeling that there was a mystery happening beyond the edge of the vegetable patch. And I came around the corner of the barn, and there She was, hovering over the lightning weed. Just small, like a statue, but shimmering. And she said to me in a voice as low as a mourning dove’s, Find what was lost, renew what has been broken, give the thanks that is due. I fell down to my knees and I cried and I cried.

Well, what can you do when the Holy Mother calls? I went to Montreal on the bus and stayed with my cousin’s friend Rosalia. She lives near the Jean Talon market. So beautiful this market, with the fruit laid out in the shops—pink carrots, pink! You’ve got organic bananas spooning to the left, aubergines spooning to the right, and prickly fruits from Asian countries that I don’t even know the name of. I bought a lot of tomatoes for only five dollars, and Rosalia and I spent all afternoon making a sauce called salsa madre, which is very good and has more garlic in it than Urgel would ever let me use at home. I had no trouble discovering where Henri was living. He has an apartment in the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, only now it’s condos. Early in the morning I sat in the band rotunda in the park, and I saw them come out of the door, my Henri, and a little boy, and another man.

The boy sat on Henri’s shoulders and held onto his ears for balance. Henri’s friend held the door open for them, shut it carefully behind them. I can tell you, I was alight with joy in my veins. The urge to get up and run to them, God help me, it was so strong. But I screwed my feet to the floor. I watched them walk all the way down the street to the car, a nice car. Then I went back to Rosalia’s and got the jars of salsa madre, and then I returned to the church that is now condos. A young man with a ponytail let me into the building. He had a T-shirt on that said “Don’t shut me in.” I looked at him and said with my eyes, “Don’t shut me out,” and he opened the door, just like that.

Inside, you have no idea what they have done to the Church of Our Lady. They have built a hotel in there, and left one pew to sit on while you wait for the elevator. Where there should be a stoup, just inside the door, there is a water cooler. And where the Cardinal walked on marble flagstones in 1961, there is carpet and a corridor. Well I’ve done the same thing in the other direction, me out here turning my bathtub into a sacred place. We’re all going in one direction or another, and who’s to say it won’t become a church again in a hundred years? Likewise, if you needed a bathtub, you could come and dig up one of those empty shrines from down the road.

From Henri’s apartment on the fifth floor you can see the whole city. A young woman was there, doing the cleaning. Such a tiny wee thing from some Asian country. She could see I was his mother, and she showed me right in. Oh, such an apartment you have never seen! So tidy, so calm, like a monastery, with slanted windows high in the ceiling, and a shining aluminum refrigerator, and a bedroom up a spiral staircase. Like apartments in New York, I am sure. I delivered my jars of salsa madre, and the girl stood on a chair and put them in an empty cupboard high up, and we lined up the jars just so and closed the doors. Henri will find them on a hungry day, a day when he cannot think what to cook, and he can use that sauce with the vegetables that he might already have. So that was it. I came home. I don’t like Montreal. Too much concrete. But at least I know that he is living in the house and heart of Our Lady, and he is safe. And I am glad, and grateful for Prayers Answered. And so I wait, in case Henri wants to bring that child home to meet his grandmother, because that is the next thing that I will pray for, as I pray for the man who held the door open, and the mother of the child, too, whoever she is. I will wait and watch for Henri to come in his own time, same as I wait for the deer to come out of the forest to eat the new shoots on the field. And then, what a feast we will have.

Look, Jan—I am ready for the coulis. How do you call coulis in English? Yes, grout. The colour of this grout is called paprika, which will spice up all that blue and make the yellow bright even in the rain. So we mix up the coulis with water, until it’s thick and sloppy like icing, and then we work it on with a spatula, like this, into the cracks, and then scraping off the excess, and then doing it again. Here we go. And now we give a good polish with our cloth, et voilà, the colours come together and my bath becomes a shrine fit for Our Lady of Lowing Cows, Our Lady of Meltwater, Our Lady of Lightning Weed, Our Lady of Blackened Shingles, Our Lady of the Smelter, Our Lady of Everywhere.

Without the coulis, the broken cups and saucers are just that, broken. And without the ceramic, the coulis is just wet earth. But put both together, and they glow. The coulis is love. We cannot do without it. You have kids, Jan? Just your books of photographs? Well, it’s all for the glory. Will you listen to that blackbird? He’s up there every evening. Let me wash my hands and I’ll fix you some coffee. You won’t find a better cup down the road.



Alice Petersen’s stories have been shortlisted for the Writers’ Union of Canada Short Story Competition, the CBC Literary Awards and (for “Last Summer,” in Geist 62) the Journey Prize. Petersen lives in Montreal but she prefers to be up in the woods.


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