Archive for May, 2007

Where’s Waldo

May 31, 2007

The dressing table is a dark reddish Ewardian mahagony, lovingly polished weekly, always dustless. A small crocheted lace doily in a octaganal pattern keeps her crystal dresser set from scratching the delicate varnish. The sterling brush and mirror set from Birks has lost its shine, is tarnishing slowly and exorably from the next generation of neglect. The tilting mirror gazes back at Kay as if to say, “Aren’t you new here?”

Kay is looking for Mother’s birth certificate. Where in blazes could she have put it? Kay has gone through each of the files expecting it to be there, but it isn’t. Kay is beginning to feel that she is getting useless, forgetful, stupid. She can’t even remember if there was a birth certificate.

She remembered a stack of cards that Mother kept in her purse, held together by an elastic that went one way, then twisted once and held the cards in a springy cross shape. The purse was empty. Completely empty. No wallet, no cards, nor make up; no blush-on, no lace handkerchief, no comb, no money. Where could all of that have gone? The purse was still perching up above the center bracket in Mother’s closet.

Kay vaguely remembered the day the clothing was sorted and packed away. She had looked into the purse and, yes, it was empty even then.

“What did you do with the contents of Mom’s purse?” Kay said a bit querulously.

“I emptied it out, ” replied Lizbet a bit defensively. We were all pretty sensitive at that stage. “There wasn’t much in it, anyway. Just a comb and a lace handkerchief and her wallet. I didn’t even think about it. Why? Do you want it? ”

“Well, I need her papers. I need her personal documents, her social insurance card, her health card, and whatever else she uses for identification. I don’t know exactly what I need, but I need it. I’m supposed to be taking care of it. It can’t just go into the garbage.”

“It hasn’t gone into the garbage. It’s around somewhere. It’s okay. Everything is still here”

But that was two months ago. And what had Kay done with it? For someone who was supposed to be looking after everything, there were too many things going missing. There was this, now, the birth certificate, that she was looking for. And the ring. Kay explored her faulty memory, searching for a hiding place, a safe place. Had she really put them away, or just thought she had.

The ring was important. It would belong to Heather, if Kay could find it. It was Mother’s pride and joy, designed for her by Willie Van Ypren, the jeweller on Tenth Avenue, fashioned from her wedding engagement rings that had become somehow problematic for her in their original state. There were diamonds in it. Kay supposed that if she could not find it and it was under her care, she would have to reimburse Heather for the loss from her own money. That didn’t really matter to Kay. She could do it, but it bothered her immensely that she was losing things and couldn’t find them afterwards. Rather, she was putting things in safe places and then not being able to remember where she had put them. It smacked too much of Alzheimerish activity.

It’s too early for me” Kay said to herself as she searched. “I don’t want to go yet, and I don’t want to go, so forgetful that I can’t look after myself.
In the bottom drawer of Mother’s dressing table on the left hand side are belts. A slew of them. One drawer up, there are gloves. The drawer is full. The top drawer has scarves of all patterns and colours. There is no packet of identity cards.

On the right hand side, the top drawer has handkerchiefs. When they became difficult to find in the regular stores, or when she found them, they were enormously expensive for a handkerchief, Kay started to look for them at church sales. The elderly were dying off, leaving behind messages on dainty cloth handkerchiefs, laced with tatting or crochet, patterned with cut work or embroidery. At ten cents a handkerchief, Kay bought them all, washed them, gave them to mother. It wasn’t a big gift – a stocking stuffer at Christmas, a token at Easter, Mother’s day or a little extra on her birthday. Now the drawer was full of lace, embroidery, tatting and cutwork. But the little Japanese cloth envelope, or was it a wallet that usually contained Mother’s set of going-out jewellry, was not there. The ring was still missing and the identity cards elusively hiding elsewhere.

There were curlers in the next drawer down and stockings down below.

“Oh dear, what can the matter be,

Oh dear, what can the matter be,

Oh dear, what can the matter by,

My memory’s no longer there.”

In the bottom of the stocking drawer, Kay pulls out a slip of tissue thin paper. It’s an invoice, a bill for dresses from La Belle Rose. It appears as if two dresses have been purchased. One of them has a charge for alterations. May 17, 1974. Mother was sixty three, still teaching one last year so that she could get a pension; she needed ten years. Father had just retired. The first dress was one hundred thirty six dollars and eight dollars more for alterations. The second for one hundred twenty six, was on sale. That was a lot of money then.

I bought my brand new Datsun for two thousand five. You couldn’t get the same car for twenty five thousand now. My house was fifteen thousand, but that was out in the country and inflation hadn’t hit. How could you compare? You were supposed to remember the price of bread and compare then to now for a common multiplication factor. But that was too difficult especially when you took in the China factor which made all manufactured goods thirty percent less expensive than Canadians could make for the same object.

Were these the two dresses that she took with her to a conference? Were they still hanging in the closet, waiting for probate approval so that we could give them to the Historical Costume Society?

Kay laid the bill aside, thinking to come back to the thorny question of value; she must not get distracted from her task. The Birth Certificate had to be be found.

After a day of searching, Kay had packed up three more boxes of stuff for her move; written two more business letters; reviewed and checked the probate information; revised the spreadsheet format; thrown out a waste basket full of unnecessary papers; air fluffed two pillows with a softener tissue in the dryer to make them smell fresh; done a white load and a coloured load of laundry; printed labels for moving boxes and searched.

And searched. And searched. And searched.

Still no ring. Still no Birth Certificate. It wasn’t funny!

Heather’s Garden

May 27, 2007

Heather offered to take care of Mother when I went to Malaysia for a well deserved, two week holiday. That was nine years ago and Mother at eighty-six, still got around well, could take a long trip in a car, navigated around a house easily, was just beginning to use a walker to take her from A to Z.

Independently, she went for walks down to the park six long blocks away, getting her sunshine and exercise in one determined fix, and coming back. She got around on Transit’s Handy Dart service for mobility impaired seniors as long as she planned well enough in advance. She did the arranging herself. She was fiercely independent.

Friends came and took her to bridge games, teas and retirement group luncheons; or to the Seniors’ Centre, to Faculty Women’s, University Women’s and Engineer’s Wives groups or to tea. She was well and independent with her bustling personality going at the speed of her walker. Certainly, she was determined not to be a burden on anyone, especially not Heather who, at times, was struggling with her own health.

Certainly these things are unplanned, but you have to wonder at God’s timing of it all. Just after she arrived at Heather’s in Sechelt, Mother had a recurrence of her troublesome TIAs (mini heart attacks) and in additon, some virus, the doctors thought, that caused her to feel dizzy. With all our careful planning, Heather was now looking after an invalid, driving her to doctor appointments, hospital testing, picking up medicine from the pharmacy and coddling Mother while trying to keep her own equilibrium and health. As it turned out, Mother could not travel until she was well again, and the two week penance for Heather turned into six weeks..

Now, Mother could be demanding whilst feeling ill, and she insisted that Heather keep her company during the long hours of her convalescence. Heather who had learned patience and forbearance under Mother’s guidance and who had been taught to obey her parents at all times, did her best to comply with all her grace, kindness and infinite skill at care taking.

She rubbed Mother’s legs; she helped her in and out of the bathroom; spent a difficult session to bathe her in a makeshift arrangement in the bathtub. Mother was without her bath bench, so a plastic garden chair was set into the tub for her to sit on. Heather read to her, brought her music to listen to, she told tales and encouraged Mom to tell some of hers from the past. She clipped an polished Mother’s nails. She sat in silence just for company, crocheting at her latest project or preparing her lessons in Japanese, while Mother dozed.

Much as she would reason with Mother about how she could not stay with her absolutely constantly and still keep the household running, Mother was insistent that she be kept company and be amused. God help Heather if Mother should fall asleep, have Heather go somewhere in the house where Heather could not hear Mother call, and Heather not arrive instantaneously at her bedside. I can just hear her saying, “What kept you so long!” after a two minute response time.

The possibility of Heather getting out to her beloved garden, the meditative healing source of Heather’s ill health, was proscribed until Mother was well again. Now, you might say, Heather was a grown adult, and so was Mother. You would think they could reason this out and come to a compromise. But Mother was unreasonable with her fears and needed, really needed strongly, the assurance that someone would be there by her side if something happened, or she would mire herself in “what if” worries to the extent of making herself sicker, just from the worry. Mother, if you remember, has a Masters of Worry, as diplomas go. She could write the definitive text on it.

Heather, on the other hand was the eldest child. She had taken the brunt of Mother’s neophyte child rearing experiments, this same Mother who had written her final disertation for her Batchelor’s degree on Discipline in the Classroom. Heather had learned her lessons well and knew that any effort to rebel would not be brooked. And if she did not conform to Mother’s wishes, Mother had very subtle and effective ways of Discipline in the Classroom that made life miserable for a long time thereafter. Mostly, it just wasn’t worth it to go against the grain.

In Heather’s adult years, she had learned assertiveness. It worked well with others. She had learned to reason with Mother and sometimes won. But Mother also had a lifetime of practice and it weighed in the balance in her favour many times.

Heather had to find a solution. It was enough to drive one crazy. Her housekeeper who came in once a week, not knowing of these tensions, agreed to sit with Mother to allow Heather to go grocery shopping. (“Mother, if I don’t go shopping there will be nothing left to eat. It’s been a week“)

In addition, Heather who rose early each day, found that Mother didn’t waken until nine. If she was  efficient with her time, Heather could potentially get a good half hour in her garden before Mother expected her to appear bearing breakfast on a tray. It was early September and there were food crops to bring in and care for; there were weeds to pull; there was early tasks in preparation of winterization. There was work to do. Best of all, the healing power of growing things, of tending and nurturing them, the meditative power of gardening, was a salve to Heather’s soul. She needed her gardening like we all need fresh air and water. It was an essential of her being.

And so it went. I wasn’t there. I just heard about it afterwards. There must have been some other arrangements. I think as Mother was getting better, she was given a bell to ring that Heather was to respond to immediately, to come when needed, because I know Heather got out into the garden a bit more, in the end.
What I found amusing in a black humor kind of way, was this:

After Mother came back to Burnaby, I got to hear all the stories about the doctors and their care; about her visit to Heather. In a nutshell, after all the medical stuff which isn’t interesting, Mother said, “I had a good time, but I barely saw Heather. I was in bed the whole time. And you couldn’t tear her away from her garden. She was out there way after dark and first thing before she even made breakfast. You could barely get her to come in for meals. She spends all her time in the garden. I don’t know what she does out there. What do you have to do, this time of the year? Everything is already growing. It’s not like you have to plant anything. I hardly saw her.”

Mother was settling into a forgetfulness that we hadn’t yet recognized as the beginning of medically defined “Confusion” which is accompanied by short-term memory loss, general forgetfulness and some paranoia. It’s a common effect of dehydration and is not from the eating away of the brain as Alzheimer’s disease is.

I keep in touch with Heather and Lizbet by phone every two or three days. That is one of the miracles of today’s technology – long distance calling is so low cost it might as well be free. It keeps us strong in our network of sisters, supporting and caring for each other as we orchestrate life’s little ups and downs in sequential patterns.

So, a bit sneakily, in a leading way I ask Heather how was her garden coming along. I dared not suggest an answer. If I wanted to know what really happened, I couldn’t tell her of Mother’s comments in advance. It might taint the answer. In fact, I wouldn’t even tell her about Mother’s comments. It would oly upset her and she didn’t deserve that.
“Gardening?” she answered, an air of bewilderment as if I’d asked a puzzling question. “Gardening?” she repeats, as if remembering an old acquaintance she hadn’t seen in a long time and couldn’t quite remember the face or the context.

“I don’t think I got more than twenty minutes in the garden from the time Mother came and the time Mother left. After all the medical appointments and running around for medication, Mother wanted me to be beside her bed all the time. I tended her needs. I read to her, worked on things that I could do beside her as she slept. I was rather worried about getting behind in my work out there. All the vegetables need to be brought in. I need to turn over and get out the potatoes. The deer got all the carrot tops. I’m hoping there will be something left of the roots underneath. ”
“It’s a mess. I haven’t weeded in six weeks. The bind weed is taking over. My housekeeper comes in on Fridays and I was able to get out there for about twenty minutes straight, but she called me back in because Mother was insisting that I look after taking her to the bathroom, not a non-family member, so even that didn’t pan out. By the time I’d gloved up and got my tools out, by the time I put them away and came in, I didn’t spend more that tweny minutes. After that, I didn’t even try. ”

“The only other time I was in the garden was to pick some late raspberries for dinner and to bring in some fresh parsley to cook with. ”
“Garden?!” she almost snorted in derision. As it it was a rejected lover who hadn’t come back beggin, she exclaimed, ” My garden doesn’t even know who I am anymore!”

In these last five years, I have been unable to move Mother to travel, for a change of pace, to either Lizbet’s place, a ten hour gruelling drive, or to Heather’s a three hour drive with a ferry trip as part of the package. I could barely leave her, myself. When I did, I had to make arrangements well in advance to have someone care for her. It was often Heather who was retired and lived the closest, of my two sisters, who came to care for Mother in her own home.

Now here I was, with Mother gone and me freed of that loving obligation, at Heather’s. Lord knows, she’d asked me to come up often enought.

Hardly settled in the front door, I went round to the back balcony overlooking the Georgia Straight, out to Vancouver Island, down the morain made slope of Heather’s garden.

It is May and the garden is at it’s most furious growth. The recent rains and following sun has given spurts of glorious green to the foliage. At the lane end, as I sit on one of terrace, brilliant double-scarlet poppies punctuate the blue sea and the sky beyond it. Buttercups and scilla, the Spanish bluebell of spring, have filled all unplanted areas of the six terrace rows going half the length of property. It provides a joyous speckled tapestry of greens, yellow and clear Dutch blue.

There is a small lilac in bloom sending wafts of fresh perfume through the air. White flowered jasmine borders a string fence that is meant to keep the raspberry plants upright and contained within the top row’s confines. As I weed, I find two baby trees, a May tree, junior to that one on the property border that is showing a mass of white blooms, and an oak, junior to the one by the dining room window where the warblers come to sing. There is a mass of lemon green verbena and two rather big clumps of a darker green winter savory.

Her herbs are tucked between the flowers – sweet cicely, garlic, lovage, rue, borage, bergamotte, silvery posy thyme, oregano, parsley, salad burnet, comfrey, feverfew and chives. There is a sage with beautiful rose coloured flowers. Strawberries with little white flowers promising summer fruit connect by rhizomes from terrace to terrace.

Her flowers are a like a compendium of an English garden. There is jasmine, a blue and white columbine, bearded, Japanese and Siberian irises, calendula in profusion, peonies, Canterbeury bells, London Pride and Hellaborus, the Easter rose variety. She has cranes bill and lavender, and tall yellow tansy. There are shasta daisies and delphiniums that were a favourite of our horticulurist Grandfather on father’s side of the family.

There are thimble berries, black current bushes, and rhubarb. There is a tall, winter ornamental cabbage that has been allowed to go to flower, that should have not flowered this year, being a biennial and it being the third year. It has a frilly white cabbage three feet up in the air with a lacing of a pale green edges, and sprouting out of this tutu of cabbage leaves is a feathery crown of bright yellow flowers like sequins dancing in the wind.

There is more! Peonies, chrysanthemums, alstromeria, camelia, flowering almond, ladies mantle, gladioli, swordfern, montbretia, several kinds of roses and fuschias. There are fruit trees – a green coloured plum, apple and pear.

Heather and I have had wonderful days, rooting out evil weeds from the lovely soil she has built up on this rather desertic and rocky morain, from thirty years of compostings and constant working. We talk as we work, both sharing the belief that we find peace in a garden, that the task is a meditation, that the few things we say are a conversation far deeper and more connecting than the ones we have sitting around a kitchen table, although those are good too.

Heather and I have had wonderful afternoons, looking through this nursery or that for a special plant, a specimen not like the others, a variety of extraordinary delicacy or soothing beauty. I look for plants that are agressively capable of continuing their own lives without me, because I have this wonderful propensity for killing most of the plants that I bring home. Hardy, colourful, flowering weeds are for me – fox glove and lupine. I can lose plants in a garden easier than anyone I know. I like day lilies because you can’t kill them and it’s outrageously flamboyant.

Heather brings home special tender herbs and brings them into becoming big health vigours clumps . She brings home tender rock garden flowering succulents and has them year after year, flourishing on her rock wall and in her window planters by the kitchen sink. She has tiny specialty mosses. She has a true green thumb.

I spent as long as I could stay out in one day of our Victoria day holiday sunshine, helping to root out evil bindweed, so ironically named Morning Glory. It strangles the plants and covers them with their large arrow pointed leaves, robbing the host plant of light. The garden is getting to much for us as we come, ourselves, into the homestretch of our years. Heather has decided to cut back her wonderful garden to half its size, bringing back grass onto the slope. She no longer is trying to augment her family resources with garden vegetables and fruit. The boys are grown and gone, living their own lives “Away”.

She’s promised to save me some of her duplicates as she works on her new garden design meant for decoration, not dining. I’ve just bought my own house to live in, my first house since I sold up everything thirty years ago after my disasterous first marriage. I’m coming home. I’ll have my own garden. It’s a nice established garden to start with. But bet your bottom button, I’m going to have some of the heritage plants from Mother’s garden and some of Heather’s lovely garden as a tradition to maintain.

Just another observation

May 25, 2007

like a Geiger counter

looking for gold,

the starling listens

for slithering worms

under newly mown grass


May 25, 2007

I was somewhere in a dream thinking, I must remember this. I’ve had this one before. I carefully noted it in my mind so that I could write it down later and ponder the meaning of it when I was awake and thinking clearly. Above me, I could hear Ron’s footsteps as he padded lightly about the upstairs bathroom, then went into the kitchen.

It’s funny, but I can tell Otto’s, Hugh’s and Ron’s steps just by the sound of them. Otto has a heavy middle aged business man ‘s tread, slow and determined. Hugh’s steps are quick and heavy. He paces. Ron is the tallest of the three and has a light, athletic step. He’s on the move.

I heard the fridge door open with a vacuumy clumph and closed again. I sat up in bed, reached for my glasses without which I can see nothing, looked at the red letters on the alarm clock. Six twenty one. Too early to get up. It wasn’t that I wasn’t waking up well, but I groggily counted on my fingers, two to three, four, five, six, and concluded that four hours and twenty minutes was not long enough of a sleep to sustain one through a day.

Ron had come in at midnight. We talked a while about his day and he was for once rather happy about it. He’d stayed up to watch the end of Deja Vu with Denzel Washington. He ate a bowl of left over pasta, and then what, I don’t really know. I do know that at two, when I was finally chastising myself for staying up so late and dozing after every three words on the page of the novel I was reading, I closed off my light and settled in; but I could still hear Ron moving about upstairs.

Now, four hours of sleep for me is not critical at this point. I can go back to bed, put my pillow over my head to block out the light, and sleep for another few hours. But I reflected that Ron was running himself into the ground with his ten hour a day job in masonry construction work and with his busy social life entwined around his girlfriend whom he’d separated from but not really, and whom was giving him a merry chase.

Four hours was not enough for him; and he was running a cough and cold that would not go away; would never get rid of it if he didn’t get more sleep.

I bestirred myself. The alarm was set for not much later than seven – less than an hour away – and it was set just for me to get the recycling box and the automated yard waste and garbage bins out to the lane-side.

Ron is never good in the morning with conversational niceties.

“Good morning, dear!” I say, relatively cheerily.

“Mmm. Mornin'”

He grumbles under his breath as if he’s the one who has just awoken. I know for sure he’s already had his shower and he’s right ready to go out the door.

“Running late?” I’d thought he said last night that he had to be on his way by six.

“Nope. ‘sOK ”

He gathers his coffee in one hand, poured into last night’s Tim Horton cup.I look at this and think “Why?” There are lots of great coffee travel mugs in the house. Why would he use an already used paper cup from the day before to transport his morning coffee.” He grabs his grey, masonry dust covered hoodie under his arm.

“Well…. See ya” he says as he barrels by me, seemingly taking the ten steps down to the backyard in a three giant leaps, although he must have done them one by one when I think about it practically. You don’t want to be in his way when he’s in a hurry. At twenty-three, with his six foot four frame, though he’s light on his feet, he has a bulk and presence that you don’t mess with. I smile as I think back to timid, bullied Ron at thirteen. It’s good to see him full of his own purpose and his new gruff exterior bristling with male importance.

I think back to his graduation where he looked so beaten as he walked across the stage. He had no plans with the other students for aftergrad. He was only going through the motions at his mother and his gran’s insistance. He did so only with great reluctance. He hadn’t gotten all his courses for really graduating, so he new it was a farce. There was no diploma in the green leatherette folder for him . He loped his great height across the platform with his chin trying to sink itself into his Adam’s apple.

He’d talked about going over to Stanley’s house to have a pizza afterwards. I looked for Stanley as the students were going across, one by one, grinning, goofing off, lifting their hands in the air as if they had just won a World Championship in boxing, or making grimaces that had the student audience hooting, laughing and giggling for their favourites while their parents were probably crawling under their seats hoping nobody would make the connection between this extroverted goof and them; and the remaining audience was hoping their own teenager would walk across proudly, head high, dignified by their cap and gown hiding a formal suit and tie.

When it was Stanley’s turn to traverse the auditorium, I saw that he was more bent over than Ron, as if he were ashamed to be there, as if he were going to be beaten like a bad dog at the other end of the platform but the master had called and the dog had to obey and take his punishment. I said a silent “Oh no!”. Ron’s only friend appeared even more bullied and less socially ept and this was the young man he expected to “celebrate” graduation with.

When the ceremony was over, we waited while Ron tried to connect with his friend so that Ron could give us a contact address and a telephone number where he was. On a night like Grad Night, I wanted to know where my nephew would be if he was going to be out all night. But Ron came back to us looking chagrinned and somewhat relieved at the same time. Stanley’s parents had insisted that he go home alone. The parents had plans to visit with another family that had graduating youngsters, this night, and Stanley had to go with them. I was disappointed for Ron but quite relieved myself. Ron would be off the roads for this, one of the most dangerous nights in the police calendar, what with drinking, drugs and carousing.

True to form, five teens were killed that weekend on the Sea to Sky highway. “It’s their own fault,” said Ron self righteously without a trace of pity or regret.”They shouldn’t have been drinking and driving.”

Ron had come a long way in the four intervening years. Now he was confident. He walked with purpose and a bounce in his step. He could take on any man and hold their gaze without flinching. He’d grown up and it was a pleasure to see. He was a man now, with a man’s job that he did well, with a great work ethic.
And so, as he was passing me on the porch, barreling down the stairs, I mumbled under my breath You could have taken part of the recycling down to the back lane. You’re going there anyway, but I didn’t say it loud enough for him to hear. Instead, dressed in my night shirt, a pair of pull on exercise pants and a denim shirt to keep my arms warm, I struggled step by step with the newspaper waste blue bag and my arthritic knees, down the stairs then out to the lane; came back for the yellow bag of office paper and other waste; and came back again for the blue box of metals and plastics.

On the third trip, my brain clicked in that there were no other containers in the lane. It was Friday, wasn’t it?

“Oh no!” Last Monday was Victoria Day, May’s long weekend. That would push all the pick-up days one day forward. The Sanitation trucks wouldn’t come until Monday now. Arghhhh! That would teach me to wake up!
I picked up the yellow bag, left the bag of newspapers in the blue box and pushed the box with my feet, back into the yard, tucking it under the wisteria bush to protect it from any potential rain. No way I was going to take it all the way back up the stairs, I said to myself.

Back in the house, I thought about that recurring dream I’d had. It would be nice to just go back to bed and pull the covers over. Nice and toasty. I warmed up a coffee and sweetened it, looked around me and thought “I’ll just drink this nice hot beverage in bed with a word or two of the novel to put me back to sleep and take up with that dream again and see how it ends.”

It was about some absurdly connected action. I was doing something….. and then …. what was it? Was it something to do with Mom? Was she there on the edges of my consciousness? Was it money I was getting? Or a gift? Where was I? What was so incongruous about what I had been doing and the next event.
Try as I could, I couldn’t grasp the slightest detail of the dream I’d had whilst waking up. It was completely gone without a trace. I’d have to write it down next time. Just even a word or so. Just something to grab onto an interesting dream memory.

Well, I won’t be going back to bed…..

I’m wide awake now.


May 24, 2007

k-about-13.jpgKay had walked home from school, mind spinning from the taunts of the other girls. She had been eating her lunch, one slice of processed cheese, lettuce and mayonnaise sandwiched between two slices of white bread, sitting up at the high end of the school auditorium seating, minding her own business. Her friends came and sat close by in the same row and behind, leaving a spare seat or two between them. They were chatting, but not to Kay.

There was Susan with her long auburn braids and her toity English accent, who boasted that she dried her hair by sitting with her back towards the open oven door. Susan’s family and Kay’s family had become friends through the PTA. There was other Susan, with her naturally curly brown hair cropped, always beautiful and shiny, who drew so beautifully in art class – got enviable A’s in Art, always. Susan number three had the loveliest red hair and freckles. She belonged to our group but was apart from it. We whispered our amazement about her family that did not drink tea, nor coffee, nor alcohol. They were Mormon and we didn’t know what that meant, but they lived a more restricted life at home than we did, There was thin and bossy Elinor from Kay’s old district; and Alice, who lived just down a block from Kay on Twenty Sixth and sometimes walked to school with her.

Kay complained to herself, as she walked, her mind tight and miserable with the struggles going on it. What on earth had she said or done? Why had they taunted her so. “You think you are so beautiful,” one sneered. “Who do you think you are, just sitting there, saying nothing? ” another had jeered. Kay had gathered the remains of her brown bag lunch – the wax paper, the serviette, the uneaten apple, the bag itself, and stood to leave, willing back her tears, lifting her head so no one could see from their seated position how her eyes were ready to flood. She sidled past two other students and walked down the thousand and one steps to the front of the auditorium and exited left.

“Snob!” the word exploded around her like and echoed, reverberated. Snob. Snob. Snob.

“What’s wrong with saying nothing?” a sad and puzzled Kay whined to herself as she dawdled home from second Susan’s house. The more she thought about it, the more she was puzzled. What had she said? Kay knew she wasn’t beautiful. Her parents told her she didn’t stand up straight. She wore a training girdle to hold in her blubbery stomach. Maybe that was it.

When she went to gym class, when they had to take showers before going back to class, the others had seen her girdle that proved she was too fat. They had seen her body that was getting thinner, but had been pleasantly plump, still baby fat, Mother had said. They had seen her undressed – a thing that never would have happened at home. Modesty was virtue number one, never to be transgressed.

She hadn’t said anything at lunch, or at least, couldn’t remember having said anything. She searched in the tiniest corners of her brain, but nothing came to mind but the taunts that swirled and swirled in her mind, blocking any other kind of remembrance. The day was sunny and bright, but it hurt her eyes, and she silently cursed at the wind that rustled the full green leaves in the boulevard trees.

When she got home, Mother had chastised her for her sulleness. “Oh for Pete’s sake, Kay. If you can’t be happy, just go to your room.”

Dinner dishes done, Kay went to her room and did her homework, briefly bringing herself out of her self-generated mire. Heather came into her room with a silent question on her face, soft kind Heather. “Do you want to tell me about it?” she said, concern oozing from every pore of her. Lovely Heather.

It came out in a rush and with it came the tears that would not stop. “Am I so ugly?” I wailed. “What did I do? Is it my fault?’

“I feel sick about it. My head hurts. I don’t want to go back to school.”

Heather stroked Kay’s forehead, got her into bed, stayed crooning, all the while caressing the worry wrinkles from Kay’s brow. “You are beautiful,” Heather said. “You are so beautiful.”
Of course, Kay went back to school. Of course, the like occurred again and again, and always there was Heather to save her from utter thirteen year old despair.

And there was Heather, when Kay finally left husband number one, the American deserter, both times. On the second final leaving, Kay packed up the Datsun truck with her minimal belongs and fled to Heather’s place to stay, until Kay could find another place to go, another life to move into.

There was Heather, when Kay finally left husband number two, wailing, “I’ve been so stupid. How could I have been so stupid?” Kay was sobbing into Heather’s tender shoulder as Heather held her gently all round, rocking back and forth. Heather soothed “Shush, shush. You’re not stupid. You are lovely, and intelligent and kind,” in a litany of comfort.

And here was Heather, with Mother now passed on, holding me in our fifty year tradition of holding and comforting, saying “You couldn’t have done anything better. It was a difficult death, but it was beautiful in a way too, because you made it so. You looked after her so well. You can’t reproach yourself for anything.” Heather’s love was unconditional.
Where Heather had come for a week, or max , two, she stayed with me for five, after Mom died. Her quiet presence was reassuring. Her calm, her quiet, her knowing what things felt like.
After five long years of refusing Heather’s invitation to visit her in her Sechelt home because I couldn’t leave mother nor could I travel with her, I finally found some time to spend a week. Heather’s husband was in town for a specialist doctor’s appointment.

I rode back with him in his shiny new truck. We threaded our way by ferry through steeply sloped island mountains, sailing on a calm glossy sea, disembarking at Langdale, then driving up past Gibsons Landing, Roberts Creek, Wilsons Creek and past the Sechelt reserve into the town. Sunshine lit our way. The cedars were light green with late spring growth, the roadside gardens were in full bloom, azaleas and rhododendrons ablaze with their magnificent blossoms. From time to time, along the route, the open waters of Georgia Straight sparkled, reaching out to Vancouver Island with its pale blue mountains rising up to hide the horizon line.

At Heathers, I spent a quiet week. I was allowed to do very little. Her husband set out lunches and dinners with a quiet, persistent efficiency, keeping us always on time, more or less, to their established rhythm. Dishes were almost done before I got up from the table. The house was quiet and orderly- there was no housework to share. We went, one night, to a book launch and reading by an author who lived only a few doors down the block. On Sunday, we went to church. I cried silent, dry tears as the hymns were played. For all that I had groused at Mother’s constant need to remember her hymns, they touched me deeply. Perhaps too much.

In any case, there I was, willing my face to stay normal, scrunching my teeth tightly to stop the emotion from welling up and willing my natural tears to stay below the flood line. There was Heather’s arm, creeping softly around my waist in comfort, and I pushed it away. I heard her husband whisper a little loudly, “She doesn’t want you to do that” just as Heather sensed my stiffening and withdrew.

I turned away from Heather towards the stain glass window and studied a kneeling Christ, the halo of pure white light around his head, and the brilliant cobalt blue of the sky around his halo. I read the words inscribed on the glass, below, a dozen times and pondered their meaning; went back to the beautiful, wrinkly glass of cobalt blue and wondered at its beauty. I dabbed at my eyes and the flood receded from the gates. This was not the place. The tide receded and I was able to continue on, as long as I didn’t join in singing the hymns.

I explained later, at home. She knew. Understood.

Sunday was a day without work. I read the rest of my book while lying on my bed in the afternoon. In the evening, I crocheted on panels of a baby blanket that will be cream coloured and soft pink; Heather worked on the Friday New York Times crossword puzzle; her husband had his Japanese lessons at hand for occasional reference while all three, we watched Inspector Morse untangle yet another mystery murder on TV.

And on Monday, the Victoria Day holiday, I finally got to work in her lovely garden. Now that’s where I started to go in this story, but it took on a different path, as so often my writing does, and I didn’t talk to you about her garden. I’ve gone on too long today so I shall make that another story and leave you here, hoping that you have felt the blessing of another person in your life who can heal you, just by being there, by a hug or a soft touch, or a caressing word.

Flower child

May 14, 2007

The fox fur coat called out to Kay in one of the many second hand stores that had popped up since the American draft dodgers had come. It was a rich warm brown with a subtle stripe created by each fur pelt seam, lined with a heavy brown silk lining. It was threadbare in a few places and the seams on the lining needed a stitch or two. That wasn’t difficult to fix. For ten dollars, where could else could you get such a good coat? It was slim and elegant on her anorexic frame. With the collar up, it would keep Kay warm on her way by bus and on foot, to University; would keep her warm running from classes in the Education building to classes in in the Science and Arts faculties. Kay was thrilled.

Lizbet, Mother and Father went to the United States so that Father could finish his Doctorate degree. Kay hadn’t wanted to go, wanted to finish her degree at UBC. Wouldn’t go. Truth was, most of her friends were independent. She wanted to be independent too. Mother was furious. Both Heather and Otto had stayed at home until they had finished university. Why couldn’t Kay?

But Kay would not go.

One year later, when Father came home thoroughly satisfied with his completed degree and he, Mother and Lizbet were established in an apartment near the university, Kay was still refusing to come home; was still living in that below ground apartment on lower Alberta Street, two blocks east of Cambie, two blocks east of respectability, in a run down apartment block, in an industrial part of town..

Kay was finding the visits home harder and harder. Mother was pressing her to move back in. Father was negotiating between, trying to find a peaceful solution to a growing, fiercely independent daughter and a nurturing, worried mother.

We battled over it for two years. Two years that devastated my mother, wounded her deeply. This daughter had rejected her unlike any other child of hers; had turned to drugs and alcohol; finished her degree only by Mother’s constant, pleading prayers and God’s heavenly intercession . By the end of it, she had married a deserter from the Viet Nam war to save him from having to return the war we students opposed so vehemently. Her daughter was living on a houseboat (“Good Lord! Preserve us!”) in the North Arm of the Fraser River.

“I’ll learn by my own mistakes!” I shouted at her.

I can’t remember what she replied. We argued. Raised voices. Turned icily silent.

Father would phone me and ask if I was alright. Nothing was right. I had done something stupid. I was naive. I had married a man who was nothing like my wonderful father. My new husband had no principles; no ethics. He had not fled the war in Viet Nam for reasons of conscience. He had been in difficulty with the military police and had fled the brig. Life was a drug and alcohol laden lark for him. I was married to a mistake and I could not admit it, so fiercely I had fought to do things my own way.

A phrase of English wisdom floated through my head. You’ve made your own bed; now lie in it.

My family was deeply Christian. We lived by the Ten Commandments. We had been brought up with stories of people who were honourable, decent, kept their promises. We read stories that turned out well. Evil people, bad people, weak people always lost out and were destroyed by their own foibles. Strong, principled, people with higher purpose won out in the end. Vows were sacred.

Now as I suffered, struggled, with a marriage that had not the tiniest bit of likeness to the one my parents shared, I was crippled into inaction by the vow I had made to my husband in the presence of God to live with this man “in sickness and in health” and” until death do us part“.

It was a dilemma I took three years to resolve and then two more years to untangle. I could not admit to my mother that I had made a colossal mistake. I had to get out of my own mistake by myself; and I did, but that’s another story.

Poor Mother gnashed her teeth, slept troubled sleep, kept her own counsel (now that I was barely talking to her). Besides her academic degrees, she has a self-imposed Masters of Worry, magna cum laude.To give her credit, it was over twenty years later as we drove together up the Sunshine Coast to visit Heather that she asked without really asking, “I never understood why you married that man; nor why you stayed.”

There was silence in the car.We had just passed my hippie home at Silver Point.  I was looking forward because I was driving. She was looking forward because she knew this was so touchy a subject she dared not look at me. I breathed deeply, said nothing as we both stared fixedly at the faded yellow line snaking out before us; waited until I could say something she might understand. We were up by Madeira Park before I spoke.
I explained that I had felt I was saving someone from going back to an unjust war. I explained how I had felt trapped by my own promises, my vows of marriage.

“That was no marriage!” she scoffed with distainful scorn. “You shouldn’t ever have gotten into it!”

I retreated into a stony silence. I hated it when she was right. And we still couldn’t talk. We drove a few miles saying nothing, driving through the area where I had lived for the years of that marriage, We broke the silence as we approached the ferry landing at Earl’s Cove, commenting on some beauty of nature, some sunlight broadly brushing the forested island not far off in the distance. We had a cup of tea waiting for the next boat to arrive, and we resumed our conversation as if nothing had been said. That was the family way of it.

Now here was Mother, sitting at her bridge table of four, eating dinner with her residential table mates, proudly saying, “This is my Hippie daughter. Look at what has become of her. She runs the corporation. Advises the President.”
She really had no idea what I did for a living. She knew I worked for a large corporation, managed accounts, attended and sometimes ran meetings, travelled to other cities across the nation in the context of my work; met with Government Officials, flew to Victoria by helijet in the morning, returned by same in the evening,sometimes went back East for a week of meetings. She knew I had a good, responsible job. She didn’t know what I did but she was proud of me.

She trusted me now, to help her with her daily living; to help her with her accounts and her investments; to provide her with what she needed; to get her the best care; to help her interpret the doctor’s language; to buy her clothes. In short, she had placed her total care in my hands.

She leaned forward conspiratorially to her table mates, then said:

“You should have seen this girl when she first walked in wearing that mangy fox fur coat she’d picked up in a second hand store!”

She turned rapidly to see what my reaction would be and turned back to her companions. She had a glint of mischief in her eyes and a smile creeping a tiny bit craftily at the corner of her mouth. I didn’t say a word. Left her to tell her own tales.

“What ever possessed you, girl!” she said, as she turned to me.


May 9, 2007

mom-112-small.jpgI’m enjoying having Nephew Hugh with me in this fifth or sixth vigil. Who can keep count. I don’t know when it started. I don’t know when it will end but it won’t be long.

His employer said he could take time off if he needed to but he has a work ethic most employers dream of finding in their staff. He says he will work during the day and do night shift when the time gets close. I said to him today that this is the day, if ever, if he wants. I’m doing all the night shifts. I like being up in the quiet of the night. He likes night quiet, too.

All through his University years he studied late into the night – no interruptions. Sometimes he would come home at six in the afternoon and sleep like a log then get up at eleven and do his research and writing. He is quite competitive in his field and he was seeking to get the best marks. Poor fellow (and I didn’t realize how crazy it was for him at home until he cracked under the strain), he agreed to study at home as much as possible to stay with his Gran so that we didn’t have to get in someone she didn’t know and would feel awkward about.
Hugh, I’ve said before, is six foot something – one or two inches above. Ron, his brother is the tall one at six foot four. So Hugh is tall and sturdy. If something happened to his Gran, he could pick her up from the floor, if she fell for example. He could help her in and out of her walker or wheelchair; he could transfer her from her bed or from a stationary chair – routine maintenance stuff.

One day, over a year ago, after a grueling day at home with his Gran freaking out at him because he was using a kitchen knife to prepare lunch and then didn’t hide it afterwards, he cracked. When I came home, he was in a state of high anxiety and aggressive need for me to understand what it was like for him, studying at home.

“She gets mad at me, glares, doesn’t say anything. apparently because I walk back and forth in the house. Pacing, she calls it. She can’t expect me to stay cooped up in my room all day. I have to move around.”

“She doesn’t understand that I have to lay my papers out on the dining room table to be able to see the whole of what I’ve written. I’m writing on my laptop there. Then I have to go back into my bedroom to research things on the other computer. I lose my place if I’m flipping back and forth on just one computer.”

“And she doesn’t understand that I’m not going to knife her with my kitchen knife.”

“Where does she get these ideas? I’ve done every kind of kitchen preparation in my job at the restaurant. I need proper tools to cut things in preparation for dinner. All the other knives in this house are no good. They’re not sharp enough. I keep a knife guard on it, for Pete’s sake. I can’t stand being under suspicion with her all the time. ”

“And she calls me to make lunch, and to make tea, and to take her to the toilet, and to her bed. Every time, she says she doesn’t want to disturb me, but she does. And she gets mad if I fix her tea and then don’t stay to talk to her. Says I’m treating her badly after all she’s done for me. What has she done for me!? I know she’s allowing me to live here. Well, she can take it and shove it. I can’t stand it any more. I’ve had it! I can’t live with it! I won’t do it! You can just get someone else! I can’t study! I can’t breathe. Everything is going wrong! I’m going to fail my exams! I have to see Doctor Wong! My anxiety pills aren’t working any more! I can’t sleep! I have a paper to hand in tomorrow and it’s not ready and my brain won’t work. It just stops and goes blank. ”
Hugh was red in the face, looking apoplectic. His complaint had turned into a diatribe. His agitation was distressing. He wouldn’t listen. I said that I knew, and he yelled at me that I couldn’t know. But I’d been through it and knew exactly. I’d failed my Ethics Counselor competition exam because my brain had done the same shut down with the simplest of questions. I had cared for her for years and I had known she was becoming paranoid and unreasonable, curmudgeonly. It came in fits and starts. It was crazy making.

Now, things were out of hand. Really out of hand. If Hugh left all of a sudden, I was really up the creek. Between a rock and a hard place. What would I do about looking after Mother if Hugh was not home the greater part of a day. I’d have to get help in. I’d been avoiding that because she didn’t want a stranger in the house. She’d even accused the housekeeper we’d had for four years of stealing her keys, wanting to break in at night, steal all her valuables. To bring a care aide into the home would be impossible. Like Cousin Mary and my Aunt, Mother would fire every helper that came because they weren’t this or they weren’t that. What was I going to do?

I can’t remember how the spat with Hugh ended. I think I said.

“Fine!” My teeth bit into my lower lip and I hissed it out, daring him to continue on with the fierceness of my expression.

“Fine!” He spat back, face getting level with mine (I’m only five foot six), hissing it with just as much fervour. “Don’t count on me tomorrow. I’m outta here.”

There was no purpose in continuing the conversation, if you could call it that. I turned my back and went back to the kitchen where my innocent but worried mother was sitting, anxiously looking at me, questions in her eyes but no words.

“It’s all right,” I said to her calmly, evenly, rationally. It wasn’t all right, but I couldn’t tell her that. I finished making the dinner that Hugh had started and we sat and ate it, although it tasted like wood and chewed up just as easily. I got her to bed in the usual two hour session of helping her undress and getting her pyjamas on, fix her hearing aids, comb her hair, set curlers, cut her finger nails, examine her imagined sores, tend to the real ones, feel the bone spurs on her shoulder and on her ankle and remind her that we could do nothing about them, crush and feed her her pills with apple sauce, tuck her in and close the door.

Hugh had lain down on his mattress. I don’t know how I knew it, but I did – he wasn’t asleep. I knew he had a paper to hand in. I knew he should be studying, had school work to do.

“Do you want to talk about it?” I opened up the subject. He glared at me and turned his head back into his pillow. I wandered back to the kitchen, my head working overtime. What was I going to do? He was truly distressed. He was under doctor’s care for anxiety. He’d just generated a whole ton of anxiety and he had no out. I had to keep Hugh on my side. I had a duty to ensure his health as well as my mother’s . And what about mine. Where was I, trapped in all this?
Fifteen minutes later, I heard him playing a computer game, shooting every ‘what’s-it’ figure. Rat-ta-tat. Rat-ta-tat! Pow! Pow! Pow! He was getting his aggression out on computer enemies, reducing his adrenaline to a tolerable level. After an hour or so, he came to me, said, “Sorry Auntie. I didn’t mean to yell at you. You know that. But I mean it. I can’t do it anymore.”
There’s one marvelous thing about Hugh. He’s even tempered and logical. He seldom goes off the handle except when he has forgotten his medicine. When he does, he’s so damned smart, you can’t argue with him. He competitively has to win the argument. Even if you counter his arguments with what you believe is right and bring tempering conditions or circumstances to the situation, he can refute it with the best logic of a courtroom lawyer. He should be one!

But when he has had time to think about what you have said and lets it sink in a little, sometimes he comes around. Then he is more than willing to admit his changing opinion and come half way – or all the way- to your point of view if you were, by some chance, a little bit right after all.

When Otto came home, I told him to arrange something to cover looking after Mother for the next day. I told him how Hugh had lost it. I wasn’t blaming Hugh. I just hadn’t realized that the situation had become untenable for him. For everyone. Hugh needed to be let off duty. We needed a back up and I couldn’t be it. No, not a back up. We needed a whole new scenario and I didn’t know what it looked like.

To Otto’s credit, he picked up the ball and ran with it. I can’t remember now whether it was him or his girlfriend Caroline who stayed with mom the next day.. I asked Hugh to meet me downtown for lunch.
“What are we meeting for?” he said defiantly, aggressively. “I’m not going to keep on doing this. That’s final. Don’t even think it!”

“I know. I know, ” I said. ” We just have to talk some more. I need you Hugh. I need to have you well and functioning. We can’t talk about anything here. We need to get out of context.” He was my sounding board. He kept me even.

I had to straighten things out with Hugh. I had to keep him happy, healthy and on my side. He had to complete his University.It was unthinkable that he lose a year of University at this stage because of what was going on at home. I had to get him back and operating, fully functional.
“Please“, I pleaded, “Please meet me for lunch. We can meet at Earl’s at the Paramount. It’s really close to my work.” He liked Earl’s. Wasn’t my favourite, but it was him I was trying to get back to even. My needs could wait.

In the morning, I met with the Employee Assistance Counselor. She’s a treat. She let me tell the whole, rambling story and then advised me. My mind has blanked out a lot of what came next, only, when I talked to Hugh at lunch time, he reluctantly agreed to give me three more days to find someone or something. I agreed to go with him to Doctor Wong to see about his medication and his anxiety. We ended up getting the housekeeper to come in daily for a while, over Mother’s protestations that it cost too much. And why did we need it if Hugh was at home?

I think that was when Doctor Wong looked at me in the eye and said that I needed a referral to the Coastal Health Unit. The Public Health Nurse came to the house and assessed Mother’s condition and mine. We talked about other possibilities of care. Mother had to go into a home.

I took a week off of work, exhausted, and cared for Mother while Hugh went his way – to the University, just to get away; to Victoria for a few days, to see his girlfriend; to a friend’s house. Thank the Lord that I had a decent employer who was coddling me to keep me at work, so short handed they were, and yet help me cope with my family situation.

In the weeks that followed, I got Mom into the Victoria Order of Nurses respite centre, but it was only temporary. She could only stay thirty days in a year. The days were ticking off one by one, getting gobbled up quickly. Then her cancer that we were just finding out about, that we weren’t telling her about, manifested and she went into the hospital. That was about the time I went on a three week holiday that I had planned six months in advance, so hard it was to get a seat at Christmas time to New Zealand. I couldn’t cancel it. Besides, I needed to get away.

From the hospital, she came home for Christmas for a few days – a year ago, mind you, not this very last Christmas visit. After Christmas, my siblings managed to get her back into the Victoria Order of Nursing respite centre. It being the New Year, the clock started ticking on her thirty days for 2007. She never came back to live in the house. We arranged to get her into a private residential care home and she went straight from the VON to the new place without even driving past her own dear home.

Once she was in residential care, Hugh did not visit. Maybe once or twice in the year, but he didn’t want to go. His anger at his Gran for what had happened sat deeply within him, stewing, ready to ignite with a chance comment, anytime.

One night in November when there was a storm and the electricity failed in our sector of town, I suggested to Hugh that we have dinner in a sector that did have electricity. We drove across town and found a restaurant filled to the gills with other power-outage refugees with the same idea. When we finished dinner about nine, I persuaded him to come with me to see his Gran. “You’ll regret it if you don’t see her before she dies,” I cautioned.

“We just came to make sure you had electricity, Mom,” I said. It was windy out but she hadn’t heard a thing, being deaf. Everything in the residence was business as usual and she was surprised to see us so late in the evening.

“I wouldn’t want you to feel alone and worried about a storm. We would stay with you so you wouldn’t be frightened.”

“Oh, Hugh! ” she cried. “I’ve missed you. It’s so nice to see you. I love you.” She wreathed in a warm and happy smile.

“I love you too, Gran, ” he responded in kind, and came down close to her as she lay in her hospital bed, hugged her then stroked her face so gently. They looked so tender together and happy.

Now his Gran was really dying. There were few chances left to see his Gran. When he agreed to do a night shift with me, he envisaged that she would be asleep most of the night and she would be too frail to be the person he had mentally “walked out on” a year or so previous.

Hugh stayed with me for three nights running and on the fourth, I was exhausted and had to sleep. He stayed the fourth night with his cousin who, like him, had a passionate interest in politics and international affairs.

Our three nights of vigil, he brought his pillow covered with a tartan flannel pillow slip, and tucked it beside his head in the wing back chair parked right beside Gran’s head. Our shifts were irregular, given that we were trying to stay slightly awake, sitting up, and trying to snooze at the same time. When we were both awake, we talked, did a crossword puzzle, read news items to each other. I crocheted away at blanket I was making. All the while, he had his hand in hers, gently.

I can see him in my mind’s eye now, his black fleece hoodie flowing behind him, the hood pulled down over his eyes to keep the light out so that he could snooze, holding his Gran’s hand. Later, he knelt on the wingback chair, leaning over one arm of the chair, his tartan covered pillow somehow compensating for the difference in level, putting his head almost touching his Gran’s head, whispering comforting things to her. He loved his Gran with a deep and full love, the kind of love every Grandmother would love to receive from their grandsons.

This is what I wrote, one of those nights:
The night was almost uneventful. Mother had tremors for about ten minutes before her morphine was renewed. Some tremors were strong, some weak. Hugh and I talked her out of her agitation with gently crooned words of “sleep in peace” “go to sleep’ “rest quietly”. It was like a mantra.

Hugh had recently shaved his head because he’s going bald anyway. He came up to her and hugged her, leaning over the bed, whispering, “Shh, Shh, Shh” in her better ear of the two. Then I would spoon the Gatorade into her, mouthful by mouthful and she would calm somewhat. When she had successfully swallowed enough to keep her mouth moist, she would snore ever so sweetly and we knew she had found a moment of peace.

The fountain outside at the front circular drive of the residence rushes like the first spring run off, a trickle building into a young rivulet racing towards the sea. Sometimes it sounds like a heavy rainfall. It doesn’t so much soothe as flattens the edges on thinking, dulls the brain. Acts like white noise.

“Where are they” she mumbles indistinctly.
The water is incessant. I wish they would turn it off so we could be in peace.

Hugh, full of his youthful, resilient and intelligent love, had made peace with his Grandmother.

Ask Kay. She knows everything

May 6, 2007

“And don’t tell me you don’t know,” mother said very assertively.

“What?” I said. What was she talking about?

“Don’t tell me you don’t know if you don’t know the answer,” she repeated. “I hate it when people say ‘I don’t know'” She simpered and mocked a little as she said the phrase.


I waited.

“Well?” she said.

“Well, what?” I replied. I was being a bit obstructive. I didn’t know the answer. What could I say after that?

“What’s the answer?”

“I’m not telling you the answer because I don’t have the answer. I guess we will have to look it up in the dictionary,” I replied.

And then I went off looking for the dictionary.

Henceforward, I looked for alternatives so that I would not trigger her distaste for the dreaded brush-off answer.

  • “That’s Otto’s expertise. We’ll have to ask him.”
  • “Let’s go look it up on the Internet”
  • “Do you know where the encyclopedia is? “
  • “We should get out the bird book”

Or I simply made up an answer. If she asked how many people lived in Russia, I’d just pick a number out of the air and say it as if it were true, but always with a weasel clause. “Probably about 58 million, although since the USSR broke up, it’s hard to say.”

“What kind of bird is that in the yard”

“A passerine, I think. Although I would have to look it up to be sure. Do you want me to?”
“No, ” she would reply, satisfied, “you are probably right. Don’t get up now.” And we would move onto something else.

It got to be a game for me. Anytime my natural answer would have been “I don’t know” I would find another way to say it.

As she became more dependent on me to do her reading and her running about, she became more reliant on my ability to answer her many questions. She was a highly intelligent woman who was used to finding out what interested her, finding out what she didn’t know. My siblings began to get quite ruffled when Mother would say to them, “Just ask Kay. Kay knows everything.”

Kay did not know everything. Kay faked a lot to keep harmony in the house. But I admit there was some pleasure in seeing Otto’s irritation as Mother took my opinion as gospel. Or Lizbet’s.

Tonight, Otto and I had dinner with mother’s loyal nonogenarian friend. He admitted that he’s catching up to Mother just this coming May. He will be ninety five. ‘Twas a lovely dinner at the Fish House in Stanley Park. We drove him home and his dinner companion, a feisty octogenarian lady who lives across the hall from him.

Otto and I left them on the doorstep and drove away, passing through some construction for the new Canada Line – the new stretch of rapid transit that is disrupting traffic throughout the city.

I asked Otto, “Wonder why they’ve dug everything up twice? They put the new services in – water mains, electricity trunk lines, sewer and storm drainage – and then they covered up. Why couldn’t they just build the Skytrain line while they were at it? Now they have to dig back up again.”

“Beats me!” says Otto, with a wry smile on his face. “Why don’t you just ask Kay. She knows everything. Isn’t that what Mother would say?”


May 3, 2007

Mother gave dinner parties. She was the perfect wife. She knew her duty, in the nineteen- fifties sense of the marriage contract. She didn’t work outside the home. She brought up four very well behaved children – if outsiders were commenting. Internal to the family unit, we all thought we were the worst misbehaved children in the universe.
When we thought we had it all right, she could still find something that we did not do right.

“Sit up straight. Pull your tummy in.” I was a terrible slouch.

“Keep your hands in your lap when you are no longer eating, at the table”

“Ladies sit first. Otto, help your grandmother into her chair and wait until all the women are seated before you sit.” He argued that we sisters were not women. He was set straight.

” The right way to use your soup spoon is to dip it towards the far side of the bowl. It allows drips to fall off back into the soup before the soup spoon gets to your mouth so that you don’t drip soup on yourself. And don’t slurp. Tip the soup into your mouth.”

Otto said that even though she was deaf and could not hear you speak to her unless you spoke directly to her face and she could read your lips, she could still hear when you slurped at the table.

I had a similar observation, but not regarding hearing. With her macular degeneration, she was legally blind. Where the family was concerned, however, she could still spot a spill stain on one’s clothing or a single hair, unchecked, flaunting it’s ill-bred-ness on one’s shoulder. A tiny thread, a single dot – despite her blindness, she could see these with eagle like clarity.

“The fork on the outside is the fork that should be used first. If one is having salad, the salad fork is on the outer left, then progressively to the center, towards the plate, the dinner fork and then the dessert fork, should you need it for cake or pie. We only had dinner forks and salad forks, so this information was important. The salad fork doubled as both and could be confused. The dinner knife has the blade turned towards the plate.” Butter knives for everyone were only set out on high holidays and it sat interior to the dinner knife. Bread had to broken not cut.

We had to set the table for dinner, daily, as if company were coming so that we would be used to eating properly wherever we might go. Her training paid off, and we truly were able to fit in anywhere.

Dressing the table for a formal dinner was a strict observational rite. Mother loved to entertain. It was part of her duty towards her husband to promote his career by carefully selecting a guest list that would foster his promotion within his department.

She spent hours considering matching serviettes to the table cloth and finding flowers for the centre piece that would coordinate with them. Silver was polished and inventoried, plates inspected, serving dishes planned along with their corresponding serving cutlery. It took a week of special cleaning to prepare. When Uncle Keith, who was tall, came to dinner, we had to check all the high places in case there were specks of dust he might detect loftily escaping Mother’s careful housekeeping.

When we moved to the Twenty-fifth Avenue house, Mother was especially pleased to have increased space and, after renovations, a living room and dining room beautiful enough to make the Jones envious and desirous of an upgrade to Mother’s decorating style.

The year we moved was 1956. Canada was settling down into downright prosperity after the Second World War which, after all, had never really touched our shores. But that was not so for European countries, who continued adjusting to the changes wrought by the great war.

In Hungary, there was revolution. In 1957, the University of British Columbia accepted the entire Forestry department of the University of Sopron – faculty and students – to continue on teaching and granting degrees until all their students had graduated. In time, the University of Sopron Forestry department integrated and became part of UBC.

In those first tumultuous days of arrival, the Sopron people were taken under wing by the Faculty of UBC,  my father being one.

I wish Mother were still here to provide details. I did ask, but she was weary and just nodded her head, saying “Yes, Yes, that’s how we met the Szabos. They were a fine family and we kept in touch with them always.” So my memories are those of a young girl just turned eleven, kept in the dark about the forces of anguish and evil that had forced these refugees to flee.

I remember so many people in the main floor of our big house that there was a crowd in each of our “public” rooms – Father’s den, the living room and the dining room. It was standing room only, filled with people who spoke in a babble of language I could not understand or in an English with a delightfully crisp foreign accent.

I know she worried about using all her “good” things, wondering if it would be offensive to refugees who had left everything behind; but philosophically, we talked about this much later, and I proposed a positive approach.  The refugees were probably glad to see order and beauty provided for them while they struggled with re-establishing their lives.

In time, the Szabos were our special family connection. They came for dinner with all their many children and I remember these as being formal affairs with all the polished silver and porcelain the Mother could muster.

The Szabos told stories of their brushes with border guards as they walked out of Hungary, their babies and smallest children drugged to keep them quiet and how they were witness to those who did not manage their escape as well, shot before their horrified eyes; how they all had to ford a river on foot to avoid authorities; how one of authorities was kind and helped them to hurry along to their destination. Doctor Szabo was an eminent engineer, his wife a writer.

Later, after the great escape, when revolution calmed, their efforts to bring their parents to Canada were successful. I remember a very distinguished looking, aesthetic couple. He was tall and elegant. When he arrived at the house and when he departed, he always took Mother’s hand in his, bowed slightly to lift her fingers to his lips in greeting, then clicked his heels. He greeted me this way once. I was young and giggled; I smile to this day, at the thought of it.

His wife was silver haired and slender, her tresses pulled in a classic ballerina’s coiffure to a bun at the nape of her neck. She loved me to play piano for her, and I complied in my childish and stumbling manner. I’ve never been comfortable playing piano for anyone and especially not when the atmosphere was formal. I always felt people were listening for mistakes since that’s what Mother did, as I practiced. But I had fallen in love, or at least in awe, of this elegant grandmotherly figure.

“I was training to be a concert pianist. I had already performed at many concerts,” she told me. “When I went out skating, I fell and cut tendons in my hand. Though they healed more or less, I was not able to play at a concert level anymore and I could no longer continue my career in music.” It was a romantic and tragic story. They had lost their large country estate to Communist reforms but the Reds could not take the education and aristocratic manner from these lovely people.

Politely, for conversation, Mother asked where they were living. Doctor Szabo senior described his apartment at the top of a house looking down upon the railway tracks – I imagine now that he must have been living on the steep slopes of Great Northern way, just above the Canadian National lines, looking north to Terminal Avenue. It was not a satisfactory part of town for educated people, thought Mother. Nothing east of Cambie Street was. She must have schooled herself not to make a grimace, a telltale sign of disapproval.

“It is smaller than we are used to, ” said Doctor Szabo senior philosphically, “but we have our freedom and that is more important than anything.” What a come down, from a country estate to lodging in rooms in a poorer part of town, I thought. How could they get used to it? But they were with family and there was freedom.

Thirty years later, 1986 it was, as I returned from a seven year stay in France from my art studies and then some, I came home with hardly a sou to my name. When I found a job, I also found an apartment on Great Northern Way, a new building with much to recommend it for its views. On a clear day, one could see from Burnaby Mountain and Simon Fraser University right across 180 degrees to Point Grey, the westernmost part of the city. In between, there was the downtown core of the city with its ever changing, ever growing skyline, the North Shore mountains of Hollyburn, Grouse and Seymour. On nights of the Fireworks celebrations, we could stand on the balcony and watch the sky fill with explosions of colour. This small, glassed in balcony was on the third floor of the building. It was here that I painted. The views were spectacular. The changing weather added or subtracted colour from everything before us. I was living with Franc then and we wedded not long after he immigrated from Paris.

I thought of the senior Szabos and their perch at the top of an old Vancouver turn of century home, stripped of many of their most valued possessions – piano, books, painting, furnishings – living frugally and restrainedly. They were refugees but they were happy being near their young family.

As I watched the trains moving, shunting back and forth, coming and going from the train yards below the slopes of Great Northern Way, I thought that the Szabos probably had spent pleasurable hours watching the landscape before them. Perhaps they even thought, as did I, that when those trains were active and their noises reached our third floor balcony, that all was well with the world. Commerce was active. Imports and exports were travelling via the rails. It was when those sounds stopped that you needed to worry.

Well, for straying from the subject, for digressing, I’ve done a fabulous job. What was the point of all this telling, anyway? I started to tell you about Mother and her insistence upon good manners and protocol. It stood us in good stead wherever we went in our adult years, whether here in Canada, in the best of places, or in Europe where we quickly adapted to variations from our British inspired rules and regs.

I also wanted to tell you that Mother was so proud to support Father in his career. In her generous, kind and welcoming spirit, she met these wonderful Hungarian people who became a part of our lives. I was awed by them. They seemed to be the epitome of the romantic books I had read of the aristocracy. And yet, they were hard working people driven to succeed in their activities in science and literature.

I’ll add just a few more redolent memories from this time. We were invited to the Szabo’s house for dinner with everyone from both families, so their must have been about sixteen or twenty of us in all, ranging from a babe in arms to the parents age of about forty five. They had had time to settle, to establish their children at school and to lodge themselves in a modest three or four bedroom house in Kerrisdale. For such a gathering, I don’t remember the dinner. I don’t remember the protocol. I see in my mind’s eye a long dining table which must have been central to their daily family doings, and surrounding, piles of papers stacked a foot high, on every available surface, including corners of the floor. This was an intellectual family. They were learning. All of them. Housekeeping took second priority. It must have inspired me. I do as little housework as I can, and I have stacks and stacks of papers waiting for the time I can “deal” with them.

And then: On their first Christmas in Canada, Mother wanted to find some little gift to give this family she had adopted. She found Swedish Chimes, four tiny cut-out brass angels suspended above candles that heated the metal and made the angels turn, rang a central bell with a tiny tinkling sound. We have a matching one. Mrs. Szabo said they brought them out every Christmas in remembrance of our family. Every year at Christmas we think of the Szabos. Every year we have a family letter from them, recounting the success of their large family and all the successive progeny, and they mention the Swedish chimes.

Mother has been gone just over three months. I must write and let the Szabos know.