Pâtisserie Tomaž by Ronald Mackay
Effortlessly, Adeline’s appearance and behaviour drew respect from all. Always well-groomed, she carried herself with relaxed composure, seldom acted impulsively, never showed unbridled surprise or demonstrated an ungoverned emotion. Her very being exuded a lifetime of dignity, education, culture and of leisure reinforced by experience and reflection and perhaps by a whisper of rightfully-deserved privilege.
Adeline came from a veritable web of leading Toronto families. She had graduated from Trinity College with a degree in art appreciation in the early ’30s when few women attended university let alone a prestigious college based on the grand traditions of Oxford.
Her great-grandfather had been a member of that group of forward-looking entrepreneurs who had founded one of Canada’s first and greatest banks. Her grandfather had played a role in the founding of the city’s art gallery. Her father had trained as a doctor, held a post at Toronto’s medical school but had preferred to spend his life researching and writing-up the definitive work on those arachnids, spiders in particular, that despite all odds, managed to thrive north of Canada’s tree-line. His wife had been the daughter of a Bohemian nobleman and, every few years, the entire family would spend a summer on the family estate near the ancient town of Tabor.
After graduating, Adeline had to decide how to occupy herself until she married. The problem was easily resolved. She would join a cousin who was about to study opera in Rome and Berlin. All the many cousins had spent most summers together at the family cottages in the Muskokas, a lake-strewn region north of Toronto favoured by the wealthy.
And so, Adeline sailed for Europe as companion to her cousin. And that very summer of 1935, in Bayreuth, she met Günter, fell in love and took him home across the Atlantic to be approved, before marrying and settling into Berlin where her husband ran the family legal business.
The dinner parties we hosted in our home outride Toronto were joyful. Adeline always seemed to say just the right thing to flatter fellow guests at the table and make them feel at home.
“Ah,” she would address a guest. “You come from Toronto? So do I. Which part?”
“Summerhill! Then you must know my cousin Winslow Brentworth. He lives almost next door to you.”
Pleased, the guests addressed would widen their eyes and Adeline would continue.
“The architect? In Rosedale?” She would smile intimately to the guest.
Flushed with warmth by the compliment that they must be familiar with the elder residents of Toronto’s elite neighbourhood, the guests would incline their heads. “Of course.… We know the name.”
“Oh, Toronto! What school?” Adeline would assess them, her head on one side. ”I am certain that you attended the same school I did.”
“Which school was that?”
Adeline would smile knowingly and, say, “I knew from the way you asked! You too, went to Havergal!”
The guests would raise their eyebrows at mention of Havergal and remain silent but greatly flattered to have been taken for former pupils of a boarding school founded in 1894 for young women of good breeding.
Central Europe had gained my love and respect. I had taught at Wenceslas University. I’d been impressed by the quiet confidence of my colleagues; how cultivated and well-read they were; how they knew what to say about history and what to leave unsaid; how they bore no grudge against us for having traded them to Hitler in 1938.
Proud to be familiar with Central Europe and Bohemia, its changing history, its romance, music and literature first, by experience and now by marriage, I was only too pleased to go out of my way to indulge Adelia in order to be worthy of such an admirable mother-in-law.
I planned meals from European recipe books, I learned to make spätzle, to offer 11 roses so that she was the one who made the dozen.
My greatest delight was to purchase tiny sweetmeats at Pâtisserie Tomaž, the Czech bonbonniere in Montreal’s Bishop Street close to my office. To enter Pâtisserie Tomaž was to step back into Bohemian history and enter a world of sophistication and artisanal beauty. And the aroma! All for $60 per 500 grammes.
One Thursday afternoon, just as I was about to leave my office to walk to Union Station to catch the express train, first to my mother-in-law’s in Toronto, and careful to give myself time to stop at Tomaž on the way, the Dean called me. I gave the call all the time necessary to resolve the matter that was troubling him. The result was that I had to rush past the pâtisserie without purchasing the usual 500-gramme selection of delicacies for Adeline.
Feeling guilty, I rehearsed my excuse in advance and hoped that she would understand and forgive me.
On the train, as ever, I ordered a bottle of water and a glass. Every Thursday afternoon, I would pour a little water into the glass and, when the attendant had passed and no one was watching, I would pour two miniatures of scotch whisky into the glass and stow the tiny 50 ml bottles back into my briefcase. Then I would sit back as the train pulled out of the dark station into the sunlight and reflect. It was my way of switching from one world in which I lived to the next: from university life with all its small-mindedness, back-biting and petty competition to my quieter, more rural, farm-life 500 kilometres away in Ontario.
I would sip my whisky, reflect first on the successes of the week, then on the failures and how they might be turned into successes the following week and, as the stations flew by and we crossed the border into Ontario and headed west alongside Lake Ontario towards the metropolis of Toronto, I would plan my three days of farm-work very carefully.
But that Thursday afternoon, the guilt I felt for not having bought Adeline her usual half-kilo box of pâtisserie troubled me. She looked forward to them so much. The small gift was one of the highlights of her week. She would take the white cardboard box from my hands with delight, deftly untie the red ribbon that criss-crossed it, undo a bow in the middle and open the box. Her face would light up with happiness as she surveyed the rows of chocolate and iced bonbons that lay snug within their fluted cups. And then, as I entertained her, she would eat them one by one until, holding up the last one wistfully, she would say, “I saved the most delicious one till last!” And pop it into her mouth with enormous satisfaction.
I would then scour Adeline’s fridge to find something, anything, for my supper -- neither Adeline nor her daughter cooked -- before driving to the airport to pick up my wife from the late flight down from Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, where she often worked on weighty matters for the Federal Government. Together, we would drive from the airport directly to our farm in the country to spend Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Sunday night would find me on the sleeper to Montreal.
That afternoon on the speeding train, I felt peckish and decided that I might buy a sandwich to keep me going until I reached Adeline’s. Like my wife, her daughter, she never cooked, preferring to graze from the refrigerator.
“We’re out of sandwiches,” said the attendant. “What about one of these?” She held up a chocolate chip cookie the size of a dinner plate.
“Anything smaller? Without chocolate?” I asked.
“That’s all I have left!”
And so, against my better judgement, I bought it. One dollar.
I have never been partial biscuits or cookies. Perhaps my aversion to sugar was the result of seldom having tasted it as a child. It was rationed in Scotland during the war and hoarded all year until summer so that my Grandmother could make jams and jellies with fruit from her garden. Besides, I have always regarded such things as occasional treats for children, no substitute for real food.
I looked at the chocolate-chip cookie in its transparent wrapper. When the attendant had held it up for my inspection, she had made it look marginally enticing. Now it looked disgusting, diarrhoea-brown and flecked with lumps of darker chocolate. I looked for the garbage can but my Scottish parsimony wouldn’t let me dispose of it, so I stuck it into the outer pouch of my briefcase.
Adeline was watching through the curtains as I paid the taxi driver who had brought me to her home from the station. My feelings of guilt returned. Why hadn’t I bought her pâtisserie at lunch time just to be on the safe side? Now I’d blotted my almost faultless record and disappointed my mother-in-law.
As I made myself a cup of tea, Adeline didn’t as much as boil water, she waited impatiently. We sat down in the sitting room. She stood up again and brought my brief case to me.
I was opening it to demonstrate, reluctantly, that it lacked the customary white box with the slim, red ribbon tied into a bow in the middle.
“Oh!” my mother-in-law announced.
I looked at her, fearing her disappointment, rehearsing my excuse, placing the blame fair-and-square on the shoulders of the dean.
She reached into the outer pouch and withdrew the enormous, factory-made chocolate-chip cookie.
“Is this for me?”
“I… I’m sorry…” I began.
“Chocolate chip! My favourite! Thank you!” Adeline tore the cellophane wrapper off the dinner-plate-sized cookie and bit into it. “Mmmm!” Her eyes closed in pleasure as she chewed.
Amazed, I stopped myself in mid-sentence. No apology was necessary.
I drank my tea. Adeline finished her $1 cookie and licked melted chocolate from her fingers.
“Excuse my lack of manners, but this is sooo good! It’s one of the very best treats you have ever brought me.”
I could think of nothing to say. Had I misjudged my mother-in-law’s good taste? If I had misjudged her ability to distinguish between products hand-made from Tomaž’ quality ingredients and cheap, junk food cookies, what else about Adeline might I have overlooked or misjudged.
These were the thoughts that were passing through my mind as my mother-in-law went out onto the deck at the back of her Toronto home to feed a family of racoons, despite her neighbours having entreated her many, many times to desist. Racoons dependent upon human hand-outs in a densely-populated city turn into serious problems.
“I prefer my racoons to my neighbours!” Adeline would confide in me with a self-consciously naughty grin.
These doubts were in my mind as I prepared to drive to the airport to pick up my wife, along with my decision never, ever to buy from Pâtisserie Tomaž for her again!