Sunday, 1 December 2013

Mike Skipper, pecan pie & a whole lot more.



Thanksgiving reminds me of pecan pie and pecan pie reminds me of my friend Mike Skipper. I've tried writing about Mike a number of times but the words have ended up folded away and stashed in the inner pocket of my moleskine, the one that that I use for personal journalling - my secret diary. I may have found it easier to write about Mike if it had not been for Idiotic Hat who seemed to so effortlessly find the perfect words to describe Mike. I never got around to writing to tell Idiotic Hat so. I was too blown away and still too raw from mourning my loss. And possibly, years later, I still am. Both blown away and mourning that loss, that is. 

I met Mike in 1994. Like most people I was a little fascinated by him. I had observed him on occasion when visiting my then boyfriend (my hubby now) on campus. He was the much respected photography technician, the one with the American accent that everyone had decided was Canadian for some reason. The one who everyone eagerly had some add on information about that they couldn't wait to share. People were fascinated and also a little scared of Mike - you wouldn't mess. Despite this, he was extremely well mannered (the southern upbringing) extremely thorough, extremely good at teaching and extremely well liked. The year following our first encounter, I returned to campus to begin the same fine art degree as my now husband - who was the year ahead of me. Mike had me sold from day one when he called me Katy-Anne, as my name appeared on paper for the photo/video module he was teaching.  He never stopped calling me Katy-Anne and I never asked him to. It is actually my first name, named after both of my grandmothers. The only person that has continued to use this name to address me is my mother and that is normally in letter or card form only or if I have used a swear word in front of her. I liked the way Katy-Anne sounded when Mike said it, with that southern drawl. It made me think of cotton fields and the little house on the prairie and that episode of Dallas where it explained how Sue Ellen and JR met. I don't quite remember the build up to becoming friends. It just felt like we weren't and then we were. Mike and I never bonded over photography, despite our friendship days being spent in the lab or in his office, where he was based. It was just in the background, probably because I wasn't that interested in it because I was not a natural, never had that 'eye' for it. Not like Mike. Mike photographed me a number of times and being photographed by a pro, and a real artist at that, is like being part of a great performance. One where you get to be the subject and the audience all at once. Mike is one of few people who truly made me feel beautiful, like a bower bird somehow. He was on the surface, a gentle, intelligent, professional, quiet man and underneath a man with a wicked sense of humour, a man with a quick temper (you really didn't want to mess about with his chemicals in his lab!) a tender, beautifully paranoid man. The kind of man who would force me to play games like 'you gotta pick one' which involved selecting one of two choices of people you'd sleep with. My worst memory of this was when he presented me with the choice between Phil and Grant Mitchell! I said I wasn't playing but then he tricked me and we laughed so hard when we both picked 'Grant' and felt dirty all over. 

He was always trying to get one over me in that way that you do when you've come from big families and have being used to being the brunt of jokes and been used to teasing. He felt very much like an older brother to me in that way. We often shared with each other stories from our childhoods, from life generally, times of hardships and intimate details would fall from our lips so readily, so easily. And yet our relationship was so funny, confined to that little office or the space outside where the technicians would chat, where Mike would smoke his morning cigarettes and where I would often wave to him as I arrived on my bike in the morning, where he would greet me with 'Good Morning Katy-Anne'. 

I can't remember the first time that I made Mike pie. I just remember that thanksgiving was approaching and he was talking about what would be happening back home. He explained that he wasn't sure that he would miss any of it 'well except the pie of course. Do you know how hard it is to find a good pecan pie Katy-Anne?' I remember I went home and looked through the few cookbooks I had at the time and sure enough, I found a recipe for pecan pie. I wasn't much of a baker at the time but I made that pie and delivered it the next day. Mike was out of the office at the time and so I remember leaving a note and sticking it on top of the covered pie. I think it read something like 'I hope it tastes just like your mama made, happy thanks giving. With love from Katy-Anne'. Just like straight out of little house on the prairie, no? Anyway, later that day Mike came to find me to thank me for the pie which he said was really good and very authentic! He came holding the circular silver foil tray that I'd baked the pie in and only a quarter of the pie remained. I'd only dropped it off a short time before. 'Katy-Anne, you did a bad thing. I can't stop eating pie'. Till this day, I have no idea if that pie nor all the other pies I went on to bake him, tasted any good but as my mother has always said, it's the thought that counts! For a petite man, boy could Mike eat!

Mike and I, after three years (my whole time studying for my degree) had a little falling out. It was just before I was about to complete my degree and move away from Oxford. It was I realise now, over something very silly. It was I realise now, him being a bit of an insensitive male and me being a bit of a dramatic female. I think we were both utterly confused by each others reactions since they were not typical for either of us. Really, it was just our first fight. I wish I'd realised that then and not been so determined to prove a point, in that way that you do when you're in your early twenties. I would do things very differently now or perhaps just the same but with making up at the end. A substantial amount of time passed before we were in touch again post fall out. But time had changed us, circumstances had changed us. We e-mailed for a while and found friendship once more but life had shifted. Times weren't the same as those spent in that office, drinking coffee, with the familiar and comforting smell of processing chemicals and the hint of tobacco that lingered on Mike.

The last time that I saw Mike, we happened upon one another. He was chaperoning his niece visiting from the states and I was with hubby and a not quite two year old Zach taking a trip down memory lane, visiting Oxford for the day. I recognised his walk immediately. That sexy, majestic walk of his, the one that he promised he hadn't practiced even though he could never say the words without collapsing into laughter. You know you totally practiced that walk Mike, back in the seventies, once you got to New York huh! He looked so poorly that day and I knew immediately that the cancer was back. We said goodbye and I don't know if I knew that would be our last encounter face to face. We e-mailed and put dates in the diary to meet, he talked about his new place and how he wanted me to see it. He said Alison had done a great job of the floor. But then it went quiet, very quiet. I wrote and sent cards. And I wished and wished that I hadn't wasted so much time. I wished that my silly twenty something self had bitch slapped me  to make me see clearly. Then one day, an old friend from uni got in touch with my hubby. He said he thought that I should know, because Mike and I had been friends. And just like that you were gone. I really hoped that I wasn't just another admirer, another fan, of which there were many. I hoped that I was special. I still do hope that. Sometimes, I still get mad that you never gave me a print of that picture you took of Stuart and I where I look like a cotton pickin' black girl from the south with short pickaninny hair! I miss you Mike and I so enjoyed thinking of you this thanksgiving, and my thirty something self is ready to be thankful for ever knowing you, even if it was for too shorter time.




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