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Gifts for aging parents

A home-cooked birthday meal for Dad and friends helped to solve the gift-giving challenge

I recently spent a considerable amount of time perusing old photographs as I edited a vanity press family history book written by my mother. When I showed Dave the wedding photo of my parents — taken 63 years ago — he confessed he would not have recognized the young and handsome couple in the image. He’s only known my folks for 10 years; this year, my parents will both turn 82.

It’s true they’ve changed as they age. We all will. It’s one of those humbling and unavoidable truths. But aging does have benefits to match its deep societal drawbacks. In a recent essay titled “Against Ageism” that appeared in The Walrus, senior-citizen novelist Sharon Butala lambasted western society’s dismissive attitude towards our elders before observing that, “I live more in the now than I have ever done… savouring the moment and focusing on it not as part of the spiritual and therapeutic practice known as ‘mindfulness’ but as a natural development in and of the state of being old. It is through this attention to the moment that true joy in the wonders of being alive in the world, so rare otherwise in adulthood, finally comes.”

“Joy in the wonders of the world.” Joy and wonders are both easily overlooked when bodies begin to slow and fade. But small things may take on bigger meanings.

As farmers, my parents led active, physically demanding lives. They lived on a dryland farm, where they kept dairy and beef cattle, a big garden, hayfields, horses and dogs, and a crop of kids who grew up and away. They threw bales, pulled calves, mucked out barns, wrestled with tractor tires.

Nowadays, when I visit my parents for movie night each Sunday, they are usually to be found in their armchairs in the front room in front of the picture window. My dad has happily settled into time spent at his computer, on his stationary bike, or in that armchair, perusing the latest Scandinavian crime novel. My mother has had to let go of all her busy work and crafts and hobbies, although she still takes delight in birdwatching and her small backyard garden. But she’s less adapted than Dad: “I have nothing to do and all day to do it,” she tells me whenever I ask.

Their dwindling mobility and dexterity has made gift giving a challenge. My dad’s aching hands find his e-reader easier and lighter to hold than a hardcover book, and his taste for whisky has diminished. Mom no longer sews. So I have fallen back on the simple things. For Dad’s recent birthday, I gave him a card that he could redeem for a home-cooked meal, for him and a tableful of friends.

That evening, seven of us sat down to the menu he’d chosen — flatbread topped with sun-dried tomatoes and chevre, scallop chowder, chicken braised in puttanesca sauce, salad, rhubarb crisp. Nothing fancy, as my grandmother would have said. Simple things, culminating in joy — for my dad, in the sharing, and for me, in being able to make a moment for my father. So before we turn to all our waiting tasks, first we eat. Today, an Italian pasta sauce with a racy past.


Pasta puttanesca

This sauce has a risqué story attached — it might have been made by prostitutes for themselves or their clients, or perhaps by a philandering wife eager to keep her husband in the dark about how and where she spent her after- noons. Regardless, it is a quick, umami-laden and utterly yummy pasta topper, but also makes a terrific braising medium for chicken or sturdy-textured fish. Serves 6.

  • 2 onions, minced
  • 6 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 50-g tin anchovy filets
  • Olive oil for the pan
  • 10-12 mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 tsp. dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1 tsp. dried thyme
  • 3 c. chopped canned, fresh or frozen tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp. tomato paste
  • 1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce 2 tbsp. capers
  • 1/2 c. Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
  • Cayenne and salt to taste
  • Raw chicken or fish, in large pieces, optional
  • Chopped parsley to taste
  • Grated Parmesan for garnish

Sauté the onions, garlic and anchovies (oil and all) in oil until tender and the anchovies have cooked down. Add small amounts of water as needed to keep the onions from browning. Add the mushrooms, herbs, tomatoes and tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, capers and olives. Simmer until all is hot and the sauce has reduced slightly. Stir in the cayenne and salt to taste, then add the chopped parsley. Optionally, add chicken pieces or fish as desired, and continue cooking, covered, until done. Serve on pasta, topped with parsley and Parmesan.

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