Archive for September, 2007


September 18, 2007

I suppose in this day and age, it’s not so strange, but I felt as if I had been hit by something big when the strong, assertive woman’s voice said “INSERT YOUR DEBIT CARD” right after I had pressed the debit card option on the parking ticket machine. I looked around. There was no giant woman. I felt like Jack at the bottom of the beanstalk listening to the giant randomly threaten anyone who was in the vicinity.

I decided that the voice must be coming from inside this green parking machine. There must be a miniature dwarf woman with a giant’s vocal cord. Rather unique, really. That must have been how she got the job. Though, on a hot day like today, she was probably pretty uncomfortable in there.

I inserted the card. A woman with such a voice must be obeyed.

TAKE YOUR TICKET WITH YOU. VALIDATE YOUR TICKET BEFORE EXITING THE PARKING LOT. The voice intoned. Yes, it was coming from the green parking machine. There was no way I would have left my parking stub in the car, on the dashboard. You have no idea what a woman like that might do to you if she knew you had disobeyed….

I was only slightly late for my appointment. I should have been early – I’d left two hours to come from my home in the Fraser Valley – but I arrived forty five minutes early in Richmond for my Pre-admitting appointment. I thought I could spend half an hour of that picking up some Fruitcana vegetables and take the remaining fifteen to get to the Hospital and park.

I like these produce establishments wherever they are, because the fruits and vegetables are so fresh and inexpensive. Fruiticana is managed by East Indians and there are wonderfully exotic spices and foods there besides. I’ve picked up great curry sauces that you can hardly get elsewhere.

I eat lots of vegetables, so ergo, it seemed like a good idea to me. But I got carried away. Some of the things are easy to select – parsley, celery, a big bag of onions – but other things need an expert eye and a trained hand in order to get the best. I turned over I don’t know how many leeks to get two that were long, slender and white with less deep green at the top, although I usually slice up the leek tops finely to make soup. They are always interesting to look at as the leaves fan out one after the other while at the transition from white part to green, the leaves looks somewhat like it has been neatly braided.

The avocados and tomatoes needed palpitating in order to find ones that were firm, flawless, and ripe but not too ripe, and inspection for bruises and nicks that start the spoiling. The green beans need to be selected one by one to ensure there was none starting to go mushy, and to chuck aside the ones with mottling rust. These deteriorate and get drier faster. The cauliflower needs to be inspected. I choose ones with no mould, a firm solid feel and the brightest white available. For broccoli, I want compact flower heads without a trace of yellowing and short, cropped stems since most of the stem is waste.

In the fruit department, plums need to be inspected to ensure there is no must developing and that the fruit is not too soft. Apples need to be firm and rosy, with out knicks or scabs; the pears need to be hard and green, as they quickly ripen at home. The soft ones will squish on your way home. I think I hear the pastry in the fridge calling for an introduction to the prune plums. It would make a fine pie if they got together. Mr. Stepford next door loves prune plum pie and both he and Missus have been extremely good to me. It’s my way of giving back.

The prices were so good, I picked up some vegetables for Mrs. Stepford as well. The prices in my new hometown are rather expensive. I haven’t yet found a produce store here to rival Fruiticana or Rightway markets that I was using before I moved here. But these two are so far away that it doesn’t make sense to drive so far to get them. Now that I was in Richmond for my Pre Admittance appointment, it made perfect sense to take this time to shop.

Twelve minutes before I had to be there, I remembered the appointment. I’d had far too much fun inspecting and feeling the vegetables, enjoying their colours and textures, that I’d forgotten. I hadn’t yet been through the till. Now I had to hurry.

I’m going in for surgery next week. Just a little bit of day surgery. Nothing to be concerned about. Just a few feminine bits to examine and tinker with, like tuning up an old car, giving it new oil and a new hoses or fan belts. I’ll be as good as new afterwards.

I’ve gone for rounds of tests. Blood tests, X-rays and an EKG. I’ve had to sign a dozen papers saying I won’t hold them responsible (What? They are going to tinker but they have no responsibility?) Each time I have to produce my driver’s licence and a Care Card. So how many people have been defrauding the system that we need to verify everyone’s identity. What’s happened to honesty and integrity, I ask myself.

Today I had to go to pre-admission where they ask about your name and address a dozen times even though they are holding on to papers in their hands that already tell them that. It’s as if they are testing whether your memory is any good or not.

I met with the admitting nurse.

“I’m Colleen,” she introduced herself. I found I was doing quite a lot of hand shaking as every “associate” in the hospital presented themselves in a friendly manner intended, I suppose, to put nervous patients at their ease.

“I need to take your blood pressure and have you weighed in,” she said, and she let me take off my belt, with money purse and cellular phone attached so that the weight of it wouldn’t be counted in.”

“I bet that weighs two pounds.”she offered. Out of curiosity, I plunked them on the scale. We both peered at the results.

“One” I announced simultaneously with her “Two!” as the needle on the machine hovered at one and a half.

“Anyway, I’ll be taking a few pounds off,” she said as I stepped onto the scale and she wrote down the results, lowering the result by two pounds. She wrapped a new-looking blood pressure cuff around my upper arm and tightened it. As it slowly let out air, it registered on a machine. I passed that test too.

“Do you know why you are coming in here?” she asks. I tell her, all the while saying in my interior, ironic voice Of course I know why I’m coming in here. Are there people who don’t know?

“That’s right,” she confirmed. Then, off the paper she was holding she read the medical terms for the same, but there was a something-or-other -scopy tacked on the end.

“I suppose once they are in there looking around they are going to take some pictures. Just check what’s there, to see if everything is OK,” I volunteered. I scored a point on that one, too. So far I’d gotten 100 percent.

She rattled off what was going to happen to me in the most minute detail. I was going to come in an hour before my surgery. I was going to see the admitting clerk. Someone would take me down to the pre-surgery and give me a gown to get into and a key for a locker. The hospital would not take any responsibility for credit cards, money, jewellry, or possessions of any kind. I would get undressed then get into the hospital gown then put my clothes in the locker and pin the key to my gown. When a nurse called me, she would lead me to the operating room. I would lie down on the operating table. The nurse and the surgeon would be there as well as the anesthetist. After my EKG was completed, I would meet with the anesthetist in just a few minutes.

Doctor, anesthetist and nurse would do their thing. The gurney with me on it would be rolled into post surgery. A nurse would be checking all patients to make sure they were alright. When I awoke, I could go home. I’d need someone to pick me up because I couldn’t drive legally for twenty four hours. I’d be pretty groggy and incapable of paying attention to the road.

She said all that in a single breath, it seemed. She must have repeated it a million times, day after day, month after month, year after year. It rolled off her tongue without hesitation. She would be repeating it after I left and tomorrow and the next day into nursing eternity. She would be a wonderful actress. She has a prodigious memory. She wouldn’t make mistakes in a long soliloquy, I thought. Despite the repetitiveness of it, I hoped she would be an admitting nurse for a long time. She was kind, patient and friendly.

“You take this paper down to coronary treatment,” she said, directing me down the hall past a bit of renovation construction to double doors; there I should turn left right down to cardiology for the EKG. “Just hand these papers to the technician.”

I walked down a long hallway past some unpainted plywood hoardings that hoved the corridor in half. At the end, there were double doors. I turned left. The technician took the papers and bade me lift my top so that he could affix sticky blue things high up on my bosom. He attached them to my legs and one to my finger. In seconds he was done, tearing the blue things off my various body parts.

“Don’t throw them out,” I pleaded. “I make goofy art work with these kinds of things. I thing they are interesting. I once did a work with cut up credit cards.”
He laughed at that but said, “They are contaminated,” shaking his head in a negative gesture.

“But it’s only my skin.” I persisted. “If I’m contaminated, it’s only my contamination. What’s so bad about that?”

“I’ve touched them, too. You don’t know what germs I have, ” he said and he handed me some new ones. “Here take these.” And as he handed me them, I thought, But now you’ve touch these as well. Where does it stop, this being so careful? Yet, I’m thankful that they are being that careful.

He left me with a new paper, closed the door so that I could rearrange my clothing. I made myself presentable then went back the way I came, only to get lost at the double doors. It didn’t look the same coming as going and I couldn’t see the construction hoarding.

“Sorry!” I said to a passing man and woman, “Do you work here?” The man kept going, saying, “I’ll see you tomorrow” and the woman hesitantly came back towards me. I had the idea she was late going back from her break and I was a further delay.

She pointed me further down the hall to different double doors, to the left and then back to Pre-admitting. She went back to the ward she had been heading for.
At pre-admitting, a short man got up fromhis chair and graciously offered it to me. I’d put my back out earlier in the day and was quite willing to take it, glad to sit down, glad of the chivalry that still existed in the middle aged and elderly. He had been there before I came and was still there.

An elderly Oriental man came out of the anesthetists office looking bewildered; the nurse handed him his papers and sent him, too , to the EKG, with complicated directions. But he either was unable to understand English and he stared at her silently, puzzled and frightened. All the patients and their friends were watching. One of these, another man with a thick eastern European accent, took the him by the arm and led him to his next destination. It was a kindly thing to do. Probably he was glad of something to break the monotony of waiting and waiting.

It seemed as if everyone in the room had been there since I first came, still waiting, while I had been back and forth with the various tasks the patient had to accomplish. A very pregnant woman came out of the anesthetist’s office doors supporting her extended abdomen with both hands. Her husband shuffled behind her, dressed in a tattered red plaid logger’s jacket. She was so neat and he so untidy. I wondered how their life would be with a new baby in it.


A new couple came and stood at the entrance. There were no chairs left. They were both tall and slender. She wore a black, long-sleeved cardigan over another sweater with a V-neck which suited her shoulder length black hair that framed her face. Below, she wore a white skirt with large black polka dots on the waist to knee portion and then there was a slight ruffle with smaller black polka dots. I tried to draw her as a reminder without being noticed. No one wants to be in pre-admittance, much less to be noticed or stared at. I worked at understanding how the folds in this fabric truncated the black circles as the fabric folded over in soft pleats for my drawing, then ended up simulating how they go because I couldn’t stare.

A nurse came, called my name and took my papers. She led me into the anesthetist’s office and signaled me to a chair. I sat and looked at the creature before me. So this was an anesthetist! She must have come right out of the operating room as she was garbed in largely fitting green garments of some polyester-cotton variety. She was already short and then, sitting on her stool, she seemed even shorter. I pegged her age at about thirty-five, calculated more on her years of education she would have had to do than on her looks. Those were no assistance to the calculation.

As she asked me questions about my other hospital stays which were few and far between (1973, something minor; 1976, pneumonia in Holland at the beginning of my first year in Europe; and oh yes, I had forgotten, the dental surgery in the doctor’s office, in 1978). All the while, I was observing and having this other conversation with myself.

Whew! This one would need an arranged marriage. She had missed out in the looks department. Her face was unusually squarish and black facial hair crept up the left side of it which blended somewhat into her deep brown skin. Her lips were thick and her eyebrows as well. She must be mightily intelligent to become an anesthetist. All that intelligence would scare most men away.

Nothing in her physical appearance was aide by the wrinkled scrubs that she was wearing, the O.R, mask that fell below her chin, unlaced on the top two strings and sitting like a badge-of-office necklace. She still wore the ugliest headgear possible, an O.R. wrap that resembled a Russian winter hat with ear flaps down, but this was not made of leather and fur. It was made of pink, yellow and white-flowered cotton, a print typical of the ‘sixties made for aprons and curtains. Was there no consideration for visual aesthetics in the operating room? What would this woman look like in outside day clothes? In a long gown at a charity ball? She was five foot nothing, I estimated and heavy set.

She mentioned something about the pace of her work and not having had time to spend on herself. I chastised her, feeling motherly and sympathetic about working women who too often ignore their own health and well-being in their drive to be considered “as good as” their male counterparts; and in their home responsibilities to keep family, if not their own children and mate, then elderly and failing parents.

“You must take care of yourself,” I chided. “You must take time for yourself. I’m a perfect example of what happens if you don’t – burn out and health problems. I wouldn’t even be here for this if I’d taken time to look after myself six years ago. I just kept making excuses one after the other about my responsibilities and ignored my own needs. Now I have to have an operation, already.”

“I know, I know ” she commiserated, but I knew she would not. She deemed there was no time, at least, time she could afford to “waste” or spend.

We warmed to each other in this exchange.

I’d had difficulty in figuring how I was going to get to the hospital and then go home. I’m living on my own now. Mrs. Stepford next door is legally blind until they put her lens back in and can’t drive. Her husband is working long days. I didn’t want to ask them. My sister and her husband had offered to come, but they are a five hour trip away and it’s not an easy matter. I’m not talking to my brother, Otto, at all. He’s been so twisted and vindictive over Mother’s will that anything I say is distorted and thrown back at me. I don’t want to share the same space in a car or a room with him, much less ask a favour of him that will be held over my head until eternity. Hugh has moved to Ottawa to get his Masters. Ron works ten hour days. A recent friend has offered her services, but I’m reticent to ask a new friend to do what a family and long term friends ought to.

“What I’m guenna do for you” she said, then repeated in that odd accent that was difficult to place, “What I’m guenna do, because of your sleep apnea, I can justify keeping you overnight for observation. I’ll get you on the slate for the earliest operation. Then the next morning, the twenty-four hours of your sedation and local will have sufficiently worn off for you to legally drive yourself home. We will have observed you all night, just to be sure that you have breathed properly even though you have been sedated.”
“Oh, that would solve everything,”I gushed. “Thank you, thank you. That would be wonderful.”

I wondered what she would have done for me if she had been able to hear my tertiary conversation in my head observing her facial features, her marital options and her hospital garb. Would she have been so accommodating. I had the feeling that it was a favour she was doing me. It’s a pity we too often judge people by their exteriors. I felt that this woman probably had been judged too often and dismissed, though I felt she was warm, caring and intelligent. I thought she might be so interesting to get to know. I was sure she had stories to tell about her determination to gain standing in her profession; about her family and their support of her extraordinary intelligence; about her travels that had brought her to Canada. Was she or her family a refugee? A refugee with money that had allowed her to study in a very expensive field of endeavour?

I felt that she had been watching me, carrying on her own tertiary conversation somewhere in the back of her head, judging me. My initial reactions had not registered on my face. I had treated her courteously as she had me, until we had established a friendly banter and an openness that had paved the way.

“OK, that’s it then,” she said. “You are free to go. We will let you know about your place on the operation schedule so that you can be there in good time.” I rose to leave. We exchanged a few more words and I was gone.

On the way down the corridor, I saw that extremely pregnant woman and her husband sitting, waiting. I started to walk backwards, more slowly, towards the door as I passed them.

I said, “When is the baby due? Your first?”

“This week. It’s my third,” she replied.

“You will be glad to have it over with.” I commiserated.

“I’ll be glad,” she repeated in reply.

“Well, God bless and good luck with it” I said as turned and reached the door.

I was still clutching that parking ticket, afraid to lose it, afraid of how much that VOICE would charge me if I lost it, against all her loud and clear instructions. I took it to the nearest payment box, green like the ticket dispenser, and paid with my credit card. Just to the right of the entrance, there was a brick path to a coffee stand. The path wound around some lovely Oriental inspired gardens, terminating in a red brick patio filled with umbrella covered tables. What a lovely place for patients and their care givers to idle away waiting time, I thought. Someone had done a good thing in designing this into the hospital structures.

I picked up my coffee, dosed it and left. My car interior was warm from the September sun, a refreshing and relaxing warmth seeped into my back and I luxuriated in it while I sipped a bit of my coffee. Hospitals are a good place to care for you but they are a good place to leave. I was ready to go and thankful that one more chore had been done.

I turned the key in the ignition, backed out of the parking stall and was gone.

Charlie the painter

September 15, 2007

“As a house painter, he’s the next best thing to Michaelangelo” Frank persuaded me. “You know, the Sistine Chapel and all that.” By the way he was searching my eyes for doubt and the slight hesitation he had before he started his sentence with bravado, I knew there should be doubt, and there were questions that begged for answers, and for stories to tell.

He barreled on, “He’s had drug and alcohol problems but he’s fine now. He works for us, paints the hotel rooms at this hotel, paints the other hotel rooms and sometimes he goes out and does people’s houses. He’s really good.”

Now it was July 2nd. The tenant was out of my rental suite and I could begin cleaning it up for sale.

I sat, alert, watching all sides of my vehicle, through the rear view mirror, the side mirrors and then, craning my neck from side to side. The parking lot of the East Side hotel was no place for a middle class bourgeois lady to be hanging out, waiting. The wait seemed forever as I observed a tottering, thin young woman, deeply bronzed by the outdoor sun, stagger across the lot about a hundred feet away by the sidewalk on Abbott Street. She was carrying a big parcel tied with string that caused her to limp. Or maybe it was the five inch heels that seemed to operate separate from the body that was wearing them.

Up against the chain link fence by the stairwell to the parking, a huddled mass of rags moved beside a sleeping bag and a homeless man emerged then sunk back into his stupor. What on earth was I doing here! Why did I let myself get persuaded into these things!

I had gotten distracted in my concentration on the perilous high heels and nearly jumped out of my skin when a toothless face came leering right up to the driver’s window, lips close to the thin space between the top of the car window and the door frame. “Are you Frank’s wife?” he said. “I’m Charlie, the painter.”

His hair stood out in straight black clumps underneath his baseball cap somewhat like a scarecrow and his dark eyes seemed to have no pupils. The eyes didn’t coordinate, so he looked as if one was made of glass, but it moved in its own direction. He looked drugged. He wore a red plaid logger’s shirt, a bright royal blue T-shirt and a pair of too-large jeans that he hitched in a nervous manner as he awaited my answer.

Oh, God no!” I thought. “What has Frank done to me now!”

“Yes. I’m Mrs. Frank”, I said with all the calm I could muster. I made a quick look around me and saw Frank only five feet away. It must be alright. Frank would not have me harmed. Despite the fact that we had had a falling out just three days before which ended in Frank asking me for a divorce, he had promised to help me with finding a painter. Before he left me after our quarrel, he had said, “I keep my promises. I’ll still set you up with your painter. I won’t cause you any trouble.”

It was only seconds between the time Charlie had introduced himself and Frank was at my car door. I unlocked the four doors with the automatic switch and Charlie began to get in on the passenger’s side as I was getting out driver’s side. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to do this. He stopped mid-motion and scissored back up again, out of the car.

As he did so, I looked at Frank searchingly, whispering “You are sure this is alright, are you?”

In a loud voice, he said. “Charlie is an excellent painter. You will see. Everything is fine.”

I swivelled to see Charlie, “I thought we could just talk about what has been said so far. Frank, what have you told Charlie he needs to do? How much am I paying him and how? Does Charlie know what he is supposed to do?” I was desperately trying to get a feel for this situation and trying to buy time.

“You pick up Charlie and take him to the apartment. Show him what needs to be done. Charlie will tell you how much and what kind of paint you need. You drive him to the paint store. You pay for it. Take Charlie back out to the apartment and you can leave him there and go do something else. He gets fifteen dollars and hour. He’s worth it. Then you pick him up at the end of the day and bring him back here. Give him twenty dollars for his lunch and cigarettes each day and no more. You pay him at the end of the work, not a cent before. Do you understand me?”

“Is that OK with you, Charlie?” I asked.

He nodded. “ ‘sOK with me,” he said. His eyes were open wide, somewhat like those of a deer caught in headlights, not knowing whether he should flee or stay. I felt the same and hoped it didn’t show.


“Alright, let’s go,” I said. Charlie got back in the car. I had made my decision. I had only three days to get the apartment painted before I would be engaged in a work assignment. I was under the gun. I had to get it done now. Where could I find another painter in this hot job market? Impossible! I’d have to take my chances. I wondered if Charlie had heard the resignation in my voice.


Whatever he could get done until something went awry would be that much gained. Worse came to the worst, I could finish off my self. I prefer the picture kind of painting, but I’ve done lots of the other kind myself. It’s just that I’m getting too old for this.


“Buy Charlie a coffee on the way” Frank directed as we left him and drove away.


I started up a conversation to put Charlie at his ease while I mentally took stock of this person sitting beside me. I could have sworn I had seen Charlie standing over another native, mid day, just outside the liquor store on Alberni street, beside where I worked about eight years ago. The other one was lying in a stupor, his pants down, his rear end exposed for everyone to see, and this one, Charlie, standing beside him, hopping from foot to foot, concerned for his mate, not knowing what to do. It was the eyes that I remembered, and the hair.


And here was this man in my car. I struggled with my prejudices, tried to be fair and open minded. He was clean, at least. Clean, crisp T-shirt. Paint spattered shoes. The loggers jacket was clean, had holes in it and a button missing. His baseball hat was really a painter’s cap. “Of course,” I thought, “to keep the paint out of his hair.”


I was calculating our best route to Burnaby where my apartment was and where we could stop for a coffee, all the while wondering what others would think of the lady with the Lexus bringing in this street person for coffee.


Once, at one of the downtown coffee houses, when I tried to buy a beggar a cup of coffee, the owner came out from behind the counter and drove the beggar off. He gave me a lecture that I’d never forget. What would I do or say if that happened? I’d made my choice to hire him. I’d defend that choice, I thought, with an ounce of hesitation. “This is my painter. Leave him alone?” I might say.


“He’s a nice man, your Frank”, Charlie said, and I pulled my thoughts together. We had been talking, but I hadn’t been paying attention.

“Yes, he is.” I replied quite assertively.” But Frank just asked me for a divorce so I don’t really want to talk about him.” I had to nip that in the bud. It was bad enough that I had a third level conversation going on in my mind every minute that it wasn’t engaged elsewhere, trying to sort out what had happened with me and Frank three days ago.


“Well, you’re too good for him. I can see that now. Never you mind. He’s just angry. He’ll be back,” he started to console me.


Chopin’s Etudes were playing on the car disc player and switched automatically to some jazz music as we drove. He jiggled a bit and asked nervously, “Can we go back to that last music? I like the classical music.” My estimation went up a notch and I poked the disc button until we returned to Chopin. He grinned with a childlike pleasure and settled in to listen. He poked a finger at the car radio controls and said, “That just sounds like moving water! It’s amazing, isn’t it? I go to concerts sometimes. I really like classical music.”


I noted that Charlie was a good listener and he could add good bits to the conversation. I used big words, almost as if testing him, and he understood them, used them himself. He knew enough to edit all the swear words out. He was being respectful of me.


He told me about his family, a sister that was a doctor – a psychologist – and a brother who was a store owner. They had both done very well. It was just him who had fallen. The black sheep.


He explained that he had a daughter and a son, and when I probed, he said he saw them frequently. The girl was working in a government job and the boy had been to University and was now working in the Communications industry.


I told him about my nephews, and about having cared for my aging mother until she died in this early spring. I said it was really pretty grim, how she died, so I wouldn’t bore him with the details.

He said, “No, No, I’d like to hear the details. My mother is ninety three and she won’t last long now. I want to go back to Winnipeg to see her with the money that I get from this job. I’m going to go next week”

So I told him some stories about Mom in her residence. And I told him about my job being careful not to tell him where I worked, just that I had managed property for years and years; and that I had taught school before that.


He acknowledged everything I said and complimented me where he thought I had been kind or generous or capable. I opened up and said more than I should have. I could hear my mother saying, “Never tell anyone anything about yourself. It will only cause you difficulty. And I could hear her shock that I would be talking about her to this man who looked like a black-haired scarecrow”


When finally we found a Starbucks location where we could easily stop to pick up a decent coffee, we had become quite comfortable in our conversation. I parked and we both went in. We ordered our coffees and I watched the server, a young fresh looking girl of about twenty. She didn’t lift an eyebrow, nor did her assistant. We took our coffees, fixed them and went on our way.


At the apartment, Charlie became a director.

“Write this down,” he commanded, and I took out my notebook and wrote. “You need four cans of semi gloss latex, two of kitchen and bath, three gallons of ceiling paint in oil, one quart of the dark brown for the balcony railing, a small container of urethane clear for the fireplace woodwork, turpentine or paint thinner for the oil paints, caulking for the bathtub and for around the sinks, glue for the baseboards, and some Spackle for the wall preparation.”


As we inspected the premises to see what needed to be done, he proposed more work than I had anticipated, but his judgment was good and I accepted his ideas. He could also repair the balcony railing that had rotted, he said. That was a plus. I wouldn’t need to call another workman for the carpentry work. He said he would kill the mold around the bathtub and caulk it again. He suggested a coating on the balcony floor that would make it all look fresh.

As we walked through, I noticed that the nervous hitching of his jeans was in fact a necessity. His pants slipped dangerously down the crack in his back and then he’d hitch them up again. I laughed quietly to myself, thinking of how he had not abandoned his drunken friend many years ago, where many might have.


We were walking through the mega hardware store later that afternoon looking for what we needed. I was getting embarrassed. I had tolerance for his undisciplined eyes and for his shaggy appearance, but not for falling clothes. “Charlie,” I said, “you’ll have to keep those pants up.”

“I’ll have to wear a belt tomorrow,” he said, without discomfort. “I forgot my belt.” I wondered if he even had one or if I would need to supply one as part of payment.


We collected our painting supplies from a store where he had access to a thirty percent discount and passed it along to me. He phoned and asked permission to use it for this job and he got it. I found his behavior towards his sometime employers respectful in a gentle kind of way.


I worked with him all the afternoon on prep work, filling holes with Spackle, sanding, taking light switch plates off and electrical plug covers. I soaked these plastic cover plates in TSP at his request and found that all the previous spots of paint overspill came off easily. He showed me how to cut in the edges, to sand and refill the patching, to do long strokes on the balcony railing. He was a patient and kind teacher.


Later in the afternoon, I took him to MacDonald’s for lunch. As we approached the driveway, he said, “Do you want to just drive through. We don’t have to go in.”

I wondered. Was he trying to say I might not want to sit with him? I was getting rather fond of him, his gentle aspirations, his nostalgic descriptions of his family and his chirruping positive attitude.

“Nope,” I said firmly. “We are going in. We’ve worked pretty hard all morning and afternoon and we deserve a break.” His face relaxed and he smiled like a child.

He chose a healthy meal and ate the whole thing with relish. He was hungry. No sooner than he finished, though, he said it was time to go, as if I was being a lazy employee dragging my feet. “Who’s working for whom?” I thought.


We had put in a ten hour day by the time I got him back to his hotel. He was carrying a list of all the things he should bring the next day – an electric sander, his circular saw, a square, a carpenter’s pencil for the balcony; some turpentine which we had forgotten to purchase, more rags, his caulking gun.


Frank was there when we got back. “Everything alright?” he asked.

“Just fine” I said.

“Give him his lunch and cigarette money?”


And he turned on his heels and left.

Oh, it’s like that, is it?” I thought.


In the morning, I saw Frank in the distance. He didn’t come near the car. Charlie was on time, waiting with his bundle of tools and rags. Frank approached him some distance away from me and then Frank turned and went away.

Charlie got in the car and said, “Frank didn’t say good morning to you.”


I picked up my cell phone and dialed his.


“So, you aren’t saying good morning to me any more?”


“I’m working” he said and hung up.


Charlie overheard the conversation. “He can be pretty mean sometimes,” he said to me. “You don’t need him.”


“Oh, I’ve hurt him. I didn’t mean to, but it couldn’t be helped” I said. “I can’t do what he is asking me to do. He’s been very good to me; helped me a lot. But when he gets angry, he gets in a rage. This time I don’t know if he will get over it. Really he is mad at himself because he imagined how things could be and we never talked about it. He’s done all kinds of things for me with expectations that I would change and I can’t. So now he’s beating himself up. His hopes have been dashed.”


“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry,” he said rather meekly, and I said it was alright, not to worry. Our conversation changed comfortably to other things.


First thing he did at the apartment was to saw away the portion of the balcony that had rotted. As he did so, he exposed a nest of carpenter ants.

“Look!” he called me over, excitedly.
The ants were scrambling at the disturbance and exposure to the air. The ant emergency team scrambled into action, picking up the white egg casings and scurried off with them. Charlie pointed to a larger ant and said “The Queen” as if he had been announcing the Queen of England, and we watched her nervously observing her emergency team.


Charlie flung the rotted wood into the garden below and started to measure up the space to calculate the amount of wood he needed. The show was over. Later in the afternoon, all the ants had gone elsewhere, probably out looking for their queen.


I only saw two others and each was carrying another ant in its mandibles. Were these the last ones? Sauve qui peut! Women and children first, then the men, then mobility impaired, handicapped or sick bay ants waiting until the last?


How do they communicate? I wondered. Had they already worked out muster stations? Did the queen emit some kind of sound that would rally her troops around her, even though her nest was thrown quite far away and all had been exposed, damaged and disrupted? Was this like a human’s earthquake response? An ant’s version of fire drill finally put to good purpose?


We continued on with our tasks. He fixed the railing, I watched him measure without having a ruler. He used another length of wood and a pencil mark. He mitered the first corner where the balcony railing jig jagged, and it fit perfectly. But when he measured the second one, he cut it square and I lifted my eyebrows at that.

He saw my expression and made an excuse that he was saving time and therefore money for me. He could do it the other way, but it would also take more wood. “I have it. I could do it again, but …”

His voice trailed off. It was at once a statement and a question. He was looking for the answer in my face.

I was in too much of a hurry. I needed this work to be done. I compromised and said, “Never mind, just leave it. It was true. No one was going to notice it once it was caulked, sanded and painted.


About one o’clock, I asked him if he liked pizza. He did, so I went out to get one. We had lost too much time the day before by the coming and going, and I wasn’t being very productive. I wanted to keep him going. I had deadlines.


When I came back, we had a bite, then he announced that I could finish painting the railing. I’m savvy enough to know that one needs a primer coat and we didn’t have an official one.

“Just use the melamine latex as an undercoat. It’s tough and has a good binder,” he advised. It was bright pure orange yellow and I hoped that nobody would notice the work in progress with its blatant colour. We really weren’t supposed to be doing repairs to the structure, but I hadn’t been able to get the Strata Council to even look at the problem in ten months. The place had to look good for potential buyers. I couldn’t leave this blight on the balcony. Besides, I knew what was required for decent repairs. They’d be that much further ahead. By the time we had finished, they wouldn’t even know where the repair had been made.


By end of day, I had given the balcony railing a second coat. It looked really skookum. I’d also been tasked varnishing the woodwork on the fireplace which Charlie had sanded until it looked brand new. He set me to cutting in the corners and the edges on the kitchen and bathroom. It was another ten hour day and we were tired at the end of it.


On the way home, I mentioned to Charlie that I had an obligation the next morning to travel out to my new home with my brother-in-law. He had come to Burnaby to help me move some of my things out to my new home in the Fraser Valley and I would pick Charlie up at 12:30. I also reminded him that on Thursday, I’d have to pick him up early and take him out to the apartment because I had major dental work being done. I couldn’t change it. If it weren’t me picking him up, it would be my brother in law.


I’d mentioned this to him before and he had reacted in a way that I thought slightly curious. He had said, ”I’m so glad that you said that. I, too, have a medical appointment and I didn’t know how to tell you.” It had sounded stilted. I wondered at the convenience of his answer. Did he really have one? But it didn’t really matter, I supposed.


So on Wednesday, I drove with my sister and brother-in-law out to my new home with a load of plants from their garden and whatever goods we could pack in around them. My brother-in-law would come out to put up shelving for me in the basement on his own, the next day. We took a nice tour through the house; I got approval from them both that it was a good purchase; and we headed back home, not tarrying, so that I could pick up Charlie at the appointed hour.


We were at the Kensington off-ramp when my cell phone rang. To my surprise, it was Charlie. He must have asked Frank for my number.


“Would you mind if I took the remainder of the day off?” he asked. What was I to do?

“You know I’m off for the dental appointment tomorrow,” I said, somewhat annoyed.

“It’s really very important.” he said, holding his ground.

“Can we finish tomorrow? I asked.

“I’m pretty sure” he answered. “If not, I’ll come on Saturday and stay until it’s done.

‘Well, OK” I said, grudgingly. It left me time to spend with my visitors.

“But you have to phone me so that I can tell you when I’m picking you up. I need to make arrangements because of the dentist. You have my number. Call me at six and I’ll tell you what time I’m coming. It has to be early,” I said before he hung up.


In the evening I ate dinner with the family. Charlie did not call. I stewed about how little progress I had made. Although I had told them something about my venture into the Downtown Eastside for a painter, I hadn’t told all. I was worried that Charlie would take off and get drunk or get drugs. I couldn’t judge. I inferred from Frank’s caution about giving him money that he could be unreliable. What if Charlie had told friends that he had this big painting job and he would have money by the end of the week. Would they loan him money? Would he get drunk and not come back? I couldn’t afford to wait on this painting job.


I decided to go back out to the apartment to do more painting. Some progress, any progress was essential to my emotional well being. Ron, my nephew, had listened to all my worrying and offered to come out with me. He had often made pin money in his high school days by helping people paint their apartments and homes. He was a wonderful help, but he’d already put in a ten hour work day at his masonry job. We did an hour’s worth and went back home.


Thursday was a write off. I still had not heard from Charlie and so I simply didn’t go. I saw a friend from work over coffee for a half hour before I went to the dentist and once the dental work was over, I came home and crashed. I’d been pushing too hard. I needed the rest. Besides, Heather was there, and I needed to spend a bit of time with her. But I continued to worry.

Sometime in early evening, Frank called. The call was cold and business-like.

“How is Charlie working out?”

“Fine, except he was supposed to call me about the time I was supposed to collect him, and he didn’t, so I didn’t pick him up. I’ve got to get that painting done.” I stated in a voice that was somewhat indicative of my growing panic.

“Is the work alright? It’s taking overly long”

“Charlie suggested extra work and he was right. I got him to do the ceilings, and he fixed the woodwork on the balcony for me. He’s working hard – when he’s there”, I said.

“Well, he’s standing here waiting to speak to you. If I hadn’t dialed, he wouldn’t have phoned, is my guess,” said Frank.

The phone passed to Charlie without a goodbye to Frank. I was grateful. I wondered if Frank was thawing. He’d been civil. It was too hard to tell.


On Friday, I got a call from Charlie asking if I could pick him up at nine thirty instead. I sighed and said yes. Frank came on the phone. “Charlie is working on the desk. It’s legitimate. And don’t pay him more than twenty in cash per day or you won’t see him back.” He hung up without a good bye. I picked up Charlie at nine thirty.


On the way out to the apartment, Charlie confessed that he’d had to watch the front desk all night. Sometimes there were fights in the hotel or people coming in to shoot up. There had to be someone to keep them out. It had been his turn last night, and he earned a little towards his rent.

“Do you get to snooze at all?” I asked.

“No you have to stay alert the whole time. There are TV cameras, but you’ve got to be awake if someone rough comes in. It’s not a good place at night.


Around six he asked to go home.

“We have to finish, Charlie. Are you finished?”

“No but I can’t paint anymore today. I’m getting tired. I’ll come tomorrow. You just name the time. Whatever time it takes, I’ll finish it, but tomorrow.”

This was July, just after the holiday weekend. The days were the longest days of the year. Sun set after 9 p.m. The sky was fiery orange when we went home. I nevertheless insisted that he finish painting. I was afraid that I couldn’t get him back again. He was painting the last two bedrooms in the gloom, since the bedrooms had no overhead lights and there was only the ambient light on the east side of the building.


I drove him home, chatting to keep myself awake. He apologized but he reiterated how tired he was. “I’ve been up for over thirty six hours,” he explained as he then started to calculate that he’d been up at eight the day before and then had worked all night; I’d picked him up at nine thirty. What kind of slave driver was I, anyway? He’d told me in the morning about his night work. By evening, I had forgotten. He had certainly put in a full day and he had worked hard all the time I was there. Poor guy.

I began to feel guilty.

As we drove the ten miles through city streets still throbbing from the summer heat, the sun washing everything in an impossible orange glow, he said, “I have to come back tomorrow I haven’t done the bathroom yet.”

I was so tired I couldn’t take it in. It wasn’t finished!

I dropped him at his lodgings and made my own way home. Dusk was settling into the streets. I wished that I had my camera handy to photograph it, but it wasn’t at hand. I began to fall asleep at the wheel. Twice when I stopped at a red light, I jerked awake and realized I’d dozed off. That was bad. Very bad. I shook my head vigourously from side to side. I had to get home.


In the morning, I realized that I hadn’t set a time with Charlie. I said to Heather, I’m going to pick him up anyway. We’ve got to finish this.

“But how are you going to find him?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I’ll ask for him at the front desk, I guess, and see if I can get him. I have to show the apartment to the Realtor on Monday. It absolutely has to be done.


It was early Sunday morning. The yellow glow was coming from the east now, moving through a morning smog or sea mist. I parked the car in front of the hotel in the loading zone. I was nervous to leave the car.


I entered the lobby, a filthy depressing claustrophobic hole on the other side of two old but relatively solid bar-type doors, the kind that had windows at eye level and then had wrought iron bars across them. There was a swarthy looking man with grizzled grey covering his head and his face with a short stubble of hair., beard and mustache.

He looked askance at me. Even in my old painting clothes, I looked too rich to be in this hotel. Anyone but the druggies, the winos and the permanent denizens of the Downtown Eastside looked too rich. I felt like a sitting duck.


“I’m looking for Charlie, the painter.” By this time I knew his last name and that seemed to make a difference to this impassive blob of a front deskman.

“He’s doing a painting job for me. I’m supposed to pick him up this morning. Can you phone his room?”

“He’s in 117, “he said laconically. “You can go up, knock on his door.”


I looked at the two swinging doors at the landing in front of me, about four steps up from the lobby entrance. There were two doors. One said “Employees only” and the other “Hotel guests only” in bright red, badly hand painted letters. They might as well have been marked “Hell “ and “Worser Hell”.


I looked a at the dirt and the raw plywood walls that had been repaired many times over with an added layer of plywood nailed on to hid a hole kicked into the wall. Nothing had been painted. Ever.

The desk man, gave a nod to head that was more like a jerk, as if he could point with his head.

I went up the four steps and gingerly touched the handle, and pulled. The steps on the other side of the “Guests” door were covered with a treaded ancient linoleum. Every groove was caked with dirt. It seemed as if everything was contaminated. The air was dead, unmoving. I put one foot before the other, climbing this antechamber to hell. And found 117 the third door to the right. I knocked.

“Charlie, it’s me, Kay.

“Are you there?”

The door handle twisted. His black eye aligned with the crack in the door.

“I’ll be there in five minutes” he said. “You go outside. Ill get dressed in no time. Wait for me on the sidewalk. Don’t stay in here.” It was a warning.


I retraced my path and walked out past the desk man without saying a word. I went to the car and got in, locked all the doors and rolled down the window two inches on the driver’s side. It was going to be another hot day. There were only two cars parked on whole block, both sides. Mine was one of them.

I watched as a thin woman stumbled along the deserted street carrying a Holt Renfrew bag. Her five inch heels were not helping her. She stopped near a metal pipe railing covered with chicken wire fencing and leaned over it as if to retch. Coming from the other direction was a man with a swagger. He wasn’t on drugs. He was too physically with it, too rounded and healthy looking. A pimp?

I saw Charlie come out of the hotel with a doughnut in his hand, chewing on it, carrying the few things that he thought he needed to finish the painting with. He didn’t see me and walked in the wrong direction. I got out of the car, staying on the traffic side of the road called and waved at him.

He reached the corner, turned, looking puzzled in a three hundred and sixty degree search for where I might be then he saw me.

On his way back to my car, he stopped beside the wretched girl and spoke with her. As he got into the car he said, “That poor girl. She was very unhappy. She was crying. I don’t know what the matter was, but she was sure upset.”

He was seriously concerned and compassionate.


I drove away from the curb and he said rather quickly, “Could you please take me to pick up my medication? It’s only two blocks away.” He sounded doubtful and charming at the same time.

Medication, I thought. What kind of medication? What kind of place is open this early in the morning to dispense medication on a Sunday, yet? I reluctantly consented. He navigated. “Turn here. Go down one block. Park anywhere here.”


It was a street I had never been on even though I was quite familiar with the Vancouver streets. The shops were small and neglected. Every one of them had cheap metal bars protecting the plate glass windows and the entry doors. There were multiple locks going up the door jamb. Men were hanging about, all of them with odd walks, long scraggly hair, unkempt clothing that had likely been slept in not only last night, but maybe for a month or more.”

Charlie leapt from the car, promising to be only a minute or so. I saw him stop at the doorway and take a white packet from the man sitting there. I looked at the sign above the door and the one across the transom above the plate glass window. It said “Pharmacy” in badly drawn hand lettering. I watched as he approached the counter and waited there.

What on earth was I doing here? How stupid was this, sitting in a Lexus in the poorest part of town, the most crime ridden? What had Charlie bought at the front door? Was he still on drugs? What if he had bought drugs? What would I do? When did my foolishness draw a limit on this, where angels feared to tread? My adrenaline was pumping big time, my heart was pounding a retreat if my body wasn’t.

It was a one way street and I was parked on the left side of it, the driver’s window closest to the curb just beside the entrance. The window was still down about two inches and the heat was accumulating in the car. I dared not open it further. One of the denizens came up to my window, a tall man who stooped and walked with a drug addict’s crazy gait, his hair long and white down his back and his beard caught up with an elastic at his chin.

“Nice car, lady, “ he said loudly as he walked past, giving a thumbs up sign and a brilliant smile.

I was still waiting, adrenaline still racing, as a woman missing several front teeth brought her face up to the window opening, saying, “Spare change?” as she leered a grinny tooth at me. I had seen her coming and simply waved my index finger back and forth at her. She kept straight on her way. She was used to rejection on this topic and loped away without much hesitation in her

When Charlie got back in the car the first thing he said was, “That man at the door? He sells cigarettes separately, three at a time He makes a little bit of money at it and it’s a convenience for us.” He opened his fist and showed me the three cigarettes.

“It’s a methadone clinic. They won’t give us the medicine to administer ourselves. We have to go in on specific days and get our doses. I used to use heroin, but it finally got to me. I tried to quit on my own, but I couldn’t, so I’ve been doing this and it’s working. The dose I’m on is so small now. I’m just about finished the treatment.” He held up his hand, thumb and index finger almost touching, in that gesture that indicated “really, really small”.

Of course I worried about his dose of methadone upsetting his day. Then figured if he had not had it, it might have been worse. He was chirrupy as usual and he chattered on his way out to the apartment.

“You didn’t need to be worried out there,” he said out of the blue. Obviously, he’d been thinking about how I might feel about sitting in the car, sticking out like a sore thumb.

“You were safe with me. They all know me. They wouldn’t hurt you.”
I laughed inwardly. He was barely five foot six, walked with a limp or an awkward gait, at least; was skinny as could be. My protector!

On the other hand, I’d seen him roll paint on the ceiling above his head, and all along the wall in long continuous strokes, hour after hour, at a pace that would have made you and me drop. H ecould do it and never even registered a sign of fatigue. He must have a vice grip, if you shook his hand, and a mightily strong arm.

We drove out to the apartment, picking up a coffee on the way. He was desperate for a smoke and the car lighter didn’t work. We stopped at Shoppers Drug Mart to pick up matches. I waited rather impatiently in the car.

When he came back out finally, he was chortling over the bill.

“See this!” he laughed. He’d been given a receipt for three cents. Despite having been “finished” the night before, we worked until two. We packed up the deserted pieces of ant-riddled wood rot into large green garbage bags along with the short pieces of left over lumber. I swept the balcony floor and picked up the debris. He painted the balcony floor. It looked absolutely fabulous. The difference was like night and day. He checked the trim, painted the bathroom when we arrived and a second coat before we left. He checked his previous day’s work that he’d done in the gloom of evening without being able to see what he was doing. They were just fine.

We packed up all the empty paint pots in another green plastic bag. We cleaned the tools, this time very thoroughly. We divided out two piles of tools – his and hers.

Just before we left, I said, “I’d better pay you here. It wouldn’t do to pay you at MacDonald’s nor in the car in front of your hotel. We counted up the hours and he was content. I’d added in all the driving time, the lunch hours, the going to get materials time. He was happy like a child. He stuffed the banknotes in his pocket and said with a bit of glee, “ Now I’m taking you out for lunch!”

When we had finally locked the apartment door and all the materials and tools were tucked in the trunk of the car, we headed back to MacDonald’s. I wasn’t too hungry and had a tall orange juice and an ice cream cone. He wasn’t either. He asked for a sandwich and wrapped most of it up to take with him. For his dinner, he said.


That might have been that, had it not been for the wallet.

My Realtor friend and I met the next day to see the transformation that had been accomplished by this week long painting marathon. She was thrilled.


She had brought along a few items to help show the apartment – a large candle which she perched on the woodwork above the fireplace. She had a few fancy soaps that she left in a dish by the bathroom vanity sink. She had towels for the towel holders, a pair of oven mitts for the kitchen counter. It was as she was checking out the cleanliness of the drawers that she found a wallet.

It was a thin black wallet and seemed to have nothing in it. I peered in the compartments to see what it contained. There was Charlie’s interim driver’s license, a yellow folded piece of paper. A nickel, a quarter and a penny were tucked into to a secret compartment. Given the part of town he came from, perhaps he wasn’t a stickler for rules, but he ought not to drive without his permit. I couldn’t mail it to him. I didn’t think I could leave it with the desk man; I wouldn’t trust him to give it to Charlie. I phoned Frank and asked him what to do.

The conversation was more than brief. “Give it to the Wine and Beer store people. Don’t give it to the man at the hotel reception. Good bye.”



I had had it, to the gills, going down to that scruffy part of town. I didn’t feel safe. I was having dinner with my six foot four nephew that night and asked him to accompany me down to give this wallet back to Charlie. My nephew is a lumbering big guy, but he wouldn’t and couldn’t hurt a fly. His protection was in presence only.


The day had been hot, thirty degrees Celsius, at least. It was late day and the sun was already at the horizon. A warm yellow haze had enveloped the city in a pleasant kind of glare. It would be a perfect night for walking on the beach. I didn’t know if I would find Charlie still. Once again, I asked myself why I bothered. But Charlie had been perfectly respectful, charming even, and I’d pushed him hard to get the work done. It would be disrespectful of me, not to return the wallet to him.


One of the leit motif’s of our conversation had been going back to see his mother in Winnipeg. He said she was ninety-three and he hoped to use the money he had just earned to visit her next week.

He said he would take the bus.

“Oh Charlie,” I sympathized with him, “it’s such a long way. Why don’t you fly? It’ll cost you about the same.”

“No.” he said. He was going to go by bus. It was what he was most familiar with. He liked the bus and the people on it. I wondered if he had ever flown or if making the arrangements and going to the airport were too difficult for him, logistically.


Nephew and I arrived at the hotel and parked the car. It was quite fortuitous. There was Charlie coming out of the hotel with a friend.

“Charlie! I said, and my face lit up with a smile. He couldn’t help but know I was glad to see him. He had a bag in his hand that looked like a fancy shopping bag and my eyes gravitated to it involuntarily and back to Charlie’s face. In that nanosecond I had registered that it was full of bottles of hard liquor.

He’d followed my eyes and back. He looked slightly guilty, enough that he launched into an explanation.

“It’s for a friend. He can’t get out of his room because he’s broken his foot,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter, Charlie. How are you? This is my nephew who I told you about. He’s going back to school to get his Masters degree.”

“I’ve heard great things about you from your aunt” replied Charlie as he shot out his hand to shake Hugh’s.

“I’ve heard great things about you from her, too,” said Hugh. I laughed inwardly and kept smiling.

Here we were in the grubbiest area of Downtown Vancouver surrounded by the scruffiest lot of people and we were behaving as if we were in a corporate office. It seemed absurd.

Hugh was smiling too, but I could tell he was nervous. I don’t think he had ever met someone who had been a street person. He was out of his element and feeling it.

I handed the wallet to Charlie.

“I wondered what I’d done with it,” he said. I never thought I’d see it again.

“I though you might need your license.” I replied.


“Well, have a good night. We have to get back,” I said, and we carried on, returning to the car that was sitting only a few feet away from us.


Two weeks later, I saw Frank. I had to pick up some stuff I’d left at his place and return a few things to him. On the night we had seen Charlie, I had forgotten to bring his caulking gun that he’d left behind for me. I’m mechanically challenged. I never figured out how to use it, or my hands were too weak to operate it. It still had the full tube of caulking in it.


Frank went down to the hotel often as part of his work. I asked him to give the caulking gun back to Charlie.

“To Charlie?” he said somewhat disdainfully. He’s been drunk stupid every night since you paid him. He’s not missing it.


And that was the last that I saw of Frank and the last I saw of Charlie.


September 14, 2007



A wing flapped relentlessly

in a careless wind

as if to escape

its tar and asphalt grave

as cars and trucks whish by

without pity


road kill

Spending Sunday afternoon

September 11, 2007

Sunday’s a day of rest, right?

But I’m a non-stop kind of person. I was up early and spent some time just trying to put things away. This eternal move started in July and the furniture and last of the boxes arrived on September 4th. I’ve loads to unpack and I’m trying to not fret about that, but I need calm in my daily living space, so I try to keep some areas clutter free so that I can find haven in it when needs be.

Late morning, I rewarded myself with some piano playing. The piano has not survived the move intact. The sustaining pedal is stuck and so every note sustains, which is quite cacophonous, but I can still get the feeling for my pieces – Chopin at half speed, Rachmaninoff with out the fourteen finger handspan and equally not up to speed, Schumann’s easier Scenes from Childhood and Ibert – and enjoy puttering thereat.

Early afternoon, I decided that a peaceful way to spend a Sunday would be to putter in the garden. My nephew staying with me was away visiting friends overnight from Friday that extended to Sunday, so I was enjoying a bit of solo time.

I’ve brought many a plant from my mother’s garden. Some are heritage plants that have survived from my horticulturist grandfather on my father’s side, as a gift to my mother and now I feel like I am a keeper of the gift. Then there are perennials that I have bought over years of stewardship I’ve done in mother’s garden.

So I began by trying to find places for these transplants, though much of the garden needs to be dug up and turned over to loosen the soil, needs to have weeds extracted and the shape and composition of the flower beds reconsidered.

There was already some lily of the valley planted in the garden, but it was doing poorly, which I suspect was occasioned by the overgrowth of the rhododendrons and another flowering tree, now cut back and lightened by my nephew. He’s raked up all the dead rhodo leaves and now the lily of the valley can be seen sparsely inhabiting underneath. The lily of the valley that I brought from mom’s have been packed tightly together in a spare plastic hanging basket pot all summer. I prepared the soil, digging it, loosening it, and preparing four inch troughs to place the individual plants. When I de-potted them (OK – de-potted isn’t a real word – give me the right one if you can think up better), I found the roots were vigourous and healthy. Each one was happy and strong enough to make the transition. I hope they will do well here.

I especially feel tender towards the lily of the valley plant. It’s a sweet, unobtrusive plant with small but broad leaves and lovely, tiny white flowers that form in droplets off a single stem. It has always been in Mother’s garden at every house we’ve lived in. Besides, when I was in France, every first of May, which is when the blooms come out, there are street vendors with their bouquets of it, Muguet in translation, that are wrapped in small posies that as tradition has it, are meant as lover’s offerings for a sweetheart. It has that Charlie Chaplin-ish tender-and-shy-offering feel to it.

In contrast to this low, ground cover I brought a tall shade plant, a bleeding heart, to sit in this garden bed. Until I wrote this two second ago, above, I never thought of the symbolic rightness of this lover’s-plant garden bed, but there it is – the sweet and the bitter of relationships planted firmly beside each other. This plant has sat out, waiting for the move, in a too sunny spot all summer. It’s leaves have gone yellow with too much sun. Really, it’s no matter, because it will come again in the spring with its green dress back in its proper shade, but it must feel glad to be shaded again.

Next I moved to the back yard where I dug up a spot none deep enough to plant some Shasta daisies, also a favourite of Grandfather’s, though I doubt somehow that these have followed the family through its various moves. I also have some from Heather and I’ve clumped them together to make a good showing and hopefully, provide some cut flowers in the summer (even though they do attract ants). In digging them up, I sacrificed some phlox which had gone wild and overtaken space. They break easily at ground level, leaving the root underneath to come up again the next year. They invade, Their roots compact and are difficult to dislodge. But I managed. The Shastas will do the same, so they can have a root-territory war when both come back in the spring. Maybe they will keep each other in check.

The Phlox I took out will go to Lila, a new neighbour, who currently has only a little of this particular plant; and she will bring me back some hollyhocks, which I’ve never been able to get to grow. They are supposed to be weeds, but I manage to let them wither and shrivel each year, I don’t know how. Lila has plenty and she’s willing to help me try again.

When I was all done these tasks, I was losing steam, so I went to tend to watering the other plants sitting on the cobble stone patio. There I found a travelling slug.

Now normally these garden pests merit instant death, they are so plentiful and therefore so destructive. I will not tell you my methods – they are simply too gruesome. But not this time. Nephew, in his major cutting and lopping exercises, found a composter deep in the recesses of the front yard, behind the Japanese maple, back behind the holly and then behind the flowering tree. He dumped the dirt (oh, such lovely dirt now that it has sat for a good few years) and brought the composter to the back yard. He washed it down with a jet spray from the hose leaving it clean for the next fill it would get from kitchen and garden wastes.

I was delightedly happy about this find. I detest putting compost material in the garbage if it can be helped. I’d been down to the recycling station, but the Municipality was out of them, was not selling any until the spring, the only time of the year they purchase them. July to March is a long time to be chucking wet garbage if it’s not necessary. Not only does a composter  keep waste out of the landfill, but it provides excellent nutrient to plants once it has reverted to soil.

But this process does not happen by itself. It needs a host of garden denizens to churn it up and digest it into soil form. And so, this lucky day, I scooped up a half dozen of these snail like creatures and dumped them into the newly christened composter to send them into forced labour. Not that they will suffer, I’m sure. Their first offerings were apricots gone too soft and mouldy; tomato ends, small blueberry culls, corn silk leaves, cucumber peelings, celery root, all layered and warmed in grass cuttings. Soon the worms will find this composter, and the millipedes and centipedes, the wasps, the bees, the beetles. It will be a thriving community, all working to a common end – and kindly rewarded by my kitchen cuttings. I feed my worms well.

I hooked up some soaker hoses in the garden and then I came into the house about four, exhausted from my various tasks, all a pleasure in the hot, late summer afternoon. Just as I heated a cup of tea to restore me and I sank into my newly arrived sofa chair to rest, I heard the key turn in the front door. Nephew was home.

We shared our news from the past two days and not two minutes after, I said,

“Sorry , you are losing your companionable ear. I’m falling asleep” as I did, there ending a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Curses, Blue Teddy bear!

September 8, 2007

Before I lived here, there was a family with three children, a boy and two girls. The woman was quite creative in her decorating and I’m quite happy to live, for the most part, with the choices she made. It was a deciding factor in buying the house.

In the living room there is a cool yellow colour and a soft slate blue carpet. I thought I would have trouble with the lemony yellow, but as I brought furniture and paintings into the room, they went very well. I am happy with that.

In the room off the kitchen which was their dining room, I plan to have some studio space in the winter. It is a fairly strong peach colour – or one might call it pale orange. Certainly, from an artist’s point of view, that’s how one would arrive at mixing the colour on the palette. I didn’t think I was going to live with this colour for long either, but I have a series of blue and white plates and they look outstanding on these walls, as is. I’m not in a hurry to change it, haven’t a clue what to change it to, so I can easily live with it. But the curtains have to go. They are gauzy see through, ruffled things with fruits on it. I’m just not a ruffly kind of person. I’ll find something else eventually. It’s alright for now.

In the office which was the two girls’ bedroom, the predominant colour is a cool white. Now that I have my desk set up and my furniture has arrived, it’s time for me to start putting my books in the shelving units and my files in the file cabinets. At last I can put things away.

On the first day I stayed in the house, I noticed that this girls’ room had a wallpaper border print in pink with woodland fairies and castles on it. I knew this would not suit me at all and I stripped it that same day with the exception of a bits that did not come off easily. It revealed a border pattern underneath that had been stencilled on, presumably by the mother of the house. There were pencil markings to indicate the height along the wall, ensuring that the design would not be crooked. Below this was a row of blue teddy bears lounging in crescent moons coloured purple. In between each of these languishing teddies with a confrontational stare, as if to say, I don’t have to get up! You can’t make me! were another sort of teddy bears sporting blue tutus pirouetting on one toe, brandishing a magic wand. You could tell it was magic because there was a star at the end of it, reaching for the sky. There were some other bits of stencilled stars completing the imagery, ensuring that the figures continued in a path parallel to the crown molding.

In the month of camping in this room, sleeping at night, writing and paying bills by Internet at the computer, and sorting pictures of the conference I attended in July by day, I’ve become irritated by those bears. This is supposed to be an office. I intend to have a serious art gallery on the main floor. It’s supposed to look professional and chic. The teddy bears just had to go.

Today, as I prepared to put Art books into the shelving units and in the drawers below, to hide my different kinds of computer printing paper and new file folders, hole punch, writable CDs and DVDs, and other office paraphernalia, I had a sinking feeling. If I didn’t deal with the teddy bears now before the file drawers and the shelving units were loaded up, I would never deal with them. It would be an incredible job, six months down the road, to remove all the books, supplies and files, and move all the furniture from the room in order to paint it.

It had to be done now.

Once again, there was something preventing me from putting away all these encumbrances that my possessions seem to be, these days. This time it was Teddy bears.

When would I ever get my life back from this chaos that I have been living in for the last five years, first at my Mother’s house where I barely had time to brush my teeth, much less organize, sort, cull and take care of my belongings? Now, when I had a whole house to put them in, I was still living in a chaos of packed boxes on the verge of having somewhere for their contents to go.

Reluctantly, I faced the facts. I had to paint now or live for years and years with Blue Teddy Bears, either pirouetting or pouting.

I took Mrs. Stepford with me to the paint store and chose a colour that was supposed to be “natural white” or “pale wheat”, depending on the colour chart it was picked from. In the colour mixing chart that the store associate consulted  there they were, two different names for two apparently different colours, but the mixing instructions were identical.

We three –  associate, Mrs. Stepford and myself – checked we had the right colour, matching the chip colour’s number to the dry listing of numbers in the mixing chart . The associate proceeded to dose in the colour and mix it up on the paint shaker. I bought two gallons of the stuff. I didn’t know if I’d have to do two coats, nor if the paint would cover these chubby, blue Teddies. I added some sandpaper, a bag of three more paint roller refills, a packaged selection of paint brushes at seven for ten dollars, and a new disposable paint tray to the purchase, checked out at the till, and went home.

This morning, I looked at the room with apprehension. It seemed such a daunting task. My resident nephew, however, is up-beat, a positive thinker.

“You like to be happy, don’t you?” he says to me, before my first coffee.

“Hmmmm”, I say, waiting for the kicker to come.

“If you don’t paint it, you won’t be happy. Really, it’s only a little room. I’ll help you. It wont take you more then ten hours. ”

My heart sank a little lower. Ten hours! It was only a little room, maybe ten by twelve, without measuring. Could it really take ten hours?

We both worked at shifting furniture so that I could gain access to the walls. I didn’t want to remove it from the room. I had a large piece of plastic to protect the floor, but nothing to protect the furniture.

“Wait!” I said. I took off up the stairs and rummaged in the linen closet to find an old sheet and actually did find one. When I returned, I spread that over the bases of the shelving unit, Nephew having removed the top shelving part to the living room. Boxes of files and boxes of supplies were stacked like a pyramid in the centre of the room. There was no need to protect these from stray paint blobs. They were still in their packing boxes.

The bed I have been sleeping on, until now, had been dismantled during my trip to the linen closet. The sheets had been tossed into the laundry hamper.

“You are going to sleep in your new bed tonight, ” he said with a bit of a parental chiding in his voice. “Or, what was the use of buying it if you weren’t going to sleep in it. You don’t want to keep sleeping on a mattress on the floor.”

Truth be told, I’d made a little nest in this room that I had slept in every night since I’d taken possession of the house. At first, I was nervous being in the house alone. Then later, when all the family/guests came, it was better planning for my sister and her husband to have the large master bedroom and me to have the smaller one, since there is only one of me. It made better space sense.

Once they were gone, and there was no bed up there, it was still more familiar and comfortable to stay where I was. I’m a creature of habit. Someone is trying to make me change my habit. It’s uncomfortable. I was cosy here. Would the brand new bed from a major bed-making, bed selling store be as cosy? How could a brand new bed with brand new sheet and brand new pillows and pillow cases be cosy? It would be akin to that Leslie Caron movie where a couple hid in the department store until after hours in order to have a place to sleep and ended up trying out all the floor sample beds. Or was that Charlie Chaplin. I saw it when I was so little that now I can’t remember who were the stars of it.

But now my nephew had removed and dismantled my nest and I was in for it. I would be sleeping upstairs now. Perhaps it was the stairs that made me recalcitrant. With my arthritic knees, how would I manoeuvre the stairs in a sleepy state if, for example, at four in the morning I decided I needed a cup of coffee?

The furniture having been looked after and the other boxed items piled up out of the way, we divvied up the tasks at hand. I opened the paint tin. I got out the paint tray and filled it. I cracked open the set of new paint brushes and selected a three inch. In anticipation of this eventual task, the previous night, I’d sanded down three crescent teddies and two pirouetters.

The stencilled paint had been covered over with some kind of shiny varnish. Maybe oil based, or varnish. I wouldn’t be able to just paint over it with latex; it wouldn’t stick. It had to be sanded, and not just cursorily. The Teddies really needed some roughing up. I assigned this task to Nephew.

I haven’t mentioned the stars yet. High in the firmament of this room with twelve foot ceilings, there were random stars stencilled in silver, lots of them. Each of these had to be sanded as well, and it couldn’t be me. Me on a ladder is not a good idea.

I started to paint. Well !

“Houston, we have a problem!”

The paint would not cover the blue teddies that persisted in pouting and pirouetting through the transparent-seeming paint. I was already not enthusiastic about this forced project. This was not good news.

After some consideration, I returned to my stock of paints in the basement and selected a flat white that would do as a primer, cover coat. Now I needed to paint the teddies over until they no longer showed through with this priming coat, give them time to dry to the touch, and then recommence with the eggshell paint.

Further frustrating the job, the paint went on lighter and warmer than the coat below, but was supposed to dry a little darker. The paint was not the colour I thought I had bought, and it didn’t get darker. Neverthless, it was a fine neutral colour. It would do, but it was darned hard see where I had painted. As it dried, it looked like I had missed spaces. I’d go back and recover it and it would look all even, then ten minutes later as it dried, look as if I’d missed areas again.

Seven hours later, after more furniture displacements to do the other side of the room and a partial dismantling of the computer to move it out from the wall, I declared the job done.

I must say that it looks beautiful. It may be almost white and neutral, but it is clean and pattern free. I’ll be able to hang paintings up once the goods and files are put away. With Nephew’s help, all the furniture is back in place waiting to be filled, but that can wait until tomorrow morning. I can see where paintings can be hung. I’m thrilled.

Well, that’s one more thing done.

But you can’t know how many times I said to myself, as things did not go according to painting plan:

“Curses, Blue teddy bears!”

Travels with Mama 3 – Westward ho!

September 6, 2007

Trier was the turning point. We were going west now and on the return side of our journey. We needed to be back in Paris in a few days for a flight, but I was convinced there was much we could see on the way. I was determined to see the things I felt I had missed during my seven year sojourn that had ended six years ago. On the list were the Tapestry of Bayeux and the Cathedrals of Rouen and Beauvais.

We saw signs for one of the fortifications of the Maginot Line, the defense system built after the First World War that was expected to repel definitively another attack by the Germans. The inner structures were closed to the public in late September and we only stayed a few minutes to imagine war and its machinery tromping over the landscape below us.

We went back through Rheims, always considered a crossroads city throughout history – for the Romans, Charlemagne, the Prussians, the Germans. We stayed at the Hotel de la Paix for a night of luxury. We took a different path, heading north of Paris to avoid its  busy traffic. Besides, the side roads of France are ever-changing, picturesque rural scenes that might have been subject of any of the Impressionists. It was a pleasurable eyeful for us both.

We pushed on for Compiegne, but I don’t remember whether we stopped there, or just  kept pushing on. We only had a limited time. We stopped at the ruins of the castle described in Barbara Tuchman’s book A Distant Mirror, a wonderful historical documentary book about the calamitous 13th century in France.

We stopped in at Beauvais and saw the Cathedral St. Pierre which, around 1275,  was considered the highest vaulted cathedral in Europe and the finest Gothic architecture. (seeWikepedia)

As we entered the inner, old city of Rouen, I saw for the first time, a whole intact area of medieval half timber houses with exposed wood framing and plaster infill,  in what the English call the Tudor style, reaching four or five stories high,  looking like they were leaning against each other crazily for support. As one looks up, they appear to lean in over the street.  In Rouen, we stopped right near the Cathedral, which Mother was not eager to see inside for some reason.

“I think I will stay in the car. How long will you be, Kay?” she asked.

“About twenty minutes. ”

I knew how fearful she would be, sitting in a parked car in the middle of a city, especially since she did not speak the language. Perhaps her feet were hurting her. Perhaps she had no interest in medieval stone, as I did.

“Just come in and sit in a pew,” I suggested, and that’s what she did. I wandered about looking upwards, drinking in the medieval light, feasting on the decorations. This Cathedral was bombed in 1944 during the great war and a large part of the Cathedral is restored although it’s hard to tell which parts. Like all the great Gothic cathedrals of the middle ages, there is mystery and majesty filtering through every atom of its construction. I think it was here that the beautiful cloister dominated by red brick construction was attached to the cathedral. Memory fails now. It might have been Beauvais.

Leaving Rouen, we passed through the industrial district beside the river. Mother exhorted me to hurry. It was unfamiliar territory to her; there were no houses, no places to get succour should it be needed. If there were no people to be seen, it couldn’t bode well. I, on the other hand, was fascinated by the white cathedrals to industry. I had no idea what these industries were, originally built close to the river for ease of transport, but they shone in the late autumn sun. I could see Monet doing a series of paintings of this, just like he did of the cathedrals. The silos and towers, walkways and railings, pipes and smoke stacks all combined into an interesting industrial lace. I wanted to stop for pictures. I wanted to get out my sketchbook, and draw; or come back and paint.
But there were two of us travelling and compromises needed to be made. She’d waited me out at the Cathedral; I’d give in on this one. The picture of this stretch of industrial road is now more vague in my mind but the memory of it still calls me.

Then in Bayeux, west of Caen,  we stayed in a small hotel in the centre of the city. It perched on the edge of a narrow canal that threaded between the medieval houses to the river. The hotel rooms were not numbered. Instead they had names of ancient royalty. We stayed in the Queen Maud room. There were ones named after Matilda,William the Conqueror, Henry II, Harold and others.

We spent a long time looking over the handwork of Matilda, William the Conqueror’s wife, and her handmaidens while he was off fighting Harold for control of England. Not many people read in those days and pictures were more valid as a way of recording history and advertising a husband’s glory.

The tapestry surprised me in that it is one continuous long piece of Medieval comic book style writing, protected in a museum created especially for it, sealed off from air and lit by special lamps that minimize the effects of light damage. It has iconic interest for artists as a n early handbook for design.

It was her birthday, the 28th of September and I offered her a birthday lunch in a lovely looking café to celebrate. Later in the late afternoon, we walked up to the church and looked within. We got somewhat turned around in our walk back. Suddenly I no longer knew where I was. Mother depended on me for finding our way. All I knew was that we were near the edge of a little canal, though there was no guarantee that it was the same canal that passed our hotel. I stopped and looked around. Nothing gave me a clue as to which direction we should take. There weren’t any people about. Darkness was coming on. Mother asked what was the matter and I told her.

Mother, who has no sense of direction whatsoever, insisted that we go left when my instincts said we should retrace our steps and go back the way we had come. I sat on a planter box seat for a moment and asked her to sit down while I thought. Every minute I sat brought her closer to a panic attack. She peppered questions at me while I was trying to think, reason, figure out for sure which direction to take. I was close to a panic attack myself. What could I do? There were no people to ask. It was a walking space with no signs or street names. I hadn’t a map. My first instincts were most likely to be right. I took her hand firmly, drew her along protesting as we retraced our steps, crossed a little whitewashed bridge against the watercourse and regained a street with traffic on it.

There we found someone to ask. We had done the right thing. Not one street away, we could see our hotel. With grateful feet and hearts, we regained our room and plunked onto our beds. We did not go out for dinner but ate apples that we had picked up somewhere on the way.

In the morning, we wanted to leave early. At seven, we tiptoed down the stairs to the breakfast room hoping it would be open a bit early. We tried the door but it was locked. We thought, instead, we would go out for breakfast. Surely there would be a bakery open, but we were locked in. Instantly, her fear of fire asserted itself. What would we do if there were a fire? We could only return to our room.

I agreed with her that it was unthinkable, totally unacceptable, for patrons to be unable to leave a hotel, dependent on the key keeper to be able to get to the door in case of emergency.

At the appointed hour, the breakfast room was opened up.  We sat and ate their home made butter croissants with coffee for me and tea for Mom. In her ninety-fourth year, Mom was still asking me,”Kay, do you remember those croissants from the hotel in Bayeux. Those were the best I ever had.”

We had wanted to get away early and we did not linger over breakfast. We headed up to Arromanche-les-Bains to see the Atlantic, the English Channel, pound against the beach. Not too distant from the shore, we could see scuttled landing vehicles from D-Day. We talked about the war. It was so much more real when we could see the remains of it sitting in the landscape in which it occurred.

Now we were more pressed for time. We had one more day, then we needed to return the car in Orly and fly away. We had little time except for the essentials. We planned to circle Paris, stop at Versailles, stop at the small village of  Barbizon then head straight for Orly.

At Versailles, we visited the palace which thrilled Mom. I’d seen it before, but I found it equally fascinating second time around. We were unable to go into the gardens because the French Prime Minister was holding talks in one of the buildings there there during the day. and the place was crawling with military and police. Once again as we were leaving the palace, there was police/military activity.  We were held up to allow a cavalcade of black diplomatic cars to sweep past and out the ornate wrought iron gates that were leafed in real gold.

We found our rental car and headed out towards Fontainbleau.

(to be continued)

Travels with Mama 2

September 3, 2007

We stayed in a two star hotel in Rheims. It was deceptively large. Light grey stonework arched over a heavy oak coach entrance of what appeared to be a single house. Once through this passage, there were modern glass doors with thin strips of brass mounting, top and bottom, to hold them to the hinges on the side, but inside there was evidence of many years of renovation ending with the 1960’s.
We had been assigned a room and found it far at the end of several corridors. The hotel facade looked like a narrow four storey houses built in stone, but from the inside passageways seemed to extend its ownership over three or four houses-worth connected at uneven floor levels which required steps where the wall openings between them had been made.

We got our room changed, but it was not much closer to the elevator and still involved one set of stairs. It was too much walking for Mom.

The place was dark and gloomy. We were only staying one night and moving on, so we put up with it. We vowed to get a better hotel the next time through. When we did, a week later on our way back, we stayed at the only very modern hotel in Rheims, the Hotel de la Paix. Much to my surprise, we only paid ten dollars more for it and got a million dollars more in luxury. We had huge soft bath towels with the hotel name on it. The elevator was modern and polished. Our room was two steps away from it. Everything was well-appointed. Breakfast was in a light and airy room. The hotel staff was accommodating, something I couldn’t say for the previous location. For five dollars each we had stepped into the jet-set. It was a lesson for my travelling that paying a tiny bit more could result in a lot more comfort.

But back to the gloomy hotel:
We had our breakfast in a vast dining room whose only purpose was to serve breakfast. There were very few patrons in it. I wondered cynically about the room assignment we had had. Everything was dark in the decor – dark wood furnishing and dark wood beams overhead, deep red wall paper (at the turn of the century, this colour had some connotations of taste and wealth. Now it was merely depressing. The one window far to the front of the room brought no appreciable light to bear.

We made our plans for the morning. Mother wanted to rest. I wanted to go to see Madame Dewez. I had written her when I left Rheims six years before to say that I had left suddenly due to my father’s death. She had a number of my works on paper to sell on consignment plus some works that I had bought at auction – delicate pencil crayon drawings by an aristocratic woman who had travelled early in the century. I had purchased a set of sketch books at auction with these in them. I hesitated to cut them from the book but the binding was not good and I rationalized that if they remained in the book, no one would ever enjoy them.

I had not contacted Madame D. since that letter six years previous and I had not expected that she would still have them, nevertheless I would ask. Who knew?

To my surprise, she said, “I was half expecting you. I don’t know why, but I came across them last week and thought, it’s been a long time since I heard from Kay. I wonder what has become of her? They’ve been in the back waiting for you ever since you wrote. I just put them under the front counter yesterday.”

That really was curious! I asked her about the other drawings and she couldn’t remember them. She shook her head slowly, thoughtfully. It was a long time ago. Was my memory playing tricks on me. Had I only thought I’d given them to her? No, I was pretty certain.

I gave benefit of doubt, thinking that for her faithfulness in keeping my work, it was little payment for her to have the other drawings. I had arrived on foot, enjoying the walk through the city centre, passing by the little store, now vacant, where Franc and I had lived and centered our Brocante business. In six years, things had changed. Merchants we had known were no longer there. We were no longer there. Life trundled on with or without us.

Now I retraced my steps to the hotel, packed in Mama and our baggage, drove back up to within a few steps of the framing shop and left Mama in the car. I had noticed a florist across the street. I purchased a lovely exotic bouquet for Madame D. and presented it to her.

“You didn’t have to do that!” she exclaimed. But I was happy to honour her faithfulness and our acquaintance. We were not likely to see each other ever again. And it made her happy.

We travelled east to Trier to see more artist friends. I don’t remember the route that we took and my details or order of passage have been lost in the twenty year interval between the trip and now. We passed through Luxembourg city in the morning, earlier than the cafés were open. Nobody was about. Stores were still closed. It lacked the bustle and charm I’d remembered from my tourist days in full summer where there was a bright sunlight dappling holiday folk; where the city was decorated with bright summer flowers. We were approaching October rapidly. We found a place for coffee but I couldn’t engender any enthusiasm in Mother for how great I’d found this place when I had been here.

When we arrived in Trier (Treve, in French), I had no idea how to get to destination. I knew my friends lived right across the street from the Roman amphitheater. I stopped where I could, where there were enough people that someone might help us with even general directions. I have no German language skills. I can say Bitte or Danke and that is pretty much it.

I tried to pronounce amphitheater in as many ways as possible – Amph i tay at her; Omph i tee at her; Amph i tee a TER; but nothing seemed to work. I held my finger out in a signal to wait as he shook his head in incomprehension and made a gesture that made me think he might just leave in frustration. I grabbed a pen and my ever handy sketch book and wrote the word with a question mark following it.

“Ah, zo! ” and the man pronounced the word in German, nodding his head up and down as if he was a bobble doll, grinning all the while. I was pretty sure I’d said it like that in one of my variations, but it no longer mattered. We understood each other. He pointed the way. including a turn that he indicated with his hand turning in the air. “Ein kilometer” he said. There were some understandable words I could get.

“Danke, Danke” I said. I shifted the car back into gear and we drove off in the direction he had indicated. Soon there were signs. Soon I could see Olewiger street. In moments, we parked on the gravel in front of their modern home. It was not the house I had visited in 1976; that one had been a three or four storey stone built one from another century, steeped in history. The ground floor had been turned into a Ceramic studio. I remember so much beautiful stonework in the other one, with carvings at the front door that looked medieval, though they could have been from a revival period. I had no means of judging.

This house was Bauhaus simple in its lines. It had an open modern chrome and light mahogany kitchen. The dining room was only slightly separated from it. There were polished hardwood floors. The walls were white, perfect for hanging Guido’s modern pictures, and modest amounts of varnished wood trim. Down a few steps, there was a sunken living room. The house was perched on a hill and the view from the plate glass window was spectacular, reaching a hundred eighty degrees across the outskirts of the city below and the fields and forests that followed onward from them.

We ate an exquisite meal prepared by Klare. It was her husband who was the artist, and her art was in homemaking. The silver was laid on, and the best dishes. Mother was at home here. She knew every fork and spoon that had been set out with precision and taste.

Surprisingly, Mother was able to converse quite well in German. She had only studied it one year in high school, but she had studied Latin longer than that and the verb forms were easy for her. Between them, they struggled a little to understand. I marvelled at her memory and her capacity to pick up and work with information she had learned some sixty years ago.

Klare, who had been a volunteer tour guide for the Amphitheater, took us across the street to see the Roman ruins. She provided us with an informed commentary as we went and it made the event that much more special.

We regretted we had to leave, late afternoon. We were heading back to France for our whirlwind tour. They brought out a map and showed us a route that took us through a charming town just past the French German border. We took to the road in a driving rain going westward, going back on our final few days of our trip. About four thirty, the rain let up, and soon the remaining drizzle stopped. We signs for our overnight destination were clear.
“It’s going to be night soon,” said Mother.”Let’s stop at the first place we can find.” And we did. I would have loved to go on further, to see as much as I could until the last light of day, but compromises needed to be made. We settled into a fair size hostelry, to a room on the second floor. Before we went for dinner (it was only five o’clock) I insisted on puttering with my paintbox.

“You’ve driven so much, you deserve it,” she granted, and she lay down for a rest. She had had a wonderful day. I got out my paints and tried to put down the little valley before us on paper. To the east, there was a lovely rainbow, strong in its coloration, set against a bank of deep slate coloured clouds. The sun was topping the early autumn trees with their last rays of the day. It was delicious to see after such a rainy day.

(to be continued)

Travels with Mama

September 3, 2007

It was 1989. I hankered to go to Europe again, having left it abruptly at the time of my father’s death. I had arrived home penniless in 1983, our antique business in France at an all time low, not in debt but not making money either. In the intervening years, Franc had made a big decision to leave his country to follow me, come what may, even though he couldn’t speak the language. He was confident he could find work in his trade; that his skills would speak where his tongue could not. Canada was, after all, an officially bilingual country, wasn’t it?

It had not been so easy. He was unable to find a job, so he created one, somewhat by chance. He’s mechanically minded, so when a neighbour had something wrong with her vacuum cleaner, he fixed it and she gave him a twenty for his trouble.

The neighbour recommended him to a friend when her dishwasher was broken down. He fixed it for parts and a tip. Slowly word spread. With his toolkit in hand, he hopped the bus and visited X’s friend and repaired the washing machine. Soon he was on the bus all day, fixing machines. Always he was paid something for his trouble over and above his fixed costs. Soon an apartment block owner shared his name with another. An electrician had work to pass over to him. He worked with the electrician and found out how the pricing was done. By year five, he had a busy affair, a healthy income and a brand new Honda Accord station wagon to go repairing in.

During the same time, I’d worked for a temp agency at a wage essentially below minimum wage because one had to pay for the privilege of working; joined on at a corporation as a lowly receptionist and sometime typist. I worked evenings and weekends at the Art Institute teaching Foundation courses in Colour and Drawing. I rose from receptionist to clerk and then administrative officer, each time increasing my salary, each time increasing the discretionary spending I could do.

Finally we had adequate income to take a holiday, but Franc didn’t want to go. Mother on the other hand was always eager to go travelling. She’d travelled the world already, but she had never seen France. She proposed to go with me and share the expenses if I would do the navigating and arranging.

We spent a week in Scotland visiting friends I had met during my first few days at a Youth Hostel in Rheims. We’d shared a glass of wine at a sidewalk cafe, discovered that Evelyn was also an artist and that Sam love flowers and was studying to be a horticulturist. I’d had a standing offer to come stay with them since 1976 and now Mama and I were coming to visit.

We spent a glorious week on their farm. On my first morning, a cool mid-September day arising, with jet lag ruling, I was up before six. I snuck out of the house, shivering, dressed much less warmly than needed in a northern Scotland realm, to walk down their country road. Not far from the house, just past the round metal bars of the cattle guard, I halted to watch a flock of free ranging sheep appear one by one over the crest of the hill, descend to the grassy field below the house to graze. The brisk air engendered a whispy, milky cover close to the rich grassy slope. The white sheep glowed, back lit by the early sun, making me think of Henry Moore’s brilliant suite of sheep drawings.

My job at home had burnt me out to a state of nervous exhaustion. This bucolic antidote was seeping into my bones and starting an overdue cure. I was thrilled to be here; thrilled to be standing alone sopping up such a peaceful looking landscape; thrilled to have escaped my mundane job. Every single thing in view was a cure for deprived eyes.

Our hosts were wonderful. They took us all around Argyll shire including the Isle of Iona by way of a ferry which was most interesting to Mother with her deep Christian faith. We had a picnic high on a highland hill overlooking their estate and far across the land. On another afternoon, Evelyn rowed a small boat on their man-made lake that looked as natural as if it had been there forever. It was loaded with waterlilies and other aqua culture plants. We were drifting more than moving forward, while I absorbed in the healthy deep peacefulness of it, trailing my fingers in the warm lake water, thinking that one of the Pre-Raphaelites would have found inspiration in the reflections and plant life of this magical place.

Mother was seventy eight and going strong. She joined in when she could and rested when she couldn’t, which provided me with some one on one time with my friends and some opportunities to tramp about on my own, enjoying the natural goodness of this quiet place far from my crazy job.

All too soon, our time was up. We were flying to Paris and France, where I wanted to show Mother where I had lived, those seven years away, and what I had done. I wanted her to meet some of my friends and see the way of life. It was impossible in the ten days that remained of our travels, but we tackled it with vigour and it was rather dazzling what we actually managed to see.

At Orly, we took a cab into our hotel which sat just a block away from some Parisian artist friends. We had a small, clean hotel room that had an elevator unlike most of the walk-ups I’d inhabited during my travel days.

We settled into our spartan room, staking territory, laying out ground rules for bathing and grooming, planning our Paris agenda. By late afternoon, we walked out in the streets to breathe the city air and get our bearings. We debated long over a choice of restaurants. Mama is fussy. If it didn’t look spotlessly clean, it wouldn’t do. Most of the restaurants looked closed. To her dismay, she discovered that Parisians dined late. A respectable restaurant would not open until six, and then they didn’t really expect to serve any but the English tourists. Despite her eagerness to sit and dine, we had to loiter in the streets that made her vaguely uneasy.

“Are you sure that this district is a good one. Kay?” she dithered. The streets were not clean. People hurrying in a typical big city haste took no notice of her stock-stillness as she tried to place herself in her surroundings. While she was still operating on her own steam without cane or walker, she was not steady and the Parisian streets made no efforts to accommodate the disabled, the weak nor the infirm. And I had forgotten the Parisian love of dogs that often left packets of business to watch for and walk around. It wasn’t Canadian clean.

Finally we saw a restauranteur flip his door sign to “Ouvert”. It was acceptably spotless with white linens and silver so we entered. We dined alone, surrounded by clientless set tables, on a three course tourist menu choice of chicken a la something, the most economical item available. The waiter served with withering disdain and hovered all too closely. Any self-respecting diner would know they should not disturb a very professional waiter before the hour of seven. People who ordered chicken had no savoir faire. There was perfectly good sweetbreads, tongue, quail or duck on the menu. This was a culinary place, not a chicken and fries cafe.

I would have to Frenchify mother if we were going to survive. We couldn’t afford all the appearances that the upper class table settings implied if we were to travel thus for the next ten days.

Fearful of the dark in a big city, Mother insisted that we return to the hotel. It was not even seven o’clock. Paris was only starting up its reputable light show for the tourists. We argued. I won the half hour privilege of sitting outside at a sidewalk cafe with her over a tiny cup of expresso while she continued to worry at me about getting in safely off the streets. People swarmed by in either direction, a treat to watch, but she saw none of it. The bistro waiter came and hovered, expecting another order that did not come. Mother wanted nothing. We were taking up valuable restaurant real estate and the waiter was expecting payment in either a big tip or more purchasing. Between the two, the appeal of people watching was rapidly diminishing. I acquiesced and we went home.

The next day, I had contacted Claire and Ken and arranged a time for us to meet at their place for dinner. Mother and I walked out and looked in fashion store window while searching for a bank where we could trade traveller cheques for French francs. We found a taxi stand and a taxi and headed to the Quay d’Orsay to see the recently refurbished train station that had been restyled into the Impressionist museum.

I ranged the museum at will, looping back regularly to see Mother’s progress. Her walking was slow. Every time I found something exceptional, I would drag her along to it. She would find a seat and wait while I did the rounds and circled back again. When we had exhausted our eyes with visual candy, we went out to the Quay to find a coffee shop where we could restore our feet and our tummies with a sit down and a cup of tea. The walk was longer than suspected. We found one in the direction of Sennelier’s, one of Paris’ finest and oldest art supply stories. Sennelier is basically unchanged in it’s store appearance since its inception in 1887 and has the creamiest oil paints and chalk pastels plus a selection of great art papers in sketch book format.

Mother sat at the coffee shop, tired from so much walking, while I went a few doors down and did some shopping. I returned with my treasures and spread them on the small round table before us. She nodded her head smiling but a bit puzzled that I would prefer these metal tubes of paint and tiny pocket sketch books as tokens of my stay in Paris.

In the following days, we went up the Eiffel Tower, rode a fly boat down the Seine, toured through Notre Dame de Paris and the Sainte Chappelle. We saw many galleries – the Jeu de Paume with its Impressionist collection; the Orangerie with its grand salon of Monet’s water lilies; the Pompidou and it’s modern collections and a number of local commercial galleries. We met with my friend and designer of fashion fabrics, Veronique Solivillas and had lunch. Veronique and I went to the flea market on Saturday morning – one of the ones Franc and I worked at many years previous – while Mother had a sleep in to restore her overworked feet. The pace was rapid for me but too much for Mom.

At the end of our Paris days, we rented a car, cabbing it back to Orly Airport with all our baggage to get it. I drove anywhere but in Paris. We headed east, destination Chateau Thierry where we stayed at a little motor hotel on the banks of the Marne. Early evening, still on Mother’s British time, we drove to a restaurant at the top of a hill. It nestled in the remains of some castle wall. To reach it we had to drive through a narrow gateway that arched above us some fifteen feet. About twenty teenagers were milling about it as we drove up. Some were holding on to their bicycles.

“Don’t go, Kay!” Mother said fearfully. “You don’t know what those people are doing! Look! They are all young teen agers. You don’t know what mischief they might be up to. Once you are in that gate you don’t know if you can turn around.” I continued to drive forward. The teenagers split like the Red Sea, causing no trouble whatsoever on our passage to the best restaurant in Chateau Thierry, so we had been told.

It was about six thirty – slightly later than in Paris. “Let’s go back,” she fretted. “There’s nobody here.”

“There’s not going to be anybody here for another hour at least, Mom,” I wheedled back. I wasn’t going to go chasing around a town I didn’t really know, rejecting restaurant after restaurant because of one thing or another. “Oui, pour deux,” I responded to the maitre d’.

While we dined another couple came in, but by the time we left an hour later, there had been no more. Dinner was acceptable but nothing to rave about. Perhaps the person I had asked had recommended his brother’s restaurant, or his next door neighbour’s as a favor to them. I could just here it:

Did you get that mother and daughter up at your restaurant last night around six. You couldn’t miss them. The daughter spoke fairly good French, but I didn’t hear a word of it from the Mother. You couldn’t have had anybody else at that time of night. Stick out like sore thumbs, those tourists do. You owe me one, n’est pas.”

When we left, it was pitch black outside. Electricity is too expensive in France. A frugal restauranteur wouldn’t waste money on illuminating anything but the entrance door. The customers should look after themselves going out. They should supply themselves with a flashlight if they can’t see in the dark.

Mother and I stumbled to the car, testing each step on the uneven ground. I looked for my car, but in the dark I didn’t recognize it. It was, after all, a rental.

Eventually we arrived back home having passed under the castle entrance arch once more, no loiterers in sight. In the morning, I packed the car with the exception of Mother’s things. I left her to her own toilette and packing and took my little travel box of watercolours and painted a postcard size picture of the Marne passing by the rustic gate at the end of the driveway. When I came back, the watercolour and the box was wet and I left it on the windowsill to dry while I packed Mother’s things in the car.

Fifteen minutes after we left, driving down the highway to Rheims where I had spent four years of my Art School days, I remembered the watercolour paraphernalia. It wasn’t far away and I had an exquisite painting of a crofter’s cottage across the dale from Sam and Evleyn’s place in Scotland in it. The box of colours was Schminke and very expensive. There was a number six Kolinksy Martin water colour brush with it. It was worth turning around to get it.

Within that half an hour, it was gone. With the hotelier’s key in hand, I looked in the room we had slept in the night before. It was nowhere to be found. It had not fallen on the gravel below the window.

“Who would that be valuable to?” Mother asked, rhetorically. “Who would have taken a thing like that?”

“Oh, Mom. In France , the French know the value of a nice piece of original art. They know the quality and value of art supplies. Probably the housekeeper pocketed it. Even if they knew they had it, they wouldn’t say so.” I was bitterly disappointed.

“It’s only material goods,” she quoted to me, not for the first time in my life. I haven’t bought you anything for this trip,” as if she needed to do that. “When we get to Rheims, you go wherever you need to go to get a new one and I’ll give it to you for a gift. You aren’t going to spoil your trip over a watercolour box.

I still have that new watercolour box. I fill it up with wet paint when the colours get low. I loved her for her equanimity at that point. Bless her heart. But I never have erased the image of that rare, perfect watercolour I had done in Taynuilt. That was irreplaceable. I still wasn’t very sure about my artistic output and when I did one I thought was wonderful, it was hard to part with.

We reached Rheims mid afternoon and we went directly to the tourist bureau to find the address of a hotel just down the street from where I had rented my apartment. It was central to the downtown stores and sidewalk cafes. It was also a short walk from the Cathedral in the other direction. The information office phoned and reserved for us. This hotel had a two star rating and cost us about forty dollars a night. The hotel assigned us a room that was on the second floor and down a long corridor, then the corridor went down a few stairs and across-wise, back up a few stairs and returned down the same direction as the first corridor. It was just too much for Mother so I went back to the reception desk and explained our problem. Was it possible there could be another room available. The desk clerk made a fuss but changed it eventually. There was something gained but not much. We were still pretty far from the elevator and from any exit stairwells. With Mother’s fear of hotel fires, this was not a good thing.

(to be continued)

Hugh has arrived

September 1, 2007

Hugh has gone to Carlton just this past Tuesday. I got a text message telling me he had arrived, not to worry.

Tonight, Thursday, I get a phone call. He describes his room – five foot by eight. Tiny. He’s signed a one year lease for this. It has no cupboard, but he’ll fix this. There’s no furniture either. The Catch 22 in all this is that he doesn’t have transportation to move anything from a thrift store or Craig’s list or equivalent in Ottawa, even if he did find something he liked.

His Internet has been connected up – we can e-mail. Cell phone to cellphone calling is too expensive. Land line to cell is even worse. How life has changed!

I miss him and I’m proud to see him go forward to grasp his destiny as he sees it.

Going to Strasbourg. Coming home to Nancy

September 1, 2007

We were hurtling down the highway at one hundred and forty kilometres and hour. In the back of my mind I could hear Franc say to me, “Keep to the right. Keep to the right.”

It was something that I hadn’t gotten used to, driving in France. The left lane was for passing, the right for slower drivers and those who would be turning off. One could invoke road rage in these volatile Frenchmen if you held them up on the highway.

But it was Mother and me in a rental car. I was trying to show Mother everything I had seen in France, the important places I had been to; the places I had studied; the museums I had haunted. I was trying to do it in two weeks, though I had lived there for seven years. In addition, there were things I wanted to see that I had never been able to convince Franc to take me to – like the Gothic Notre Dame Cathedrals. I’d seen Notre Dame of Paris, Rheims, Amiens, Laon and Chartres, but I hadn’t seen Beauvais nor Rouen.

And so, we were on our way to Strasbourg’s, passing through several small towns in this eastern Alsace and Lorraine departments of France.

We had a very early start and it was just after seven when we stopped at a little town to pick up some coffee and a pastry. It was too early. Nothing in this small town was open . The door on the bakery indicated a seven thirty opening and we waited in the cool of the late September morning until a portly baker turned the open/closed sign on the door. I bought croissants and a tarte aux pommes, this latter being filled with sweet cooked apple that I knew would delight Mother’s sweet tooth. Mother tested her high school French, pointing at the Boucherie, Café and the Pharmacie. I translated the ones she didn’t know and soon we had finished our treats and proceeded on our way.

Near noon, we stopped at Baccarat to look at the crystal works, although the factory was closed and we could only look in the gift shop and the little museum that was adjacent to it. Mother bought a few treasures but I found them terribly expensive and declined the subservient ministrations of the sales clerk that were meant to trap a person into purchasing something, anything. I knew I’d have a problem carrying it home and I knew when it got there it would be out of context and out of place.

In Baccarat, we crossed the street and found a place for lunch as well, then once again we took to the road. We reached Strasbourg mid afternoon and actually had to hurry to see the inside. I found the architecture fascinating and craned my neck to look at the marvels of stain glass art, the carvings in rich wood and the stone sculptures; Mother greeted it with a ho-hum and sat in a pew waiting for me to finish my tour of it. When its fabulous astronomical clock struck the hour and the various figures circled out to do their hourly performance, Mother made it quite clear that it was time to go. We had to find a washroom before we left and there was an hour and a half drive to get home for dinner at Mamie’s, my mother-in-law.

Mother is so particular and come to think of it, so am I. I suggested a tea room might provide us both with a snack to keep us going and a restroom that would meet our cleanliness criteria. The place we chose was close to the Cathedral and was tourist-trap expensive but the cakes and pastries were exquisitely presented. I suggested to Mother that she go look at them, just for the pleasure of her eyes, but she was recalcitrant. She wanted to sit. More likely she feared that someone would ask her what she wanted in a language that she could not speak and she would be embarrassed, flustered and confused.

“Pick whatever you want. Pick something you think I will like. Don’t forget to bring home something we can give to Mamie,” she exhorted as I went up to the counter to give our order. I brought back some Bergamotte tea and pastries plus a box of treats to take home.

She decided not to drink the tea. If she had to stop along the way there was no knowing what kind of facilities she might have to submit to. As for the pastry, she took a bite or two and then offered it to me. “I don’t really have an appetite,” she said, “and we are going home for dinner. Besides, it’s getting dark outside. We have to get going.”

I wolfed down my cake, the pleasure gone from it. I wrapped her pastry to take. I have an absolute horror of wasting food and more so when the food cost as if it were made of solid gold. I helped her with her coat – it was likely to get chilly on the way back- and donned my own.

So there we were hurtling down the highway in a race with the remaining daylight. The road was clearer than the morning because we were taking a direct route to Nancy, not the byways that had taken us to our other tourist destinations. Night fell inexorably, as it always does, but the road signs in France were good and we kept seeing “Nancy” written upon them. We were going in the right direction.

Who knows where I went wrong. I only know that it was much later than we expected and I had reached the outskirts of Nancy but I didn’t know where to go to find our temporary home. Mother, ever fearful, began to ask when we would get there in a cadence worthy of a small child. “Are we there yet?” “When are we going to be home.”

Finally I had to admit that I was lost and I didn’t know how to get there. It was pitch black. After some time of this worrisome chatter, I saw what looked like a city bus terminal. There was a bus sitting, lit up, not moving, without passengers, in a large parking lot that could accommodate a much larger number of buses.

“Don’t get out, Kay!” she said to me, taking hold of my wrist as I tried to extricate myself from the car. “It’s pitch dark out there. You don’t know who you are going to talk to.” she continued. “If anything happened to you, I would be completely lost. ”

I reassured her. Bus drivers were hired by the city. Normally they would be honorable people. Who better to ask directions from than a person who drove the streets all the time? She would not be reassured, but I escaped nonetheless to ask for directions.

The driver gave the directions and I tried my best to memorize them. I’m a visual person. I can only remember things if I see them. This was all verbal and I concentrated with all my might to ingest the advice and retain it. It was given in a second language and the difference between “allez tout droite” and “tournez a droite” (go straight ahead or turn right) could make a critical difference to my arrival at destination.

She harried me with questions when I arrived at the car, in between telling me how relieved she was that I had passed this ordeal and returned to the car. I struggled to retain the directions. She went on at length to tell me how brave and capable I was; and how incompetent and fearful she was.
Once again, I started up the rental car and we proceeded. I had lost everything the bus driver had told me. The only way I was going to be able to get back to Mamie’s was to drive into the centre of town and then I might recognize my way from the several times Franc and I had made this journey at Easters and Christmases in the three years we had been together. I’d never driven it before and I hadn’t had to pay attention to where I was. Alas!

The signs led us to Centre Ville and I recognized the bridge over the main river. I knew I had to bypass it and get onto a smaller bridge. I recognized my way but was hesitant. It had been six years since I had been there.

“You should have gone over the big bridge. Why would you think about taking this  byway. It’s an industrial district. We’ll never find our way out of it. We’re really lost now. It’s black out. We’ll never get back!” wailed my nervous passenger. All her trust had gone. I fought to keep my composure.

“It’s the only way I know. I recognize this.” I said desperately. Did I really?

Not long after, I was vindicated. There was a road sign for Tomblaine where Mamie lived. I followed that and ended up on the square where we had first pulled into town two days before. It was deserted and dark in the late evening gloom but I knew my way from here, mostly. I knew it was below this square, close to the river. We were closing in.

I drove around a few streets until saw the Maison des Vieux – the Seniors rest home. There was a problem though. It too, in a energy conserving measure, was pitch black. We didn’t have a key. How were we to get in?

I rang a bell a dozen times before some poor attendant dazed with sleep and dressed in night clothes and pantoufles came to the door. We had a lot of explaining to do. It was after ten and the door was locked at ten. She was not sure that Mamie was awake. She would have to go to see. We stood outside while she ran her errand. It seemed forever, to have arrived and to be blocked at the door just when we really needed to sink into a chair, both of us from nervous exhaustion.

It could not have been long. We were escorted to Mamie’s apartment. She had not saved dinner. We had been so long away she figured we had found a hotel and stayed out. We recounted our adventures. We broke open the box of pastries and with a hot cup of tea that Mamie brewed, we assuaged our expectant tummies with sweets.

Not long after, we tumbled into bed in the guest room, thankful to be home and safe from the terrors of the night.