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Childhood memories rich, failed birthday cake and all

Ever ask a child what they remember most about their birthday? Chances are they'll answer with something seemingly unrelated. They focus on things that went wrong, too, in that same strange way that when they find a hole in clothing, they'll stick their finger in it and work until it's larger than before.

So goes the memory of my first birthday cake. I feel as though I should remember more important details ? things Reverend Whitbread was doing as he baked it, the time of year (fall?), who arrived that day.

Instead, I best recall what a miserable failure the angel food cake turned out to be. It was one of those impossible recipes: real egg white instead of powder, no fat whatsoever, the perfect balance of every atom. The slightest error could trash the whole thing. But, if anyone could bake it, the Reverend Whitbread could.

Then, no one is perfect. Maybe baking it in bread tins contributed to its downfall. Then again, maybe it was that unreliable, coal-burning stove.

On my seventh birthday, instead of the fluffy, angel food cake pictured on the mix box, there resulted a glutinous mess, like the devastated contents of an ostrich egg. I was disappointed, but oddly wasn't mad at Reverend Whitbread, only at the empty promise of the mix box picture.

I felt like screaming, "You promised!" at it. But at least Kusik ? my favorite dog ? received a sugary surprise.

Over the years, I've seen other pastors struggle with cooking in the high Arctic. One of them, after trying frozen char, told me it was like, "fish ice cream." Ah, the weird things kids note at the time.

But he who actually pulled off most cooking ? pulled off living in general ? with marked skill was Reverend Whitbread. There were numerous accomplishments under that vast belt: constructing a church almost single-handedly, translating famous Anglican hymns into Inuktitut, delighting everyone with his accordion playing. The man was a true jack-of-all-trades, and ribs have never surrounded a kinder heart.

Many knew him by his Inuktitut name of Quinijuq ("Fat"). With his broad sealskin boots, extra-extra large Eastern style parka, and perpetual Pangnirtuq cap, his size and pronounced tan-line across an alabaster forehead were all that betrayed his British origins. My grandfather joked that when Quinijuq sat on the sled, it sank several inches.

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I strongly recall Quinijuq's wife and children. His wife's name was Pat ? that was how we knew her. They had two daughters and a son. Once, their son introduced himself in an aristocratic English accent, saying, "My name is Henry Martin David Whitbread." Thereafter, us kids endlessly amused ourselves by calling him, "David Martin Henry Whitbread", "Martin Whitbread David Henry," etc. What do you expect from kids?

Their family and ours sometimes camped together on the Land, in the spring and summer. They had their own tent, sled and dogteam ? the works. When they went to bed, they would have a final cup of tea with bannock, and slept upon a platform of caribou skins and blankets. Just like us Inuit.

With 24 hours of sunlight, it was hard to tell whether it was 3 in the morning or night, but it made no difference. Both of our families raced outside in the waking hours, exploring with equal joy the vast tundra teeming with lemmings, duck nests, and explosions of miniature plant life.

As I said, a child's memories are strange. All I remember is the sunlight flashing like diamonds from countless ponds; of hearing the cries of birds as they wheeled across the sky; of exhibiting to each other bizarre creatures we found living in the frigid waters. And I best remember the family that lived with us as Inuit ? without concerns about culture ? because of the lifestyle the Land demanded of us all. They were days when one was Inuit because of one's lifestyle, rather than due to some institution's definition of heritage. Skin color was insignificant.

My childhood memories of life in the Arctic can be summarized by one word: warmth. Of the sun, of the people around me.

Oh yes, and after the failed angel food cake, much relished by Kusik, Reverend Whitbread still managed to whip up a double-layered, chocolate cake. That Kusik couldn't have. But we gave her the pan to lick anyway.

After all, a birthday cake is for sharing, isn't it?


Editor's note: Rachel Attituq Qitsualik was born into a traditional Igloolik Inuit lifestyle. She worked in Inuit sociopolitical issues for the last 25 years, and witnessed the full transition of her culture into the modern world.