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What a sin
and what a Maritime grandmother might eat for breakfast
I used to call my grandmother every morning before school when I was little to ask what she was having for breakfast. I loved using the telephone in our pine kitchen with the striped burgundy wallpaper, pressing the buttons - 8 3 5 - 3 7 9 2 - then curling the cord around my fingers. I pictured her answering in her dressing gown and soft fitted slippers, sitting at her little phone desk in her bedroom, the only phone in her apartment, next to her perfectly made bed with the purple satin counterpane. She always answered with surprise and joy, even though I called at 7:30am, every morning.
“What did you have for breakfast?” I’d ask, knowing the answer would always be toast and cheese. It’s a curious combination, toast with a thin spread of butter and jam from last summer’s harvest, topped with the salty tang of thinly sliced aged cheddar.Then I’d chat away, telling her about the oatmeal I had eaten topped with brown sugar, or the Golden Grahams cereal I wish my mom would buy more often. She’d listen and agree by inhaling soft ‘yeahs’ in rapid succession. It would be years before I learned that this form of agreement - inhales, barely audible over the phone - was unique to the Maritimes, unique to grandmothers.
I thought of this when my son Rex was sitting at the kitchen island last week, his arm in a fresh cast and his head still woozy from moderate sedation. “What does ‘what a sin’ mean,” he asked while reaching for a glass of water with his wrong hand. His teacher said it when she heard he had fallen on the school yard and broken the fall with his arm. The secretary said it when she sat him down and looked at his ashen face and misshapen arm. My friend texted it when she heard he was at the emergency. What a sin.
There are words, phrases and flavours woven so tightly into this place that I forget they’re unique. The breathy agreement. What a sin. Or ‘Sobeys bag’ - the generic term for a shopping bag, named after a grocery store owned by Nova Scotians. Toast with cheese.
“‘What a sin’ is an expression of sympathy,” I explained, “and probably Catholic in origin. You haven’t committed a sin by breaking your arm, a sin has been committed to you. Acadians say it too, but shorten it to “péché,” that’s French for sin.” Rex had glazed over by then. He slid off the stool and laid down for a nap.
What a sin.