Archive for the ‘aging’ Category

Yard Sale

June 10, 2009

Her friend, the wheelbarrow, had been doing the hard transporting of goods but it was a shape not conducive to carrying boxes with its small rectangular bottom and widely sloping sides. The boxes lay on it at precarious angles and threatened to fall at the least irregular movement.

Kay felt weariness supersaturate her muscles and her bones.  It was the penultimate load of things to bring back in the house. The wheelbarrow would be no use to her for the remainder.

There were empty frames. Biggish ones. There were tubes of posters in a tall plastic container that might once have been a laundry basket. It had a fretwork of aeration holes going down two sides of it. When Kay tried to balance it on her friendly wheeled porter, the tubes of posters slid out. Impatiently, she removed the awkward container and picked up all the posters again. It wasn’t heavy. It just was, well, awkward. There was no other word for it.

“Bite the bullet.” she berated herself. “If you leave it now,  you’ll never have the courage to finish up. And it’s going to rain tonight.”

She dragged them to the back stairs below the porch. It was only two steps down to the basement door but they felt like Mount Everest. Every re-packed box needed to be brought in and placed back into storage.

Kay dropped a heavy carton into place and straightened up creakily. She stretched her muscles, twisting and straining to the left, trying to pull them out as far as possible and then she did it to the right. The muscle spasm in her lower back would not disengage.  She straightened, leaned her head back in another stretch, twisting her neck from side to side, joining her hands at her back and pulling her shoulders up and back.

As she continued to pull, she heard it. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.

“What on earth?” she asked herself. She tendered her ear to listen more carefully.  And then she remembered the little girl. She was seven, maybe, dressed in a practice costume for ballet school. It was a body suit made in a tender rose colour. It had spaghetti straps and  a little transparent over-skirt that fluttered, barely covering her buttocks. Her hair was tied back in a tight pony tail with a frilly hair decoration in tight curls of bright rainbow colours .

Sweet as a button, she kept pulling on her father’s arm to help him look at the dazzling array of Kay’s merchandise.
“Daddy, Daddy! Look! Here’s a box that looks like a heart!”  It was one that Kay’s  aunt had left to her, crocheted in perfect kitsch and starched ro sugared  into box-like submission.  What it ever could be used for was beyond Kay’s understanding.

“Daddy, Daddy! Look!. ” She tugged on his sleeve. There was square travel clock, shiny with gold. It was the wind-up sort and Kay activated it to prove that it worked. It was now buried in a box and still ticking.

Bantering as she always did, Kay asked the little girl, “Did you just come from a ballet lesson?”

The bright coloured ribbons in her hair nodded. There was no answer; the girl had turned shy.

“Can you do a pirouette?” Kay insisted, trying to get the girl to respond.

“Or an arabesque?” The girl tightened her hold on her father’s arm.

“Show me what you can do,” Kay persisted.

With one awkward bent knee pointed backwards in the air, the girl balanced rockily on one foot then she fell, almost, catching her balance and then jiggling in frustration.  She tried again with the same results.

“Wonderful!” Kay encouraged her. “You just did a wonderful half-pirouette!”

The child seemed happy to be praised. She tugged on her father’s shirt.

“Daddy!” she insisted, “Now it’s your turn. You do it!”

Kay laughed, but the child was serious and pleaded. “Come on, Daddy. You can do it! It’s your turn.”

The tall, heavy man, looked down and smiled, “I don’t think so”.

Some how he diverted her and, on Kay’s suggestion, she tried an arabesque. Again the leg went out awkwardly, backwards. She toppled after a moment of concentration.

“Would you like the clock?” Kay said, realizing the father needed a way out from his child’s insistence.

“No clock today, ” replied the father and he leaned down to his daughter. He explained they had to pick up the mother. She would be waiting. And they were gone.

Two young Phillipinos arrived on bicycles and examined the merchandise with particular care. They conferred in whispers and seemed be very serious about their purchasing. They selected a lamp which Kay was pleased to have go to a new home for a dollar; they looked at some cutlery and rejected it; they seemed to be looking for household goods.

He picked up Kay’s folding chair and started to inspect it. It was new and in perfect condition.

“It’s not for sale,” said Kay hastily forestalling an offer. “It’s for me to sit down.” He looked puzzled and Kay realized he barely spoke English. She pointed to herself and the chair. He backed away in a nervous gesture, nodding that he had understood and he had not wanted to offend.

Kay proposed a shower curtain. “It has never been opened,” she said, encouraging them. “For a dollar?” and they took it. There was a large red carpet. It was a beautiful one but it was no longer fashionable with its low shag pile and bright red colour, but it was an excellent quality. All wool. Lovely red leaf designs in a Scandanavian aesthetic.

The two  looked at each other, their eyes questioning a hopeless assent from each the other, but the young man shook his head and pointed to his bicycle.

“Is it because you can’t carry it?” asked Kay.

“We have a bag,” he replied. But obviously not for the carpet. It seemed that it was not the right size for their house and they declined. They picked up one other item, a little gewgaw ornament of no consequence.

“Fifty cents?” he offered.

“You can have it,” she replied. It wasn’t the money. It was the the de-cluttering that was important. Besides, who else would want it, she thought. The free item unleashed their smiles and the couple recovered their bikes and took off.

It was a perfect day – not too hot. Not too cold. The heat, earlier in the week had been searingly hot. It had been forty degrees Celsius on Wednesday, thirty six on Thursday. Now rain was expected in the evening. The temperature had dropped to twenty three and it was warm and comfortable.

Kay had spent two days of sorting through books, pulling out items she wouldn’t read. She had taken several tours around the house looking for things that she didn’t use and wouldn’t use. While sorting out old books, she had found a box of classics – Shakespeare’s plays; Faulkner; Tennyson and Keats. She set aside the  Letters of Cato and two books by Balzac and put the rest in the sale pile.  She found a box of Mother’s favorite recipe books and culled them.

The  advertisement in the paper had announced the sale from ten until two, but on Saturday, people began to arrive at nine-thirty. It had taken two hours to set out the goods on the front driveway but  from nine-thirty onwards there was a  steady stream of six or seven people. The boxes had not been undone. One woman helped to put out the treasures onto a scrap piece of carpeting that kept breakables from the asphalt surface.

It was only an hour later that Kay found a perfect rose, a deep red rose, dried and still intact laying on the carpet where the goods were arrayed. At some time in her early love life, she had carefully kept this one rose, but who had given it to her? And for what occasion? It was a mystery. She picked it up and the petals fluttered to the ground one by one.

“How much are the books?” called a woman who was bending over the boxes of pocket novels and the old books.

“Everything is one or two dollars, except the one you are about to pick out It will be twenty dollars, so please make sure to ask. ”  The customer looked baffled then realized it was a joke and she joined the common chuckling.

Vans and trucks, Suburbans, SUVs, new cars and old came by. Some slowed while the occupants made a quick assessment of what they could see from the road. Others sent an emissary. One woman came and surveyed the offerings then left just as quickly saying, “my husband will want to see that.”

Husband and son descended from their van and the young man discovered a survey measuring tape bound in leather.

“A dollar?” asked the man. Kay’s heart fell. She shook her head.

“It was my father’s. I couldn’t let it go for just a dollar.” A silence fell between them. She didn’t know what price to say. She couldn’t keep everything. But what was it worth? To her? To him?

“If it was your father’s you should keep it,” he replied. He had given her permission to retire the item from the sale and she did so, gratefully.

“He was a surveyor,” she explained. “And an engineer.”

“My father is an engineer,” he replied pointing at the elderly man standing beside me.

“Really, you are an engineer?” she said. “What kind?”
“Electrical,” replied the father.

Kay picked up an ebony coloured object. It had two parallel bars with bits of brass that allowed it to swivel. Whether closed or separated, the bars always remained parallel. She handed it to him.

“Tell me then. What’s this? I know he must have used it for drawing but I can’t figure it out.”

“You’re right. It’s for drawing. It’s for writing the list of materials or directions down the side of a blueprint. It keeps the lines equidistant and parallel and all the right length.” He looked at it with some fondness, as if he had found an old teddy bear.

“Would you like to have it?” she asked, and his eyes shone but questioned her. “It’s yours. It’s a gift, ”  she said and he took it willingly.

Meanwhile, people were picking up items and turning them over, feeling edges for chips, looking for cracks, missing pages, faulty bits or other defects. In the Free box, a man lifted a round black container with a grill on it.

“What is that gizmo,” Kay asked. She’d found it in the basement and had no idea what it’s use might be.

“You put crystals in the little wire cage here” he said pointing out the little basket under the lid. It’s a chemical and it absorbs the damp from the air. Later, you find that the crystals are gone and the the bowl is full of water. You can buy them at Canadian Tire in sachets. ”
“I’d better keep it then,” said Kay. “When I found it, it was full of water. I must have damp in the basement, ” and she put it in the box that was gradually filling with things that she had reclaimed from her sale.

“Was your mother an educator?” asked a women as she held out a little blue book in one hand while proffering a dollar with the other. “My friend and I both thought the title was hilarious – “Tests for group intelligence” and someone has written a whole book about it.

“I wish mother were here. We used to come to garage sales together every week. She would have bought something. She always did,” a fortyish woman sighed in remembrance.

“Mine complained when I brought things home”  Kay countered, and thought of the countless times she had sneaked things in carried in her large black tote – mostly books.

From the first customer to noon, there was no stopping and then there was a lull. Everyone must have gone for lunch. Kay brought out her sandwich and gratefully rested in the folding chair. She had been on her feet  since eight. But it wasn’t long before she was back on her  feet, re-deploying her wares, consolidating the empty spaces, mentally sorting how the remainders would go back in boxes or be packed in the trunk of her car to be taken to the local thrift shop.

After one o’clock, a few others came, looked and went. Vini, vidi,Vici, thought Kay. I came, I saw, I conquered, as Julius Caesar purportedly had described one of his victories.  She wondered what the Latin garage sale would say. I came, I saw, I bought? Or, I came, I saw, I mocked?

The afternoon clients were not talkative. The good stuff had gone. There was now more junk than treasures. The curious were more critical, more disdainful and less apt to find something to take away. There were more pot-bellied men with long, greying hair, tattoos and leather jackets, their tee shirts proclaiming affiliation with Harley Davidson groups. Even the women were more casually dressed.

Kay had started to box the items for the thrift store when an elderly man with a hint of a German accent asked in a deferential manner, “Did you learn German from this book?”

“No,” replied Kay, ” it was my mother’s. I tried to read it when I was young, but I couldn’t read the Gothic lettering. By the time I was in school, the Gothic text was no longer in use for text books. ”
Kay proceeded to tell him how Mother had taken her last German lesson when she was sixteen; but when Kay had taken her to Europe and they had visited with a German family, Mother, at the age of  eighty-nine, had still been able to carry on a conversation with the man of the household. ”

He was a soft spoken man and when he wasn’t talking, he was listening intently. No one was about and so Kay stopped her labours and they talked. He was a carpenter who had immigrated when he was twenty, never returning to his home in Austria until after his Grandmother had died. They talked about craftsmanship and other lost arts. They exchanged memories of times gone past. He had selected one of Kay’s posters of Jean Millet’s painting, Vespers. It pictures a woman holding a  scythe in her hand and that reminded him of his family’s farm, of simpler days more in tune with nature, he said.

He turned the little Gothic German primer in his hands. It was for his grandson. He hoped it would make him think of his Austrian heritage, how things had once been. Kay silently wondered how such a messily marked up school book would mean anything to a teenager; but the man had a steady presence and gentleness about him and so she did not voice her doubts.

It was four o’clock, two hours past what she had foreseen for her sale. Her packing was partially done when Mirabel from the little white house with awnings, directly across the street, came darting across the busy road.

Though Kay had owned her house for two years, she had never spoken to this woman whom she saw out in the garden from time to time. Lively and talkative, she introduced herself and apologized for not coming over sooner. They complained about the neighbours, the new temporary residents of the house that was to be re-developed. She complained about their lawn which had been allowed to grow to three feet in height.

Mirabel was ninety-two, still driving, still doing her own gardening and house maintenance.  She recounted that, one evening while watering her plants at  early dusk, a young man  quite bizarrely dressed had insisted that she give him candy. He was speaking  weirdly and aggressively. She had been very nervous but had joked with him, mocked him, so as not to show her fear. It was just two weeks ago. She now was very wary. feeling vulnerable and frightened about living alone.

The conversation went on and on. Kay was so pleased to have met her but was anxious to finish with her day, to clean up the yard and put away the remaining debris. It sorted out without a hitch. A mother with her handicapped child came, another neighbour, and the conversation shifted. Gradually Kay resumed her packing and the other women did not seem to notice as she withdrew.

At last Mirabel called, “I have to go now. I bought a blower and I’m going to clean out my garage with it this afternoon. Come over and have tea with me sometime!”

What a marvel, thought Kay, as Mirabel darted across the busy street again. Within minutes, Kay could hear the blower droning as her elderly neighbour chased cobwebs and dry leaves from her garage.

In earnest, Kay began to haul away the boxes to the back yard with her trusty wheelbarrow. She filled the car with things she would no longer need – not even to plump up and fill out her next yard sale.

She returned from the back to see a lady standing with a small hand made pottery jug. “I don’t have any money to pay you for this, ” she said.”I’m just waiting for a friend to go walking so I didn’t bring any money.”

“The sale is  finished,” said Kay.  “Take it with you. I don’t want to pack it or keep it. If you really want to pay me for it, leave me a loonie in my mail box up there on the porch some day when you are passing by.”

It was six o’clock before the last trace of the sale was removed from the yard. Exhausted, Kay’s spirits sank when she thought about going in to make dinner. She was famished. And then a luminous idea began to grow.

Here she was with a bundle of new found cash! She could pay someone else to cook dinner! And the last we saw of Kay that day was her driving down Dewdney Trunk Road heading for Austin’s Fish and  Chips cheering up considerably at the thought of crispy battered cod, their fresh light coleslaw and book to keep her company.


You can dress her up, but…

May 31, 2009

Mrs. Stepford called on Tuesday morning.

“Can we go up to the Women In Need (WIN) thrift store and the Sally Ann this morning? I’ve been housebound too long. I just have to get out!”

“Sure,” said Kay. “It’s senior’s discount day! The only thing I have to do is pick up milk and mail these letters. But I’ve got to be back by one thirty. Elizabeth is coming for her art lesson. We could have lunch at Zellers, too. Then I wouldn’t have to think about making lunch when I get home.” And so it was arranged.

At ten in the morning, Mrs. Stepford climbed the front steps and rang Kay’s doorbell.  Kay, as usual, was not ready. She was still trying to find her keys, her camera, her out-going mail, bumbling about for shoes and generally still in wake-up mode.

After ten minutes of wool and key gathering, Kay commanded, “Stay still while I set the alarm, ” and Mrs. Stepford did. They went forth into the pouring rain to see what treasures they could acquire at the local thrifts.

At the WIN store, Kay found a sweet pottery vase at fifty percent off the thrift store price. She would add that to her growing collection. Mrs. Stepford found three scarves for her Furushiki gift wrapping projects. They had not yet spent five dollars between them.

“Look! Look! For only a dollar each, and they are made of silk!” she crowed.

Quitting the WIN store, they drove to the pharmacy to post letters and pick up milk and mail Kay’s letters.

At the Salvation Army thrift, the pickings were more interesting. Kay found two hand made pottery dishes – a serving bowl and a plate, and a gold-leafed wooden frame.

After she had paid for it and was waiting for Mrs. Stepford to complete her browsing, she lit upon the jewellry case and found some necklaces that she could take apart for her beading projects. One of them had gold links and black flat and round jet beads encircled in gold. Certainly not real gold, Kay reflected , but it appeared never to have been worn, it was in such good shape. One necklace she would take apart for its real turquoise beads to fashion a more modern style piece. A third one would match perfectly earrings that Lizbet had recently purchased in New Mexico. A fourth was a perfect stocking stuffer for Alison at Christmas.

Ca-ching. Ca-ching. Kay, now bereft of her allowance for this sort of thing, returned with her plastic credit card to the till and purchased her new treasures.

On their way out, they met one of Mrs. Stepford’s friends who agreed to share lunch with them at the appointed place, and the morning had disappeared. Just at one o’clock, Kay reminded all that it was time to go, each for their separate appointments. They settled the bill and went.

Now this may sound like a total non sequitur, but please just be patient with my telling.

“Auntie!!!!” he called, early morning on Tuesday. “It’s Hugh.”

“What’s the matter Hugh?” asked Kay. He never phoned in the morning and his voice sounded frightened. Different, anyway.

“I’m sorry it’s so early. I know you don’t get up early. But I’m so excited! I had to tell someone. ” He could barely get his words out.

“I’m going to Vienna!”

“Vienna?”  replied Kay, perplexed.

Hugh, her nephew, who was studying for his Masters in Ottawa, had been given an extraordinary opportunity. His boss was unable to attend a conference and since Hugh’s studies were precisely on the topic of the conference, his supervisor asked him to attend in his stead. He was going to represent the University!

“That’s all wonderful!” replied Kay, and she got him to tell her all the details.

“There’s only one thing….” he hesitated.  Kay was awake enough now. She knew.

“How are you going to manage it?” she asked. “Will they pay your way?” Hugh is not a starving student, but he lives like a monk for the most part with his single room in a shared house and his most frivilous expenditure outside his schooling, his bus pass and his food is keeping his computer equipment up to date.

“I’ll have to go begging this afternoon to see if I can drum up some  grants,” he replied. I’m pretty sure that I can get some. They know I’m a starving student. But I had to tell my boss that I needed money up front for the ticket and the hotel. The university can only reimburse after the event when tickets and receipts are produced. So I was just wondering…..”

And Kay, who has a soft spot for Hugh, filled in the rest of the sentence.

“We’ll make it work. We can do this. This is an opportunity not to be missed. How wonderful!”

“It’ll just be a loan, but it has to be quick. With two weeks before me, I can get an economical fare, but if I leave it, the prices go up exponentially, the shorter the time between purchase and flight, ” said Hugh. “I can reimburse you when I get my expenses back.”

Hugh’s voice, had come down from the Gods a little. It was altitude that had made his voice funny. And Kay was now walking in the clouds.

He returned to his soliciting venture and she proceeded to arrange her day.

The trials and tribulations of working with major banks is not worthy of story telling. Suffice it to say that Kay ran into a roadblock with telephone banking. Telephone banking had set up a meeting for Monday with the loans manager but it wasn’t soon enough for Kay. She decided  Saturday if she would meet face to face with the bank branch manager.

To do this, Kay needed to feel her best. She dressed in a crisp bourgeoise blouse with tailored collar, just as she had previously done when she was a manager herself.  She looked through her jewellry for an impressive piece to enhance her appearance.

There on her dresser, still not put away, were the four lovely necklaces that she had purchased on Tuesday. She tried the blue glass beads and they looked a bit Hippie.  It would not inspire confidence. She tried the turquoise and coral that would match Lizbet’s new earrings but the strand was too short and didn’t fit about her neck. She tried the more modern necklace with the silver beads and hearts but it was too complicated and a bit flighty, she thought. The gold chain with the flat, jet beads was just perfect.

She admired herself in the mirror.

“Awesome!” she said to her reflection. “Very business like. ”

With confidence, she entered the bank and stated her mission. She implied it was urgent. The receptionist put her off, but Kay knew how to stand her ground and lo and behold, she was granted an appointment with the Branch Manager, a smartly dressed youngster of  thirty or so.

Everything went according to plan and the business was transacted. Hugh had money in his account in Ottawa and all was well.

Kay practically chirrupped when she left the bank, quite proud of herself. There was more to be done on Monday, but Hugh would have his ticket and a bit to spare for expenses.  The rest could wait.

Kay only had one other task before going home.  She drove to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription.

As always, the pharmacist declared that it would take twenty minutes to transfer her pills from one bottle to a personal vial with Kay’s name on it. It implied that  Kay should spend the time shopping until it was done.  In fact, with all the problems of H1N1 virus, Kay wanted to get some hand sanitizer.

There was virtually nobody in the store.  She had to go searching for a clerk to help her find her product.  She found her in the beauty department – perfumes, lipsticks, mascara and the like.

The store had hired a perfect person for the job. Late twenties, early thirties, the young lady was smartly dressed, her maquillage done to perfection, her sales manner helpful and solicitous.  She led Kay to her purchase and then, a bit nervously, she said, “I’ll be right back. I’ll be right back,” and tripped away lightly to her beauty counter.

It puzzled Kay. Kay had not asked for anything more; and she  watched after the young lady dashing away and back. She held in her hand a small pair of scissors.

“I’m just going to cut your tag away.” she almost apologized.

Kay was dazed. She didn’t get it.

“Your tag on your necklace,” the fashionable young lady insisted, nodding her head, her scissors brandishing close to Kay.

Kay blanched then blushed.

“You’ll think I’ve been shoplifting?” she blurted out.

“Oh, no!  It’s just that you can’t go wandering around with a price tag on your necklace.”  And she reached out and snipped the white strings of the offending tag.

“May I have that?” said Kay.

“You want the tag? I can throw it away,” said the clerk, astounded.

“Please.” beseeched Kay. And the tag was transferred from hand to hand.

As if it would do any good, Kay reflected, stuffing the tag into her pocket after thanking the clerk.

Six ninety five. Salvation Army, it read.

Had it showed at the bank? Had the Branch Manager gleefully, politely ignored this gaffe. Was this Kay’s managerial image?

Thunder and wisdom

April 17, 2009

There was a crack of thunder that trembled the whole house. Just one.

Outside the window, the trees began to churn and swirl as if the branches had been added to a front load washing machine. Within seconds, there was a sharp and rapid stacatto of hail pounding down so thick that the backyard fence, not thirty feet away was as hazy as if the yard was filled with fog.  The rain hail mix dashed violently against the windows on all sides of the house. It pounded into the  grass and the gardens for three minutes and then everything became relatively quiet. In fifteen, the rain had stopped and the sun came out briefly, touching the rhododendron bloom brilliantly, transforming the water drops into prisms.

Kay thought about Frank. Frank had been so much more aware of the earth and its rhythms. But then, he had grown up in a small village. His parents had a large kitchen garden and every year they raised their own pig and they had chickens.

He had taught her a lot about things she had never been in tune with before.
“Did you notice?” he said, “how milk goes sour after a thunder and lightening storm?”  Or, ” See how fast the plants grow after an electrical storm?’

Kay looked out the window and surveyed the damages. It wasn’t bad, really, though there were lots more small branches scattered about on the lawn. The plants looked alright.  The grass, she noticed, had gone up an inch and a half from yesterday’s level. She would have to cut it as soon as it dried out or the neighbours would think it had “gone hippie”.

She remembered his observation about cats.

“See?” he said, pointing at Echo the tabby as she all of a sudden became obsessive about cleaning behind her ears. Echo put her softly, grey-striped paw up to her raspy tongue and proceeded to lick long strokes through the short fur then she raised the paw behind her ears and work at some imaginary dirt that would not go away. This motion was repeated and repeated, far more often than usual.

“It’s going to rain tomorrow, ” stated Frank, daring Kay to say the contrary. Invariably it would rain tomorrow.  The cat and her obsessive cleaning-behind-the-ear behaviour always seemed to precede the rain.

Logically, you might think that if hair was used in barometers because of it’s sensitivity to moisture then the cat could easily be sensitized to react to changes in humidity and it might tickle their ear hairs.  Maybe there was something logical to explain these old-wives tales.

Kay was reminded of the gardening tasks awaiting her. She had been soaking yellow was and broad bean seeds now for three days, waiting for the seeds to swell and produce the first signs of development; she had a new chrysanthemum plant from Leo and Evelyn who had just been to visit. It needed to be dug in. She had new packages of seeds – radishes, fennel and nastursiums waiting to be planted.  They would grow well in this season of heavy rains, fierce spring sun bursts and warming temperatures.

It was funny, she reflected, that you could leave someone or they could leave you, but they never left your heart.  You could agree or disagree, but the thirty years of living together never erased itself.  The anger and pains were much like a thunderstorm. The squall that arose was quickly gone. The bitterness faded and memories softened.

Kay rather enjoyed remembering Frank’s  aphorisms. She could think of him rather benignly now without any of the irritants.

Bemused, she went about her day.

Poor Jim!

April 8, 2009


Sheers         Photo copyright KK

Nephew Hugh has been in town, on spring break from his Political Science School back in Eastern Canada. He came for some sunshine and spiritual renewal. Kay actually thought he might have been feeling a bit adrift, homesick, although, with this dysfunctional family, she wondered why a soul might be longing for more dysfunction.

Kay drove into town on Sunday; met friend Suzi at the Art Gallery to see the landscape show and have lunch in the Gallery Cafe; drove to her friend Dorothy’s place for dinner and an overnight stay. All of this was a prelude to picking up Hugh early on Monday morning to bring him back to  her home in Richmeadows.

On Monday, their plans were to meet at seven thirty at Beans and Company, have breakfast togther, all three of them,  and then Dorothy would go on her way to her horrifically early dental appointment. Hugh and Kay would begin their two days of visit. Dorothy was the only habitual early riser amongst the three and she didn’t understand late-rising humans.

Kay and Dorothy were to leave the house at seven fifteen so Dorothy was up at six preparing herself for her appointment and then her work but she called Kay at seven leaving her only minutes to wash, dress, make up the bed she had so kindly lent Kay for the night and to pack her few belongings. Kay scrambled.

By the time she put her shoes on and got out to the car she was miraculously clothed but was not awake.  Kay ran her hand over the back of her head. She was not sure that she had combed her hair nor brushed her teeth. Haste is not something a late-riser does well.

It was good that Dorothy was driving, though Kay began to suspect her apparent alertness. Dorothy had passed the rendez-vous spot and had been obliged to back track. She claimed there was no parking space on the south side of the street but Kay couldn’t be sure. Kay was still ridding her eyes of sleepy-dust.

Eventually Dorothy found a spot on the north side of the street smack dab in front of Beans and Company.  Though they were five minutes late,  Hugh was not there.  Kay searched from front to back and couldn’t find him; then continued to  turn in circles and pace the length of the shop, occasionally popping her head out the front door to scan the street, looking for his face. She still was not really awake.

Dorothy made soothing noises to calm Kay to no avail, then cried, “There he  is!” and there he was, indeed. A tall giant of a man, a lumbering man, youth still predominant on his face, both confident and shy. In no time, Kay and Hugh were hugging right there in the middle of the cafe. Despite all their family ups and downs, Hugh and Kay were the best of friends.

Over two-egged breakfasts, hash browns and toast, an hour went by in the space of ten minutes, it seemed. Dorothy had to leave. Hugh and Kay packed up and left too then walked back to Kay’s car just a few blocks away.


Their first stop was Kitsilano Beach. Joggers were jogging. Dog owners were running their canine friends. Others were simply out for a stroll. The sky was cloudless. The sun drenched the beach in a warmish spring light. The enormous willow trees were running brilliant yellow sap in the weeping branches but there were neither buds nor leaves just yet.  The ancient cherry trees were burgeoning but not flowering.


Kitsilano Beach is a manicured beach. The logs are distributed every year in logical progression for sunbathers to lean against. The sand is raked and cleaned. Drift wood is piled up and burnt. One could not possibly find a free-booting crab or a clam shell here like is possible at Jericho Beach and Spanish Banks, even though these latter two beaches are also managed by the City Parks.

They walked the asphalt path around to Vanier Park and returned, talking all the while. When they got back to their starting point, they sat on a park bench and watched the world go by.   When their two hours of parking meter were up, they reluctantly headed back to the car and left, destination Richmeadows.

Talking all the while of family and friends, they ate up the highway, the hour long trip zipped by, again in a fast ten minutes.  They stopped at Best Buy and picked up microphone and head set for Skype that he would set up for her. The only thing that registered the time they had spent was their requirement for another cup of brew which they sipped like tourists at a sidewalk cafe, Hidabucks.

The whole day went like that. Conversation, more conversation, and the time sliding by like lightning. When finally they got back home mid-afternoon,  Kay chopped celery and onion and sliced cheddar cheese for a tuna melt and he made up the mix, salted, seasoned  and toasted them. Hugh brushed off the East Lake lawn chairs and  they sat in the sun to eat their lunch in the back yard. It was beautiful and the temperature had risen to twenty degrees! It felt like summer.

He’d had a late night; Kay had had an early morning uprising. A nap was in order. Hugh had the living room couch with two afghans for warmth and Kay crawled under the duvet upstairs, glad for forty winks.

At seven, she locked the front door,  Hugh still sleeping on the couch, and left for a short meeting of the Art Studio Tour group. She was back by eight.

Hugh was in the kitchen preparing dinner.  He’d trained as a cook in an upscale restaurant during his undergrad years. One could  always depend on Hugh to cook a fine meal wherever he was.

They ate perfect steaks with perfectly fried, whole button mushrooms cooked in the steak brownings and dashed with a bit of fine wine. They had garlic and parsley butter to liven the steamed bok choy.  Every mouthful was a treat. It couldn’t have been better at a five star restaurant.

And then they resumed the conversation, comfortably sharing stories that can’t be shared in just the same way by telephone. Mrs. Stepford came to visit for a little while and regaled them with her first bodice-ripping  story and explained the synopsis of her new murder mystery that was ready for editing.

When she left, Hugh and Kay talked till twelve, when she finally begged off, announcing it was time to retire; but it was one o’clock before they climbed the stairs and turned in.

Kay was up at eight the next morning, ruminating that Hugh had been burning the candle at both ends, with his studies and his socializing. Kay  followed her normal routine – checking and answering e-mail, sipping on a hot cup of coffee and playing a few games of Freecell. And she waited.  She would have company for breakfast, this morning.

About ten-thirty, Hugh descended, fully rested.

Now,  Hugh was travelling very lightly. In his back pack, he had only a change of clothes for his dinner date with Ron and his parents. Ron’s the next person in Vancouver who is to be graced with Hugh’s visit. So Hugh descended the staircase, sans housecoat,  clad only in his undies, knowing Kay would be typing away on the computer, absorbed,  and would not be paying attention. He was on his way to take his shower on the main floor bathroom, his clothes for the day clutched in his left hand.

As he passed the front door, he saw a very tall man peering through the sheer-curtained glass side window. Hugh hesitated an instant just in front of the door, curiosity over-coming his strong sense of modesty, and then he continued on. Before saying even “good morning” he said loudly for me to hear, “There’s a gentleman at the door”. As if in confirmation, there was a rapid knocking at the door.

Hugh was caught between a desire to protect Kay from an unknown male soliciting at the door and a desire to protect Kay from the sight of his masses of flesh. He hastened behind the bathroom door to shower and get dressed.

As Kay arose from her computer desk,  she saw his tall naked figure flash by – the thin black covering of his undershorts between waist and hip caught her eye.

At the front door, there stood the former owner of the house, coming to pick up some mail that had been misdirected by a company that refused to actually acknowledge his change of address.

Jim, the former owner, is renowned for his curiosity about other people’s lives.  He is apt to recount all his speculations to whomever will listen. Not two weeks earlier, having heard about the vacant house next door,  he had stopped by Kay’s house and promised to loan his Great Dane to Kay should anybody bother her.

“I keep an eye on this place still, ” he boasted. “I watch what you are doing with the garden and the renovations on the house. I pass by every night while I’m walking Tiny” he continued as he gestured towards his giant dog who was panting and salivating right beside him.

Kay had felt as if she were being stalked; she wondered if she should be more worried about Jim than any potential stalker.  She thanked him warmly for his offer and promised to take him up on it, knowing full well that she never would. Besides, she thought, what amount of ruin would a Great Dane wreak on her antique china collection if ever he were permitted into the house?

“I’d invite you in for coffee,” she hesitated, “but we’re just getting up”
“Oh, that’s okay, ” he replied off-handedly, a touch of grin at the corner of his mouth, “I’ve got a lot of things to do.”

Kay reached out to the mailbox that was affixed to the porch pillar and fished  out Jim’s mail and handed it to him.

It was hours later when Hugh had gone and Kay was recounting her two days of gossip to Mrs. Stepford that the light bulb went on. Kay and Mrs. Stepford burst into a fit of laughter. Jim would be analyzing every centimeter of bare flesh he had devined behind the lacy curtain.

When her laughter was finally under control, Mrs. Stepford shouted,”COUGAR!”  He’s going to think you’ve found a young lover!”

More laughter.

“I never explained anything, ” grinned Kay. “He has nothing to go on, and he’s going to construct a whole story. He’s going to walk by the place night after night with that Great Dane and wonder if I’m living with someone now.”

“He’s going to be looking for muscly improvements to the place – major diggings in the garden; trees being shaped and pared; hedges being trimmed. A constant newcomer mowing the lawn. The car being washed by a virile young thing, torse -nu,  dressed only in shorts, woolen socks and and hiking boots.”

“What will the neighbours think!” shouted out Mrs. Stepford in glee.

“I’m over sixty, for Pete’s sake! Think what they will!” rejoined Kay followed by another fit of laughter.

Potent Stuff

March 20, 2009

“You artists gabble on about things I don’t have a clue about. For instance, just what does chiaroscura mean?” Dorothy asked, just a bit petulantly, then added, “If I turn up to one of your artists’ salon things, I won’t be able to talk to anybody.”

“That’s the beauty of our relationship,” Kay replied. ” Tell me what a lipid is and I’ll tell you what chiaroscura is?  That time when I was down visiting Earl and he showed me your doctoral thesis, I read the first page and realized I didn’t even know what language it was written in. I could understand the connecting words  and the articles – to, from, about, above, in and out, the, this, that and and – but all the rest might as well have been twenty-third century Hungarian as far as I could tell.”

Had I known she could write and talk in this completely esoteric language and be revered for it, I probably would have to kiss the hem of her skirt (if she ever wore one). That wasn’t a good omen for a friendship on an equal footing.  Our mutual friend Earl was drooling and exclaiming as he showed me his treasure “Do you have any idea how important this woman is?”

I didn’t. He set me straight enumerating her various accomplishments and her world-wide connections in her esoteric field of DNA research and their application to lipid research. I felt very fortunate to have met this good-hearted woman before I knew all that. There was no hope I’d be kissing any hem by  now. I’d met her at they gym, both of us eagerly pumping away at the various weight-resistant  machines trying without much hope to become svelte and healthy.

Since then, we’d established a great friendship over our love of food, theater, and art.  She was different (from me) in that she loved exercise and could cycle for two hundred kilometers on a weekend and could do beautiful woodwork. She installed her own hardwood floors, start to finish, and had built a beautiful pine blanket chest with utmost artisan skill. But then, I was different too, or so she said. I paint, draw and write amusing stories – something she found quite incomprehensible.

We were sitting in her kitchen having brunch, crisp bacon with a heavenly odor, eggs and toast. Nothing exotic, as brunches go, but it’s the company that makes dining exciting.

As I was waiting for Dorothy to get her coffee and join me at the table, I was flipping through one of her pharmaceutical science trade journals.

In the way of women’s circular conversations, I ventured “Chiaroscura simply means light and dark. It’s the art of dramatizing an image with light. To enhance the light, you underscore it with shadow. That’s all. Light. Dark. It’s a concept that had it’s defining moments in the Italian Renaissance. I guess that’s why it has kept its Italian name. ”

“Cool!” she said. “That’s not difficult.”

“Not like lipids. It means fat, doesn’t it?” I continued.

“There – you already know, don’t you? I don’t need to explain it. But there are lots of different kinds – monosaturates, polyunsaturates, polysaturates, et cetera, et cetera, …”

“Yes, but what are you doing with them? Why are they important? We’re all dieting here.  We keep on trying to get rid of them off our portly frames. We’re not trying to conserve them, for Pete’s sake.”

Dorothy laughed, and leaned a bit forward, pen at hand and a paper, ready to draw me the reticulo-endothelial system.

“Lipids are synthetic molecules. We take lipid molecules out of cell membranes and then manufacture synthetic packages with them which can carry drugs to wherever you want them to go,  like to cancer cells, to kill them.”

“We can insert stem cells wherever they are needed in the body and they will grow to be whatever is needed. If you need to regenerate the liver, you stick stem cells in the liver. If you need to regenerate blood cells, you insert them into the bone. It’s rather neat, actually.”

“There are two kinds totipotent and pluripotent.  Pluri- means that it can do several things. Like the word “plural” meaning more than one.  Toti- is like the word “total”.  It’s almost the same and I can’t remember exactly what the difference is now. Potent, of course, means powerful.”

“Iif you use the stem cells in a liver, it grows liver, and if you use it in a kidney, it grows kidney, if you use it in bone, it grows bone – but you are starting out with exactly the same stem cell. When it is inserted, it can understand where it is and it will grow what is needed.”

“Wow!” I said. “Talk about cool! But they sound like twins. Or a couple.

“Here, let me introduce you to Mr. and Mrs. Potent – Toti and Pluri.

Or, those impish twins “Toti and Pluri! It’s time for dinner – wash your hands and get right in here!”

More laughter.

“Trust you!’  she said, still chortling,” to make some fool connection and turn them into something entirely unrelated.”

“It would make a good story,” I rejoined. “Or can you imagine a painting of Toti and Pluri? I’d have to think about what that would look like, a bit.”

We continued our banter, then she went off to work and I went home. I’ve been thinking about it off and on for a week or so.

Dorothy phone up last night wailing about her awful Strata Council and how they were a bunch of idiots. She was seeking my esoteric property management advice (‘Really, Dorothy, it’s not DNA science…”)  and I was happy to give it, for what it was worth.

“Have you written anything about our conversation last week? ” she asked as we were signing off. She’s one of my faithful readers and she just loves sending them off to her mom who gets a chuckle about our lopsided friendship, so she eggs me on to do my literary anecdotes.

“Which conversation?” I say, regretting my legendary sieve-brain.

“The one about the lipids and stem cells,” she says, a bit of chiding in her voice. Perhaps there was a hint of slight that I hadn’t remembered all about the explanations.

“Oh, yeah! No. I’m thinking about it. You mean about Omnipotent and Plenipotent? ” I say.

“What’s that?” she sputters and then dissolves into a bright, continuous laughter, and I think she’s laughing still, even if the sound has been turned off.

What can you do? I had to be reminded that the new twins I should write about are Toti and Pluri.


February 24, 2009

I responded this morning to a Bill, a fellow blogger who was bemoaning his inability to remember names.

He isn’t alone in this. I carefully listen for people’s names when I am being introduced and repeat them in my mind several times while in the blathering introduction part of the conversation about where one lives and works, and who one knows and doesn’t know. If I don’t catch it in the first two seconds, I’m not shy to say:

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name,” and then I keep on repeating it in the front lobe of that sometimes ineffective organ just behind my forehead.

I try to use that person’s name before I wander on to the next person to whom I will grant the privilege of forgetting their name but saying, “Well, Alice, it was very nice to meet you….” I make a mental note, try some other mnemonic gimmick to help me remember, like “Alice the Palace”, or “Alice in Wonderland but with red hair”.

I have a solution for this, but it hasn’t caught on yet. We should tattoo children with their names on their foreheads in the year of their birth in a formula that everyone understands.
Simply “Gloria” for instance. But later on, if she prefers to be called Ria, Sweetie, or Glore, we might be out of luck on the memory thing.
Of course, if one has multiple names like one poor individual I knew who, in addition to her first name,  legally inherited the first names of all her grandmothers – Ocean  Evangeline Katherine Gertrude Alice – and then had a double barreled, hyphenated last name, it might be a bit much.
She was tagged Ocean when she was a babe and we never called her anything else in her growing up years. Well, maybe. We might have tagged her Sweet Ocean as an innocent infant, and when she was in the terrible twos, we called her Riptide from time to time.

When she got to be thirteen she rebelled. She wanted to be different from the others of her Love-generation that were called Fern, Amazing Sky,  Tamarak, Otter, Sturgeon, Torrent, Heaven Scent, Cedar, Sunset, and Hollyhock, to name just a few.  She took a firm stance and wouldn’t reply to anything else but Evangeline. The tattoo wouldn’t be much help then, would it?”

Re-tattooing is a messy business, I understand, so perhaps this isn’t a definitive solution; but as we Love Generation parents become the Love Generation Greats (grandparents, that is) there is becoming a population boom of mentally-challenged name retainers.

For a while in my late Fifties, I called everyone at home Dear. That helped a lot until I got in trouble for it at work when I called my boss Dear and he didn’t like it. Then there was the time, I called another of my work colleagues Dear, inadvertently. His wife happened to work for the same organization and heard about it from some sniggering fool. I had a lot of explaining to do. He denied familiarity. I did too. I even claimed that I was losing my memory and just called everyone Dear to get over the embarassment of forgetting. She didn’t buy it. I was in upper management then and should never have admitted my lapses in memory not only limited to names. Oops!

I changed to ‘Luv, but some thought that was too familiar and the dicey situations continued to compound. One is supposed to remember the Regional Director General’s name AND title. “‘Luv” simply isn’t adequate in those situations. It was time to retire.

Retire, I did.  Unfortunately, I’ve moved to a new community and live on my own, peacefully. After looking after a family of five, the quiet is just heavenly. The downside is that I don’t know anyone here and have had to start learning names all over again.

I had several people over to dinner the other night. There were eighteen of us, to be precise. I knew Mrs. Stepford and Aimée because they have become regulars in my life. I knew Stephen and Janice because, miracle of miracles, these two lovely people had been in a remote teaching community where I taught briefly thirty years ago and they came to live here twenty years ago and I rediscovered them when I turned up here two years ago. The rest of the invited guests I’ve known only for a short time – it was, after all, an evening for me to get to know the artistic community better.

But I was the hostess, yes? It fell to me to introduce everyone.

So here’s my new trick.

I put my right hand on the shoulder of a guest on my right hand side and then do the same for the person on the left hand side. I say, “You know each other, don’t you? and look somewhat hopefully to each one of them with the best smile I can produce.

If they do, hopefully they will say “Hi Craig!. Of course I know Craig” as the other says “Alice! Nice to see you”.

And if they don’t, hopefully they will fill in the blank when I say, “No? Well, this is….?” and I trail off, and the person fills in the blank “Heather” and the I do the same for the other person, if they haven’t already jumped in to say their name, and I haven’t had to admit to my total lack of memory.

Or, everyone is sitting about in an expectant circle when a new arrival appears.  I say, “You know everyone, don’t you?” and of course they don’t, but those who don’t know the invitee wave their hand a little like they might have in elementary school and proffer their name…”I’m Bill” and Fred, George and Janis follow on. I haven’t had to remember a single name, though I’m repeating after everyone in that frontal lobe of mine to see if I can’t make one or two of them stick.

Well, I’ve got to go now. I’m going with whats’ername to do some shopping.

I’m going to see if we can’t stop into the Tattoo shop  on today’s rounds.

Valentines Day

February 18, 2009


This is one of my recent daubings, not too serious, that I used as a demonstration to show a friend that she too could paint. I simply put on a ground of ochre then painted on the heart.  Then I used a stencil and a thin wash of the same red to make the pattern behind it. It’s the kind of task non-painters can tackle because they will get a simple image that looks good, and then they have learned to hold a brush, mix paints, applied an underpainting, experienced an opaque use of paint and a transparent one.

There’s a story behind this.

Both of us live alone. With no significant other, as  euphemistically each of us are,  Valentines Day comes with no one to celebrate it with.  The phone was ringing off the hook, you understand, but I’ve been screening my calls because Otto, my brother, is harassing me over family matters and I don’t want to talk to him.

While I was out getting my hair trimmed and set, Robert Redford left a message to say that he was stuck down at Sundance with his business concerns but wished me a fabulous Valentines Day. Despite his wrinkles, he could put his shoes under my bed any time.

I’m rather fickle, now that I’m single, so the calls kept flooding in. Paul Gross, Harrison Ford, William Petersen (CSI’s Gil Grissom), and on and on.  But despite their jet setting life-styles,  somehow none of these offers turned into a concrete commitment for a wine and dine.

Late Thursday, I had a chat with my good friend Doreen who similarly was in a quandry. Whom to choose from all the good offers?

On Saturday, she phoned around nine. She didn’t feel like a Valentines fling and she hadn’t accepted any of them. In preference, she opted for a quiet evening, a bottle of wine, a sane conversation. She thought she would just stay home.  Except the day was beautifully sunny and she had a friend, Jacqueline,  who had just moved into my town and since Doreen was coming all the way out to see her friend’s new house,  could come out and see me at the same time? Perhaps we could both see Jacqueline and then Jacqui would have a contact in town.

It would have to be in the afternoon. Jacqueline was going to Bedford House with her devoted husband for SVD dinner at six. Anyway, we would want to meet Jacqueline without Steve because, well, you know, the conversation changed the minute you inserted a man into it. No more conversations about recent pedicures, past loves and high school beaux, gardening finds, kitchen recipes.

I suggested that Doreen stay for dinner. A good bottle of wine and some conversation was in order.  And so it was arranged like that.

On Friday, I had a funny day. I had a client coming to see my art work. The client was proposing a showing of my art work in the lobby of her business. The house had been cleaned up beautifully and I needed it clean for Friday week when I was having my next Art Salon. There’s no point in cleaning up twice.

Once my visitor left, I just couldn’t get started at anything else. The house looked unfamiliar because everything was tidy and put away. I didn’t know where to start.  I sat in front of the television watching the CBC news, the business report, Don Newman’s Politics, the weather, even a bit of sports. Now there’s another man who could offer his shoes….

I washed my few dishes. I picked up the pile at the front door, all of which is slated to be delivered or disposed of elsewhere than my house. I decided to deal with the infamous package of a small baby crib blanket that I had made for a friend in Mexico who had just produced her first, an exquisite little boy. I had wrapped it in a gold gift bag complete with a bit of bright coloured tissue paper thinking that, if they opened it at the border, they would not have to destroy a beautiful wrapping job. This fit very nicely into a plain small liquor store box, the kind that holds twelve bottles.

Previously in the week, I had taken this to the Laity Street post office and the clerk brought out her measuring tape.

“Before you start putting it through as a sale, could you please tell me how much it will cost to go surface?” I asked.

Through half glasses, she looked up at me sternly, “Surface is $59.50. If you want to send it airmail, it’s only $75.00.” Her gaze held me, waiting for an answer.

Gadzooks! That was incredible! What on earth had happened to our postal system!

“For Pete’s sake” I expostulated.  “It’s a third of the return air fare to go there. I’ll deliver it myself!”

I took the box away from her, asking “Does size matter?” She disdained a reply. She was already dealing with someone else.

So on this Friday, I found a clean shoe box. I took away the fancy gift bag, wrapped the blanket in a pristine white Kitchen Catcher plastic bag and stuffed it into the box. It just fit. The card that went with it almost made it too much – a final straw – but I taped the box shut with clear packing tape and it would hold.  I wrapped it in Kraft paper and then addressed it to Dianella and went off to the post office at 224th Street in the drugstore.

When I got there, there was a small line-up. The customer at the counter kept looking back at the three of us waiting, apologizing, “Sorry, this is taking so long.” He hesitated a few seconds and nervously turned back to us again, “Sorry. So sorry.”

It didn’t matter to me. I had time. But as I often  do, I started to make some wisecrack out loud, just in case I could entertain myself with a conversation. The woman ahead of me replied and we had quite a conversation. I told her that I hadn’t lived in this community long, and she confessed that she had only been here two weeks.

“Are you visiting or have you moved here?” I asked.

“Oh, we just moved here.”

“What made you choose Whonnock?” I asked. Our town is a bit obscure and out in the sticks.

“My husband has retired and but he’s still working two days a week with a Veterinarian here.” Her accent sounded English accent. Well, it wasn’t really a clear English accent. I eventually asked her where she came from and I remembered her saying Australia.

She asked me what I did and I told her I was retired, but that I was starting a gallery and studio in my house.

You know how hard it is sometimes when you move to a new community. You don’t know where things are and you don’t know the best place to buy your vegetables. You would like a referral to a doctor or a dentist but you don’t know whom to ask. She was really a friendly natural sort, so I offered her my business card and promised her a cup of tea or coffee, her choice, if she would like to come to visit. She said her name was Jacqui and I promptly forgot it.

She was delighted and said she would come, but she and her husband were going to Hawaii for a month. She’d get in touch with me in April when she got back. She loved art and she would be just thrilled to come see my work.

By that time, the line moved forward, she became engaged with the post mistress and when she was done, it was my turn. We waved each other good bye and that was that.

The post mistress measured my shoe box and informed me that surface mail would cost $14.00 and if I wanted to send it air, it would cost $27.00.  There was no tracking on the surface mail, but I could insure it for $100.00 and if it did not arrive in six weeks, I could claim the insurance.

“So!” I reflected out loud “Size does matter!”

“Yes,” she said, conversationally, and next time you might think of using a bubble wrap envelope that we sell, if it’s something that can’t break. It’s so light that it reduces the cost as well.”

I went away happy. I’m still planning that trip to Mexico, but I don’t have to do it right away now; and Dianella will have the blanket for her baby before he has outgrown it.

Doreen arrived on Saturday and we had a good bowl of hearty soup before we went off to her friends place at two. I recounted my adventure at the post office and told her I had really enjoyed the woman’s company. It would be great if she took me up on coming for tea.

“There’s a lot of construction going on here. Even with this recession going on, this community is going strong. Here and Vancouver, it was officially reported that there is no slowdown in housing starts. Everywhere else the reports of job losses are devastating. I just can’t imagine what those poor people will do without jobs, ” I commiserated.

We got in the car after lunch. I had the map and navigated. I couldn’t find the exact address and we went down Kanaka Creek Road to a dead end and never found our cross street. Doreen called her friend and we retraced our route, found Lougheed Highway again and then our cross street that would take us up into a new housing development of Whistler-style chalets – all duplexes, all the same. The landscaping had not yet been done. Each place had a double garage. Each was perched on a hillside. There were lovely views out the back of  the Kanaka Creek Park Reserve and on the other side,  interesting repeating views of rooftops and gables. All was spanking brand new.

We found the house number and parked the car on the steep driveway. Doreen knocked on the door. The door opened and the woman answering gave a huge hug to Doreen and they chattered a bit in greeting. I stared in confusion.  I’ve got a bit of short term memory loss these days and I knew the face but I couldn’t place it.

“I know you!” I said, a bit challenging, a bit challenged. “I’ve met you before! But where?”

“The Post office! I talked to you at the post office yesterday.”
“Of course, ” I answered, relieved. It wasn’t someone I had known for a long time. I wasn’t really insulting someone with my faulty memory.

“Too much!” declared both Doreen and Jacqueline. “That’s just too funny! I can’t believe it!.

“When you told me you met someone yesterday, you said they came from Australia. Jacqueline is from South Africa. I never thought to put the two together. Isn’t that a hoot!”

To cover my embarassment, I said, “You were supposed to come to my house for tea, not the other way round. Isn’t this amazing!”

So we went in and had a cup of tea and a wonderful chat. Jacqueline truly is a lovely woman – graceful, gracious, interesting, accomplished. I’m impressed. She will be, if she too wishes it, a great friend.

So then Jacqueline recounted how she had come home from the Post office and recounted her day to her husband.

“What is is with all these Kay’s?” she had  said. “Doreen told me she was bringing her friend who lives here out to meet me tomorrow; then I meet this one in the Post Office; and then, we just met one last week. Where are they all coming from, all of a sudden?”

We spent a good half hour dissecting this coincidence:
How had I not remembered that she came from South Africa not Australia?

I confessed that I had guessed Australia then when corrected, my brain did not register it. Anyway, it hadn’t been hugely important, that fact, so I was just telling the story and Australia was good enough for someone you might never see again. It wasn’t a critical piece of information.

Why hadn’t Doreen connected the information? Well, Kay had said the people were from Australia, and Doreen’s friends were from West Vancouver. Kay hadn’t known that Jacqueline had been living in West Vancouver before they moved here.

Why hadn’t Kay remembered Jacqueline’s face and name, yet she the story was important enough to recount it to Doreen? No answer on that one – Kay was simply a bit memory challenged now.

We had a good three hour visit – a tour of the house and gardens, a cup of tea, and one of those conversations that ranged from toenail varnishing to medical science discoveries (Doreen being in the field of endeavour) .

When Doreen and I got back home for dinner, we decided that if we were going to get a visit in, ourselves, that we would crack the bottle of wine and she would stay overnight so she could enjoy her glasses of wine and not have to drive afterwards.

After dinner, I promised to show her how to paint. She with the PhD claimed to be an art dummy. I pride myself on being able to get anyone started on the ruinous addiction of painting.  We had two small canvases to work with. No point in biting off more than you can chew in one evening.

This amazing friend five foot two blond  not only can tell you the latest in DNA research, she has installed her own hardwood floors in her apartment, built her own furniture, painted her entire apartment herself, sewn her own drapes, but she tells me she can’t paint – artistically, that is.

I gave her a dab of yellow ochre and a small house painting bristle brush and bade her to cover the entire surface of her canvas with the ochre.  Then we had a glass of wine and while we let it dry. With acrylics, this is fast. By the time we’d finished glass number one, I gave her a dab of cadmium red and asked her to paint a heart on the canvas. I had a similar canvas prepared with yellow ochre and I demonstrated the heart. She followed.

While that dried, I repeated to her my lessons on composition (which you can find way back somewhere in these posts). I had a paper lace doily at hand so I demonstrated how one could  cut up the background space with other shapes to make the composition more interesting.

She had her own ideas about how she would add to her two basic elements but wanted to think about how that would look. We repaired to the living room and  sat back down with glass of wine number two for a bit of conversation while, multi-tasking, she decided what else she could do to complete her painting.

The results of hers were just great for a first painting! Brushphobia has diminished considerably. She claims that it was fun! so perhaps she will do it again.And no, for the moment you don’t get to see it. I ‘ll have to ask her permission to post it, so check back if later if you are interested.


Painting is one of those things – if you like it, it keeps drawing you in bit by bit until you are addicted (in a very positive way) to its wiles.  It takes you away from the trials of daily life. It allows one to engage in a mental activity much akin to meditation where the single stroke of a brush can be the most important task at hand; or the exact mix of a grey is a crucial and pleasant artistic decision.

And there, my friends, is the story behind this little decorative painting, sitting in Doreen’s back-pack at the front door, waiting the time of departure; and I have her first effort sitting on my easel.

The Dreaded Valentines has come and gone

Remembering Dan

February 2, 2009

I was a lowly clerk in the organization, a large Property Management company and my task to was make a manual count of our employees every month by tabulating who was Taken on Strength – hired –  or Struck of Strength – or fired. I managed every personnel document that showed whether a person was on permanent staff, term or casual and showed the length of term, if the appointment was of the latter two kinds. The task was picky, and detailed to the quarter of the month.
This report was sent monthly to headquarters for them to roll up into a national count of those TOS and SOS .

It was a bean counter’s world serving an ivory tower.

Obviously that didn’t occupy all my time, though the majority of it. In between times, I typed for various managers and, after a promotion, I edited the typing products of the typing pool. I had risen rather quickly in my responsibilities but not in my pay. The stenos were resentful, feeling that they deserved the position on a basis of seniority.

One of our managers, Frank – a mining developer by hobby, had the most beautiful scripted handwriting and a fine command of the English language. Donna, a rather blunt witted steno with a major ego and a Grade Ten finesse of the same language felt obliged to correct his “errors”. Nine times out of ten, I was required to settle bristling indignation on his part and aggressive defensiveness on hers.

The trouble was, she would take it upon herself to correct him. The first time I typed something for him, I didn’t understand the spelling of the word “materiel” and quite politely approached him to check if this was what he wanted.

“Oh, Thank God!” he exclaimed. “You had the intelligence to ask.” and he went on to complain about his stenographic nemesis and then to patiently explain to me the difference in meaning of  “material” and “materiel”, the latter referring to the equipment and supplies of a military or governmental organization.

Into this emotionally seething unit of typing and tabulation came a young manager from national headquarters.  Much later, I discovered he was four years younger than I which made him about thirty two, then. He was an administrative wunderkind who had rapidly succeeded in being promoted to upper management. He had a prodigious memory and was a whiz with numbers. He knew the organization inside out but as any new interloper to the hallowed ranks of Management, he had to prove himself to earn his acceptance therein.

He held occasional staff meetings to keep us all informed of whatever we were allowed to know. At one of these, he announced that had bought the first personal  computer for general use for our section. We had been asked to get to know this curious machine that was reputed to do everything but the family dishes. It was reputed to take all the problems out of typing and composing and would simplify our calculations for monthly reporting.

On the day it arrived, our young manager showed us how the computer operated, how it turned on and off; how, with a program, one could type, reposition the text for a pleasing page presentation and correct any errors  before printing the page.

Carol, our best typist, an English comedian and theatrical star by avocation, was terrified of the instrument. We had to wheedle and beg to get her to try it out.  With exaggerated  horror, she would exclaim that this idiot of a machine would never overtake her abilities to type a spreadsheet without fault. Spreadsheets were the cornerstone of her happy career. She could be inordinately proud that all the section’s spreadsheets were given to her to type. I couldn’t think of anything more boring. It was bad enough that I had to proof read them.  But she was right, she never made a mistake either in her numbers nor in her alignment of the forms upon the page.

My immediate supervisor, the Manager of Program Planning and Control, dreamed of becoming a certified bookkeeper and later, perhaps even an accountancy designation.  She loved the work because it was one of those jobs in which one could achieve perfection. Numbers did not lie.

My immediate supervisor set out a schedule when each of us was to learn to use the single computer that had been assigned to our section. It really was a marvel.

In order to get my term job as receptionist, I had to type twenty three minutes a minute. My inexperience with typing had been a drawback; but now with this new tool, I felt liberated. As receptionist, I had sat at the phone desk typing. Unlike Carol,  I made plenty of errors. I wasted more paper and more carbon because I mistyped a word and had to start again, or got the whole thing finished perfectly only to find that the text was not centered on the page. I would just have to start again.

Carole was assigned an electronic typewriter. These too were expected to assist us in our written missives. After all, computers were so expensive, we couldn’t expect everyone to have one. The electronic type writers were more economical than computers and as the old ones wore down, we were expected to learn these new machines that had many new advantages to help a hapless typist.

Carole, however, was terrified of it and as Head of the typing pool it was my responsibility to ensure she learned it. We sat hours, side by side, and she couldn’t get it. She pined for her Selectric. She knew it intimately. When the lesson time ended, she gratefully returned to her instrument at the receptionist desk.  She was more often ill and didn’t come to work. When she did, she spent inordinate amounts of time away from her desk, walking behind a manager and mimicking his gait and mannerisms. When everyone began to chortle at her mimicry and the manager had turned to see what had happened, with impeccable timing, she was apparently going about her own tasks, innocently unaware, along with the manager,  why anyone would be snickering.

Carole retired and my perfect-numbers manager was happy to be able to replace her with someone more in tune with the times. Jobs were juggled. We lost the receptionist position and the typing pool when we all got our own computers.  We were expected to do our own correspondence on the computer. There was no need, now, for a typist.

However, a problem arose. No one had sufficient experience with the binary beast and no one was capable of properly extracting the reports that we needed from it. We were assigned a computer tech.

We had all been given computer training of the most simplistic sort but it was insufficient.  In one of our staff meetings, our manager announced that Dan would be coming to join our group. He would  assist us with our computer problems and he would now extract all the reports. My job had changed. I was to take the spreadsheets that he provided, review them for changes and duplications. I would input the information and then he would do his magic.

When Carole left, her position and duties were considered inessential. We no longer would need a receptionist. Everyone would have his or her own telephone voice mail box and when visitors came, the employee could come to the front door and escort them wherever they were meeting.

For the occasional general inquiry, the phone would be forwarded to my number. I was not the receptionist, but I was once again answering the phone.

I think we were all a bit surprised. Our unit was composed uniquely of women. The supervisor and the two heads of section were all very girly kind of women – the kind that have conversations about getting their hair done and their manicures; of babies and growing children; of bargain hunting and shoe shopping. A major event of many a return from lunch was parading purchases that had been bought on the half hour break.

Into this covey of women rolled Dan. Yes, rolled.

Dan was a paraplegic. He had the use of his shoulders and so could rotate them sufficiently to lift his arms. With a special leather glove on either hand, strapped on by Velcro, Dan could lift pencils, the rubber tip downwards, to tap on the keys in a hunt and peck fashion, to manipulate the computer.

Somehow, the other women seemed to disappear together on lunch hour, leaving fifteen minutes in advance and returning each separately, as if they had no idea where the others had been.

Just as she left, my supervisor would glide by me in a sultry  sweeping step with a simpering grimace and say,”You can go at twelve thirty. You’ll watch the phones while everyone is away for lunch, won’t you?” She was my boss. I answered, “Yes”.

So it was that I got to know Dan.

Dan was a gruff sort. No fool, he knew what was going on. Both of us were limited in resources. We both brought our lunches and ate our lunch fare together. His was thinner than was mine, which he blamed on his need to keep trim.

“Sitting in a chair all day long doesn’t help you keep in shape,” he said, referring to himself. “If I can’t exercise like I used to, I have to watch my diet.”

With the girly girls gone, we talked about all sorts of things. It wasn’t long until I had discovered how he had become paraplegic. A very sporty, dare-devil youth, Dan had been hang gliding when the apparatus had broken, mid flight, and he had come tumbling to the ground. When I thought about it, it was a wonder that he had survived at all. He had loved all sports. He had been a fisherman – surely an occupation that had demanded full use of one’s physical capabilities.

After he had recovered sufficiently in the hospital, he had been sent to GF Strong, a rehabilitation facility. Everyone there had extreme injury and a long program for recovery. Dan, of course, could no longer do those things to which he had aspired. The physically active jobs that he had done were not possible. If he were going to be productive, he would have to learn how to work a computer.
His job with us was the first that he had on leaving GF Strong. It was term – that is, he was on probation so he worked hard to prove his worth. With the unthinking cruelty of our organization’s hiring practices, his terms were extended three months by three months. Each time, management was unable to tell him that he had been extended even until the day that he was supposed to otherwise go.

“Just come in on Monday,” was my supervisor’s advice to him. “We’ll get it sorted out.” I had been through the same mill with my own appointments so I knew how unnerving it was; but I felt that it was even more cruel for Dan who would not easily find another appointment.

Dan never lost hope; and he kept on being renewed until, under company policy, five years later they took him on permanently, full time. Against all odds, he was able to be independent. He would allow no one to pity him. If every he missed a day, he made it up. He would allow no one the chance to say that he did not do his work or that he was absent too often to be able to do his job. While everyone else seemed to take time off for medical appointments with in office hours, Dan never would unless there was no other option. And if he did, he came to work at an ungodly early morning hour to make up his time.

I admired his spirit so much. He was an inspiration to me, that despite crippling adversity, he could be independent and honourable to the greatest degree.

Some in our section, though, were not so happy with his coming. The women were edgy about having a man work in their midst. It had been a very feminine enclave. Besides, Dan was rough. He spoke gruffly and abruptly. He spoke his mind without dancing around a difficulty. If you didn’t like it, too bad. To my mind, it was refreshing.

All through his recovery period, Dan had found some way to keep his little house in Deep Cove. When he became permanent staff, he started to look for a new house with everything on one level that he could adapt to his needs.

He found just the haven he wanted near Edgemont Village. It had a large back yard with several ancient cedars in it. He bought the house and had it refitted for his needs. The bathroom was refitted to allow him to shower without help. The lamps had large rings on them so that he could hook his thumb and pull the switch and the drapes were similarly rigged.

When I went for dinner, he did the cooking, having mastered a food processor for cutting vegetables and crushing garlic. He could wheel underneath the kitchen sink and rinse his vegetables and such; similarly, he could reach and make the stove top function. The dishwasher looked after the clean-up.

Every year, he held a potluck Summer Solstice party in his back yard. He had so many friends who helped with preparations that he hardly had to do anything but provide the place. So many colleagues at work, like me, had become enamoured of this rough diamond that the place was packed on the Solstice night.

He worked for us for about fifteen years. In that time, I moved forward. I moved to different sections. Dan stayed in the same place and the others went, some through retirement, others through promotion, and the replacements came and went too.

It was Dan whom I called, all through my career, to help me with computer glitches, or for a hasty lesson. He taught me how to set up my computer at home. He helped me purchase what I needed; and later, did the same for my sister on strength of the fact that she was my sister. He was generous with his time and so patient with us computer nilches.

More than a colleague, Dan had become a close friend. When day seemed insurmountable, he would come and talk to me and we would worry out the knots of his troubles. He did the same for me. When I divorced, he listened to my complaints. When I had to sell my car, he offered to sell it for me.

“You don’t want people coming to your house when you are all alone,” he said, “and besides you won’t be able to tell them about the workings of the car.” So I very thankfully let him cope with the task of selling it. It wasn’t as if I would get much for it. It had been a lemon the whole time I had it, but it was good for parts.

One day shortly after this, he came to me in my office – I had graduated to an office with a door on it which was saying quite something in this organization that insisted on an open office, exchangeable desk plan system.

“Can I come in?” he asked. And then,”Can I close the door?” And he did.

With his dysfunctional hands and great difficulty, he fumbled with his pants pocket and said nothing. He would not allow you to help him with anything, so I knew well enough to just wait patiently. He extracted his wallet and fumbled even more. Without a word all this time, Lord knows how, he managed to extract a wad of hundred dollar bills and throw them in the air. They flutter down like brown leaves across the desk and onto the floor.

I looked at him askance for a few seconds then burst out in laughter. He had sold the car! His face lit up with a radiant smile. He didn’t want my thanks and was thrilled with his little joke. He had been happy to help me. Happy to be useful. Happy to be my friend.

But Dan did not get promoted. His formation had been through GF Strong. He didn’t have a degree. The young people coming up through the colleges had certificates more potent than his. He was bypassed though he could do the work. He was shifted out of the Program Planning and Control Section to the new IT, Information Technology Section where he was appreciated by those who worked with him, but not by his Manager. His frustration grew and his spirit struggled.

In the last few working years, his body began to fail him. He was too often in the hospital for stretches of time that were not compatible with keeping up his work – and he hated the hospital with its lukewarm food and sterile atmosphere.

He went on disability and then was confined to home.

I regret to say that I then saw very little of him. I had my own problems. I had taken on the responsibility for two teenagers. I was looking after my aging and dependent mother.

I had been promoted to a job that was high pressured and required a lot of traveling. I was simply exhausted and I didn’t see Dan.

I’ve been retired for two years now. I phoned a few times, but our schedules weren’t compatible and I think he had too much difficulty in holding the phone, so Dan and I corresponded by e-mail. He could no longer get out by himself.  I wrote to him and told him of my doings.

When I moved, I lived far enough away that it was inconvenient to go so far to see him. He sent me inspirational presentations with beautiful pictures. At that point, I think he was barely capable of the computer manipulations to do it, and yet he sent out messages of humour, hope, beauty and good spirit.

Despite the best of nursing care at home, he was no longer able to live independently. November was the last e-mail I recieved which I think he must have sent just before he was taken to the hospital

“Please don’t give up on me,” it said.

Christmas was a busy time. It mid January when I realized that I hadn’t heard from him for some time. Just about the same time that a mutual friend sent me a letter in reply to a Christmas greeting. Our good friend has gone.

Dan died on January 9th in the hospital

New Year’s Eve

January 1, 2009

Kay was alone and happy for it. With all the fuss of Christmas, the goings-out and the comings-in she’d had her fill of people for a while. The silence in the house was comforting.

Early in the morning she had awoken with thoughts crowding away her sleep. It was about mother’s Estate and how Otto felt it should be finalized. Kay and Otto had been at loggerheads to the point of Kay being threatened with a challenge in court over the accounts; and now the two of them were sparring over a compromise that would help them resolve the issues. How she had started her day with this invasive garbage, she didn’t know. She must have been dreaming of it, sorting it out in jumbled illogical slumber. The instant her eyes opened, however, she had somehow clarified her thoughts  and before reaching for her coffee, she was sitting at the computer writing herself some notes to rebuff his specious arguments before she could forget them.

Before long, the phone rang with Heather proposing a meeting of all beneficiaries in January with an arbitrator. Everyone had waited too long. The business had to be resolved.

Kay hung up the phone and it rang again before her fingers had left the receiver.  It was Lizbet. She only had five minutes before she left for work but wanted to add her two cents worth. Kay ran her early morning list of thoughts past Lizbet, then inconclusively, Lizbet had to run.

Was this her New Year’s disaster? For so many years, Kay had experienced some kind of disastrous or disappointing event to the point where, forever thereafter,  she would no long plan anything for New Year’s Eve. It was a jinxed night. If Kay laid low, then she could scramble under the disaster radar and come out relatively well for the dawning of the New Year.

There had been the night when her favourite beau had invited her to a frat party at the Beta Phi house on campus. An hour after his appointed time of arrival, Kay was still pacing the hallway dressed in her cut velvet party dress, hair perfectly coiffed with a saucy upturn looking beautiful like a blond Jacqueline Kennedy clone. The phone rang and she pounced upon it. It was her brother Otto.

“David’s already here, if you’re waiting for him,”  he announced. “He’s got a date with him. But Phil is here and he hasn’t got a date. Why don’t you just get a cab and come out here. It’s a great party!” he added.

Where had she gone wrong? Kay asked herself. David had been very clear that he would pick her up at eight. Kay demurred to Otto’s suggestion It would look like she was checking up on David or chasing him. Phil didn’t even know who she was. Why would he want to be with her? She was hurt and unhappy about the turn of events. She didn’t want to go.

Kay returned to her parents and explained what had happened, and that was the end of that. She sulkily went to her room and got out her pyjamas, put the party dress away and picked up Atlas Shrugged and read. It was a better companion for an evening, anyway, she consoled herself as her mind turned over and over her conversation with Otto and the perfidy of David. By midnight, the book fell from her hands and she was fast asleep.

She had only  been nineteen then. But year after year, New Year’s Eve party after New Year’s Eve party, there had always been something. There was the night that her date had dug his car into a snow bank and she had found herself in high heels and short dress, freezing, while  pushing the car back onto the road with the assistance of four other people. She was sopped, trembling with cold,  and the heel on her brand new shoes had snapped.

There was the New Year’s night that her date got so drunk he couldn’t drive her home and some leering fool did. She had had to shove with all her might, this Mr. Octopus and his lecherous attentions, to prevent him from coming in the front door.

There was  the snowbound New Year’s night where everyone had been dancing in stocking feet and someone took her boots by mistake. The pair that was left was too small for her to walk in and she had to go home  through a foot deep of slushy snow melt in dancing slippers. Kay had begun to refuse invitations for New Year’s Eve.

In her young married years, she began to invite people in. That seemed to help, but there were even some of those, with all the preparations made, that no one came, usually the fault of a nasty winter storm of snow or a deluge of Wet Coast rain.

Kay remembered the years she was travelling and studying abroad. She’d been invited by a young student to visit her parent’s home in Leeds and she did. The parents were lovely, middle class working people – both of them. The daughter, Alison, was eighteen and just beginning to run with a rather rough crowd.  Her mother had been happy to have Kay go with Alison to her New Year’s Eve party. She hoped that Kay would bring a stabilizing influence to Alison. Alison would be responsible for a guest’s happiness, she reasoned, and Kay would have enough sense to bring Alison out of a difficult situation if one arose.

The party took place in a three storey walk-up in a rough part of town. There were a hundred teen and twenty-somethings trying to party in the top floor apartment which was unheated and unlit. Joints and pills were being passed from one reveller to another. The house had no indoor bathroom; the loo was located underneath the front porch and the young men had no intention of going down there to relieve themselves and so were pissing in the kitchen sink instead.The trip down to the front steps was encumbered by people lolling on the stairs, or wrapped around each other with no perceivable space between them from top to bottom, leaning on the walls, hindering passage. Kay’s only thought was of escaping this Hieronymous Bosch hell, but Alison who had promised her mother not to drink was imbibing not only quantities of ale but adding chemicals to the mix.

There was no food and poor Kay was allergic to ale. The only alternative was  tap water, but that seemed out of the question, given the most recent use of the kitchen facility as urinal.

The lights were dim. The music, crashingly loud, was a blessing and a curse. It was impossible to talk to anyone (and therein the blessing)  but the noise was deafening – and boringly repetitive. At midnight, a roar of cheering went up. Kay tugged at Alison and inquired directly into her ear when they might consider going home. Alison shrugged. The fellow who was to drive was nowhere in sight.

“Let’s go!”  Kay had suggested again  just after midnight. She was completely bored. She thought back to Alison’s mother. What iota of a difference could she make to the situation she and Alison were in? She wasn’t in control of transportation; there was no way to phone for a cab; she had no idea where she was. And Alison? Kay had not a whit of influence on her.

“Can’t. Can’t find Nigel. He’s got the car.” said Alison with a little slur.

“Let’s go!” Kay pleaded, at one.

“Haven’t seen Nigel, ” stated Alison unsteadily.

“Please let’s go”,  insisted Kay at one-thirty.

“I think I saw Nigel. Stay here; I’ll be back,” said Alison, and she went off, squeezing her way through gyrating dancers and clumps people yelling to talk to each other, to find Nigel.

Alison reappeared at two.  “Where’s Nigel?” shouted Kay.

“Hurry. He’s waiting for us down stairs and he’s impatient.” Alison sounded none to pleased. “We’re to meet him at the front steps. We have to take some other people home on the way.”

There were five bodies crammed into his little car on the way home, women doubling up on the men’s laps, the car was so small. It was fortunate that the streets were empty as they erratically hurtled through the streets to destination.

When Kay and Alison crept into the house, it was three.

“Don’t tell my mom anything about the party, ” Alison pleaded in a whispering voice as we went in the front door.

“Did you enjoy your party last night?” her Mom asked next morning.

“Lovely party,” said Kay without enthusiasm ” but I think we stayed too late. I’m getting too old for such late nights. Loud music. Too much dancing.”

Benignly, her mother thought back to slow waltzes and the crooning music of the just-after-war years. She imagined the pretty dresses and the decorated church halls where they took place.  A flash image of her husband in smart, clean military uniform passed before her eyes.

“I could see that you were older, ” her Mom said. “You might look young, but once you open your mouth, you can tell you are more experienced, level headed ….”

Kay was thirty looking an innocent twenty, and felt anything but level headed.

She was thirty six in Rheims on the New Year’s Eve that Kay and Frank had planned a party for the two Parisian women they had met at the Fair at the Porte de Montreuil in November.  Frank, in his usual culinary exuberance, had splurged on lobster and steak for this celebratory night and stocked a variety of finest wines. Four blue spotted lobsters with fat red rubber bands on their claws were ineffectually duking it out amongst themselves in a cardboard box in the cold passageway between the house and the inner courtyard. Frank and Kay were chopping garlic and parsley for a butter sauce. The salad was prepared and sitting on the small round drop leaf table. It was set for four with polished silver and the best plates. A special patisserie dessert was in the oven.

At nine o’clock, no one had come but the cook was well past the first bottle of red. At ten, no one had come and bottle number two was dead. Kay and Frank had began to worry. What had happened to the women? Like many homes in France, Frank and Kay had no telephone. Even if there was one, if the women were en route from Paris, there was no way to phone them.  Had they had an accident? Had it been too stormy to start out? Or had they not taken the invitation seriously?  It had been spontaneously given. Had they found something else to do? Had they reconsidered?

Daniel, a work colleague,  rang the doorbell uninvited at eleven and was dragging his son,  an unwilling and sleepy ten year old, behind him. Daniel was a taciturn teacher, single parent, always spreading doom and gloom. His uncommunicative son was absorbed in a new toy, a hand held game that he had received for Christmas.

Frank was so glad to have someone cross the threshold that he asked Daniel to share the feast. Bottle number three was uncorked. The lobsters were dropped into the vat of boiling water and they mutated from blue to brilliant red.   The meal had not been wasted, but the evening had spoiled. At five past midnight, Frank chased Mr. Gloom-and-doom  and his son out the front door and Kay and he headed for bed.

In February, an apology came by mail. Anna had borrowed her father’s car and it had broken down. There had been  no way to call and no other way to get to Frank and Kay’s. They had spent their evening out in the freezing rain trying to hitch back to Paris to get help for their stranded car.

At Kay’s  forty fifth New Year, on a quiet evening at home now back in Canada, Kay and Frank had invited Janice to share a midnight meal. The food sat prepared for the late night repast while the three of them took the bus into Vancouver to participate in First Night, the City’s free entertainment and fireworks.

They had hardly been there an hour when Janice had become ill and all three had to return home. By eleven they were there packing Janice into her own car and she left. The cold meal shared by two had lost its flavour. The bottle of Champ. remained unopened. What was the point? Frank downed a tall glass of red and went to bed. Kay stood outside on the balcony overlooking the city watching the fireworks rise out of Coal Harbour until the last magnificent one fizzled and faded into nothing. Just like this New Year’s Eve, thought Kay, focusing on the dribbles of colour falling towards the black, cold  waters of the bay.

After her divorce and after Kay had agreed to assist her mother by living in the same house, Kay spent each New Year’s Eve with her mother, watching Lawrence Welk and his Bubbly machine. The gas fire place was lit. A card table was set up before the fire and the  Times Square count down droned on the television.

The table was set with embroidered linen and the high-days silverware, the Lavender Rose china, and a tiny repast to see in the midnight hour. At five minutes to, Kay and her mother would sit at the table, serve a half sandwich without crusts and  a sweet to each plate, pour a glass of sparkling ginger ale, and toast to the New Year. For each of twelve years, her mother related how her father had died just two weeks before her wedding, but everything had been arranged and so many people had been invited. Grandmother had insisted that they carry on bravely.  It was not only New Year’s Eve, it was Mother’s wedding anniversary and a  reminiscence of husband and father long gone. At least that had been lovely and quiet; and nothing bad had happened.

And now Kay was alone, on New Year’s Eve 2008, happy to be home. Happy to be unwinding the lights of the Christmas tree. Happy to be packing the baubles and tinsel. Happy to be drinking a fine cup of coffee and eating some warm leftover apple crumble with ice cream. Happy to have laid the morning’s distress to rest for the day, determined not to let it intrude on what should be a day of celebration.

Here was Kay, happy to see the last Royal Air Farce on the telly. Happy to read a little, write a little, and above all, stay home, quiet with her thoughts, listening to a Sibelius and Rachmaninoff.

Midnight came and Kay studiously did nothing to mark the passage. At fifteen past, she heated a cup of tea and selected two shortbread from the box of Christmas baking and smiled.

Outside, she could hear firecrackers and fireworks. Some noisy passers-by were still calling one to the other as they walked down Twenty-seventh Street.

Just one more year. She had sneaked under the radar before anything could befall, and she had safely made passage into the New Year.

O, Christmas Tree

December 13, 2008

Oh, Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree,

Thou tree most fair and lovely…

How many times have I sung this song in low alto, tears welling up, as a child beside my father in church, around our home Christmas tree or the piano, caroling in the streets, in church basements, at Guides, in the elevators and at every mall in the universe from November First onwards. Countless times, really.

In the weeks preceding Christmas, one musical ensemble after another came to Mother’s senior  residence with carols and favorite Christmas tunes, singing them, leading the aging, nearly deaf and nearly blind, in their favourite tunes, and always there was “O Christmas tree“. Sometimes they came with ukuleles, sometimes with guitars, or violins, or double bass or piano. The back up changed, the tunes remained the same.

I called Mother to hurry, to put on her housecoat, to rise from her bed and come to the common area by the elevator so that she could see and hear the carollers singing a capella, better. Ray, the doctor-patient across the hall wheeled himself into the hall. Nursing aides came to assist the residents closer to the singers. Those who could struggled out into the hallway. Ray hung back, refusing the help of an aide. I asked him if I could be of assistance.

“No, no!” he signalled shakily. With a hand crippled by Parkinson’s Disease, he made jerky shift of his forefinger towards his eyes that were brimming. He was not alone.

He didn’t want to be seen with tears in his eyes – he rathered to stay back and yet he was compelled. Slowly, at his own pace, he  moved forward, to see, to hear, to sing.

Mother paddled forward with her feet, the walker advancing slowly. She too did not want to be too close; but she was eager. Hymns! She chanted them softly to herself as she went to sleep each night. Familiar, comforting, emotionally catching deep in her memory, they took her back so far to the Stella Mission of her childhood in Winnipeg in the nineteen twenties.

With great respect for these residents fragile hearts and souls, I offered no more help to those around, and I concentrated and  succumbed myself to the Christmas music. I dabbed my eyes with a small white handkerchief to keep runnels of salt water from descending my cheeks.

I have a love-hate relationship with Carols. I love the feeling of family and normality that they conjured. I hate the helpless feeling of grief they engender in me that catches  in my jawbone with an ache and the triggering of guilt that they bring that I hadn’t turned out the perfectly innocent and fine Christian soul that my parents had expected me to be. Why oh why did they always get me thinking of failure? My failure.

But this night, I had another grief clenching in my jaw. My cantankerous, sweet, impish, proud, kind, gentle, intelligent, strict, generous and wonderful mother, sat there, dressed in her velvet green dressing gown, ruby-red Indian princess moccasins on her feet trimmed in white rabbits fur,  straining forward in her walker-chair, eagerly like a child, to hear what she could of these songs and sing along within the confines between her ears. She was fading away.  She might or might not make it to Christmas.  That grief  was powerfully conspiring to undo me, when I needed to be strong, to appear unemotional. It wasn’t just for Mother, but for every gentle aged  soul in that hallway who, likewise, knew not whether they would ever hear these ancient songs again and felt that fact so deeply.

That was two years ago. Mother  came home for Christmas, a frail suffering body, frightened of the pain, aching to be home, to stay home, in the house she had worked so hard to obtain in her lifetime. But she couldn’t stay. And after a fall, she rapidly declined. In January, she was gone.

Tonight, I was putting up the family Christmas tree for the first time since then. Last Christmas I escaped to distant family. I couldn’t face the changes that had come about in the year that followed. I barely can now. But I have my own home now. It’s my first Christmas in it and I’m decorating. I’m celebrating Christmas with a Boxing Day Open House and I want a decorated tree.

I unpacked the box filled with bottle brush branches that I’ve inherited. The instructions are gone. With sheer logic, I figured that the longest four branches went on the bottom and progressively in series of four shorter and shorter branches, they fitted into the broomstick pole that came with it.  I seriously think it’s on its last legs. Essential splinters of wood have come away from some of these insertion holes and some branches barely hold on. It’s a Charlie Brown tree; there are hardly enough branches to make it look decent.

When I started to put lights on, there were ten different strings only two of which worked, but so difficult to apply to the branches that I ended up taking them off.  Then I discovered a strange net-like web of lights of more recent manufacture. It was almost like a giant fish-net blanket with twinkle light s at each juncture of the net. I plastered this onto the tree to try it on for size.
Lit up, it didn’t look too bad, but when the lights were off, the mass of wires were so evident it looked horrible. I’m running out of time. I can’t spend six days decorating this thing. I discovered that I don’t like doing it. It’s fussy and frustrating.

I left the network twinkle lights on, hoping that the baubles and tinsel might sufficiently camouflage them.  After hours of struggling with the tree, I gave up. It will be what it will be.

In the process, I’ve let some things go – ornaments that have lost their colour, strings of lights that refuse to do their illumination job; three amateur wreaths made of osier and pine cones wrapped with red tartan ribbon.  It’s renewal time. Out with the old. I’ll figure out what’s needed next year. Maybe a potted tree. This is a small house with little space for a medium sized tree, much less a big one. Maybe a tree that has its lights incorporated right into the branches. Forget the lines of lights and all the replacement bulbs.

I’m moving on. I’m letting go. I’m letting be.

O, Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, wie treu sind deine Blätter!