Archive for the ‘care giving’ Category


July 19, 2009

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I set the house alarm and left, locking the door behind me, then realized that I didn’t have my camera.

I’ve walked the dikes so many times now, I should have them in my mind by memory, but I don’t. I don’t seen to have visual memory, funny enough, and I keep trying to record what I see either in photography or paint so that I don’t forget.  It was getting warmer out by the minute and I made a conscious decision to leave it at home. I would walk faster, and anyway, I’ve already photographed everything thirty times. You’d think I’d already had the ultimate image, but no…. it’s always the penultimate.

And so there I was, on Sunday morning, walking in Paradise.

There were very few cars in the lot which was a good thing, because in this unusual heat wave, parking under one of the grand willows at the entrance to the dike walks,  there is a large pool of shade and there was one parking spot left, right up by the big concrete dividers that delineate the edge of the lot.

I extracted my walking poles from the trunk, locked the car and set out. There wasn’t a human in sight.

Without the camera, I was able more acutely to hear myself and the birds.

I’ll always remember asking Mom if she could hear the birds that were chirping loudly, a flock having chosen her back yard for an early evening town-hall meeting.  “Birds?” she asked, puzzled. “Hear them?” She strained to listen. “Are there birds”  She shook her head. She couldn’t hear a single peep.

I vowed to listen to them while I could and here, early morning there was a leading edge symphonic composition of unrelated tonal  sounds going on with each orchestral section doing it’s own thing.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard so many different birds competing in a battle of the bands before. There was a persistent, overriding one going “Chi, we,we,we,we” . There was a beautiful melodic one, about sixteen notes long, whose tune I could not imitate nor remember. There was a ticking one going, “chi, chi, chi, chi” and a starling imitating a chickadee with a throatier version of the “dee, dee, dee” sound.

When a person pays attention with all one’s senses, it’s amazing what there is to hear and see. And smell also. There was a decided scent of mown hay permeating the air with an attenated sweet manure smell behind it. It had been spread more than a month ago and the awfulness of it had sunk into the ground, nourishing it, leaving the hot earth with this pleasant farm smell.

Without the camera I beetled ahead at a rapid pace, which is what I should be doing most days but never do if there’s something to photograph. But I havn’t been serious about walking as I should, so I was happy to halt, catch my breath and watch two birds grasp the same tall branch of a pink-flowered shrub. They were the size of bush-tits but all brown and they were swinging around the twig like a pair of acrobats.

When I resumed my walk, I reflected that not having a camera forced me into having conversations with myself.  I thought it might be a great exercise to go home and paint what I saw today.

I dismissed the problem of colour. I had that down pat – the brilliant summer sky, a mix of cerulean and French ultramarine; The far mountains,  a wash of French Ultramarine and closer ones simply a deeper version of the hue; the trees, a mix of viridian and burnt sienna; the sunnier greens mixed with a lemon yellow and a sap green.

It was the composition that I couldn’t carry with me – the way the shapes nestled together, the way the shadows defined the shape, the rhythm and flow of it. I tried to memorize one or two.

There was the way the dike path split the marsh grasses like a bolt of lightening diminishing to its pointy end far off in the distance, only to be stopped in the mid ground by two small poplars and the heron tree. Overpowering everything were the pure blue  mountains, receding in distinctly shaped layers of progressively lighter hue.

There was the way the dike sweeps down into the farm lands where the blueberry fields are ripe and ready. At the edge of these, the windbreak is made up of mid sized shrubs entangled with blackberry and wild rose. It’s an image full of curves and warm, golden grasses.

As I approached the Neames Road bridge, I tried to memorize the shape of it – its four creosoted posts on either end, the white railing with three tiers, the water flowing underneath,  everything reflecting in the water with the addition of a good swig of sky and a dollop of a single cloud floating in the water. Sounds like a blueberry float with whip cream on top!

On the way back, the sun was coming straight for me, as were a number of late starters their dogs or their children in tow. A few runners sped by, coming and going. I concentrated on trying to find word equivalents for the  bird songs and repeated them as one of my memory exercises. I wasn’t sure whether I would be racing for the brushes or the keyboard when first I got home.

Chi, we, we, we, we, I was repeating to myself as I was interrupted by a “kitty-wake” sound but I was sure it wasn’t a kittiwake because there were no gulls around. I stopped to listen and joined a conversation unfolding before me.

A middle-aged woman in a broad raffia hat sporting two braids down to her shoulders had stopped two petite Iranian ladies more or less appertaining to a leash-free teacup-sized dog with a tiny bow on it’s head.

“There’s a coyote hanging about. Several people have seen him this morning,” counselled the braided woman.

“Oh, we’ll be okay,” said one of the Iranians, smiling as they continued to saunter along. They clearly had not understood, neither the message nor the import of it.

“It’s your dog. The coyote will eat your dog. It’s like a wolf,” insisted the woman with the braids.

The Iranian women stopped, trying to make reason of the message.

“You had better carry your dog,” insisted Mrs. Braid.

Their eyes popped and one of them let their mouth hang open in horrified understanding.  They both nodded. The little muffet was called and one of them scooped up the handful and tucked it close to her breast.

“Oh, look,” cried Mrs. Braid. “There are two birds chasing an eagle.”

It broke the conversation and everyone looked. Two small birds, likely the size of robins or starlings were bearing down on the eagle high above the poplars. One flew in so close it could have dropped six inches and ridden on the eagle’s back without having to do any wing flapping himself.

The bald-headed eagle was angrily chastising his pursuers with that ki,ki wake sound . I had at least matched one of the choruses  from the bird symphony, now.

Mrs. Braid and I talked then about having seen coyotes and bears and other wildlife. We traded stories for quite a long moment before she announced that she had just retired from working as an art teacher.

“How coincidental!” I said, very happy with our conversation that just flowed. I explained my connections to art. Then I explained what I was doing to integrate myself into the art community as a newcomer, inviting groups of artists to salon-like gatherings so that I could get to know them and they, me.

“Would you like to come to one sometime?” I asked.

“Oh, I would love to,” she answered and started to cry. Not the sobbing kind, but the sniffly, trying-desperately-not-to kind, with an index finger reflexively wiping away moisture from the side of her eyes.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she apologized, dipping her head so that with the shadow of the had, I could not see them. “It’s so recent. I’ve just put my husband in a residential care facility this week. Alzheimers. ”  She struggled to force the tears back into her eyes.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I replied, with a look of concern for her.

“I’m only fifty-five. He’s only sixty-four. For the last four years, I haven’t been able to get out. It’s the first time I’ve had any time to myself. I’m not used to having time. Not that I’ve just left him there, though. I go every day between six and ten at night. That’s when I can be most useful, getting him to bed. Sometimes he recognizes me. Mostly he doesn’t. And I’ve never had time to go anywhere, not even grocery shopping, because he had to be watched. He didn’t understand anything anymore. While we were out walking, he would see a house and construct a story around it. He would think it was ours and we had renters. He would want to climb a fence to get into the place to see if they were treating it properly.”

“Like a two year old,” I sympathized.

“Yes, exactly,” she replied. “I couldn’t leave him for a moment, and I couldn’t take him anywhere. But finally, I stopped being humiliated and embarassed by the situations he got me into.”

Her situation came out in a torrent. The relief that she felt in finally having the burden of his care lifted from her shoulders alone and shared with the health system was huge, but at the same time, she felt guilty. A new round of tears escaped from her eyes. She was really in quite a fragile emotional state.

I thought to myself, I guess this was the reason I came out to the dike so early this morning. It was a bit like this chance meeting had been engineered by the invisible and all powerful Higher Power of the universe.

I tried to distract and reassure her. I told her about caring for my mother in a similarly senile state, though her husband seemed to be  far more difficult than my mother had been.  I told her about the drawings I was doing about feelings. How I had originally pounded marks onto the paper, in anger, and beat away the frustration in long, attacking strokes.  I told her about standing in front of my paints and closing my eyes to see what my feelings were and then finding colours that matched and images that expressed those states.

She had pulled her emotions together and stuffed them back in their box.  She said, “It’s the first time I’ve been back on the dikes. My husband and I used to walk here. I’ve been frustrated and lonely and feeling guilty to be enjoying all this beauty, this paradise. I had no idea I might talk to you or anyone. It’s so strange. I think I must have been sent to meet you here today. It is as if it  was meant to be.”

The similarity of our our situations and our thoughts amazed me. I said so.

Again, I invited her to join up with us at one of our artist groups.

“You know, you will not feel out of place. We’ve all had our griefs. Elizabeth’s mother has died of Alzheimers just recently and she cared for her daily for several years. My mom was getting senile and slipping deeper and deeper in to geriatric states of confusion, so I understand perfectly. Mrs. Stepford is going blind, and Thelma is desperately trying to get her granddaughter out of the Ministry’s foster home care system. Her daughter is too sick to look after the child. You’ll feel right at home. And you don’t have to wait until I throw another potluck. Just come for tea.”

It was time to be getting on. We exchanged names and promised to be in touch.  We said goodbye and I walked hastily back home, this time regretting my camera very much.

A young family with two children under the age of six  riding bicycles and parents afoot, pushing a baby in a stroller. The mother’s shadow was imprinted on the gravel walkway in perfect silhouette.  Just in front of her, the four year old was peddling furiously on her red an blue bicycle with training wheels.  Her shadow too was at a perfect ninety-degree angle, flattened upon the light gravel path. The moving shadow’s legs pumped up and down perfectly, the spokes were more noticeable here than on the bike, turning round and round like some fair ground ride.

It wasn’t long after that I got into my nice cool car, hiding as it was, under the willow tree, and made for home. I went straight for the computer before I could forget Mrs. Braid’s last name. I took the information and put it in my address book immediately, then phoned up to leave a message.

Someone on the other end picked up. I hadn’t thought she could get home so fast.

“Mrs. Braid?”

“Speaking,” the voice replied, quite formal.

“Mrs. Braid, it’s Kay here. I just met you on the dike a short while ago. I didn’t think you could get home so fast.”
“What did you say your name was? Kay? Kerrer? Is that right? I just looked up your number and was about to call you. Is this the right address. I just had the phone in my hand to call you….   I think we were destined to meet.”

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!

The Dirt Devil

September 24, 2008

Way back when, when Frank immigrated to Canada all of his qualifications were as if they did not exist. Added to that, he was struggling with the English language. After twenty years here, we still spoke in French when we were together. His command of the language was never great, but he always managed.

He’s a clever kind of guy. I always admired his ability to get him out of the situations he got in. He worked at a French bakery for awhile. He’d apprenticed at that when he was a youngster – fifteen or so – when he refused to go to school anymore and his dad, having none of that, arranged for his apprenticeship and marched him into the bakery the next day. It was school or work. There was no choice. When he came to Canada, it was an easy job for him to fit into. Lots of bakeries employed French bakers and he could communicate; but he’s allergic to flour – a common thing in the bakery world – and he didn’t last long at that job.

I’ve got to hand it to Frank, he’s got a fantastic work ethic. He’s always there and on time. He’s never faked a day off because of an imaginary illness. If he had to be there at four in the morning because that was when work started, he’d be there at four even if he had to walk ten kilometers to get there.  He works well independently and sometimes, he’s good at commanding a group of men to get work done, although I’ve seen him get pretty argumentative and I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of that.

So here was Frank without a job and going stir crazy in the house, unable to speak to neighbours and friends.

One day, something needed to be fixed – a neighbour’s washing machine, I think it was. Well, it wasn’t long until he had another request for his services to fix a vacuum cleaner; and then a  dryer, and then a sump pump and then a stove and then, and then and then….

And then he was in business for himeself. We didn’t have a car. He took the bus complete with his heavy took kit and a map to find his way around. I was working full time. I didn’t have time to help him out except a bit in the evenings – locate something faster on the map, tell him what bus to take, or phone his customer and straighten out what was needed and what time he expected to get there.

Not only that, but he had to go get parts once he’d decided what was wrong. It would take him all day to look after one customer; but he was fiercely independent, wanted his own money to spend, not depend on me, and so bit by bit, by word of mouth, he built up a good business.

Of course, he got to know what were good brands to buy – which ones were dependable and of long service, which ones were easy to repair, which ones had quirks to be avoided.

Last year when I needed a vacuum cleaner, it was Frank who picked it out. It was a shiny red Dirt Devil which we brought home from the big box store.  I have an aversion to assembling things and I always assume that these products will need something to be done, so I left the machine in the box. Frank, however, can never wait to get his mechanically minded hands on a new toy, so he was the one who unpacked the vacuum as if it were a Christmas present. He was happier than a kid with his first hockey stick and a pair of skates!

When it was all assembled and he led it through its paces, he brought me out of the kitchen to the living room to see the new toy. He showed me the switch to activate it, and the lever to lower the handle to an angle for sweeping the machine across the carpets.

The vacuum was one of the new models without filter bags. There were two chambers, each with a gizmo that filtered. When this chamber filled up, it had to be emptied. There was a little catch to open this up and then underneath, when this part was removed, there was a filter bank that had to be pulled out an cleaned occasionally. It was held in by two locks that needed to be snapped open.

If you remember one of my earlier blogs of August, you might remember that just before the Wedding Anniversary party, I intended to vacuum the rug. After all, there were visitors coming that had never been to my house before and first impressions are pretty important. The vacuum cleaner was not being cooperative. It was picking up dog hair and depositing it back on the rug in curious polka dot shapes.

After some frustrating trials to fix whatever was wrong, I gave up and used a hand vacuum to do the job. This small vacuum  did a wonderful job, but doing eight hundred square feet of carpet completely bent over is not to be recommended. I’d have to fix the vacuum or get a new one. The cost of getting someone in was going to be about the same cost as a new machine. I know that sounds ridiculous, but that’s the way of things in the labour market these days.

It’s been a month since then. Frank and I are no longer an item and our parting was acrimonious. There’s no way I would take it to him to fix, if fix could be done.

You may also remember that Whistler, my nephew, is staying with me while he awaits some medical tests. He’s feeling a little sensitive about having to be here and, not being able to work, he’s eager to help to make up for his contribution to the household.  For my part, I’m trying to keep him gainfully occupied so that he doesn’t go crazy with the uncertainty of his situation. At the same time, I’m quite sensitive to his energy levels. I don’t want to overtax him and I don’t want him to equate my listing of things to do that I mumble out loud as I think of them, as a request for him to do it.

So I extracted the vacuum from the cleaning closet and armed myself with some tools and a layer of old newspapers to tackle the ailing Dirt Devil. First I ran the motor and confirmed that there was some suction, but it was so little. Then I took off the chambers and looked for something clogged. There was nothing there. Even after I vacuumed a little, there was still nothing there. Nothing was coming through at all.

Next I checked the hose, but it appeared to be clear as far up as I could see without a flashlight. That wasn’t it.

Next I extracted the filter bank but it too was clean. There was nothing that could be stuck there. It just wasn’t possible.

The only other thing I could see that could be removed for some kind of a check was a kinky little clear plastic cover, about four inches long, that covered the place where the hose joined the machine. There were three black magnetic screws with Phillips heads on them.

“Hey Whistler,” I said to him as he lounged on the couch. “This used to put your grandmother in awe when I did this kind of thing.  I’d take out three screws and she’d just shake her head saying “where did you learn to do that?'”

“Three screws. It’s hardly rocket science. And then she would go tell my siblings that I knew how to do everything; and she would forget how many times she had said it and they’d all get mad. ” I laughed.

Whistler laughed too, and it was good to hear him laugh. He rose from the couch and came to watch what I was doing. I showed him the three screws and the little clear plastic cover.

“Three screws,” he repeated, shook his head and entertained a wry smile on his ingenuous face. “But really, I wouldn’t have know where to start either.”

“Well, Frank taught me lots of things. And he showed me, when I bought this thing, how I should take care of it. I’ll have to see what I can do now.”

Sure enough, there was a wad of dog hair, dust bunnies and fine powdery dirt that was compacted into this little passage. I fished it out with my fingers and let it drop onto the outspread newspapers. I fished a little deeper and there was still more, both up and down in the tube.

That done, I replaced the cover, screwed back in the screws and ran the machine.  It still did not draw well. Whistler proposed that there was still blockage further down and if I let the machine run a minute, more would rise to the opening.  And so it was.

I removed and replaced the cover about four times, and then it seemed, there was nothing left to pull out. It amazed us both, not only how compacted all this dirt matted together with dog hair and other detritus had become, but also the sheer quantity of it. It kept coming and coming. No wonder the machine had not worked. Just so you don’t think this was an easy operation, we had to pull this stuff out with a fondu fork with a little catchy tine on the end; and once, when we could hear pebbles or stones or marbles or something in there, Whistler helped me turn the whole machine upside down because we couldn’t get it either with our fingers or with the fondu fork.

Whistler found his opportunity to do something with his day.

“I know you don’t like doing it, and I’ve nothing better to do. I don’t mind. And you can go do something more important, ” he offered.  He took the machine, plugged it in and started to vacuum. This lasted about three minutes when the engine shut down and refused to work. The red cover was hot to the touch.  Obviously there was still something wrong.

I looked for another entry or exit for this tube. Something surely was blocking still. It wouldn’t be long before the machine shut down again and went on strike. After some poking and dismantling the dirt chambers, I found the tube exit and poked my fingers in it. There was a rubbery part, a bar that seemed to move.  When I pressed a little harder, it moved deeper into the machine.

“Oh, grief!” I thought. with a groan. What if I’d dislodged a working part? What if I’d made things worse? I continued to poke and the object went sideways, my fingers just barely holding its rubbery surface, working its way up until, with a jerk, it dislodged and was free in my hand. It was a wine cork, the new kind made of plastic or rubber.  No wonder the machine was complaining. No wonder there was no suction draw.

It took a few more times of cleaining out the passage as the newly freed hose allowed the suction to bring the remaining dirt into the chambers.  Now the whirlygig metal parts turned freely in the dirt chambers, Now the dirt was sucked from the carpet like it was supposed to.


“Good for you!” declared Whistler. “I’m impressed. I don’t think I could have done that.”

“I couldn’t have done it without you,” I said, thanking him in return for his assistance. ” And we just saved $170 of a new vacuum or $90 for a repairman,” I added, “so let’s go thrift shopping. It’s seniors day at the Sally Ann, and I’m over 55 now. I think I get twenty percent off”

“Do you need anything?” he said, a bit incredulously.

“Nope. It’s just to get out and do something. And you never know. You might find something.”

And so we did. After all, I’d saved some money, so now I could go spend it, don’t you think?

The shoe box

September 20, 2008

My childhood drawing – looks like flowers and butterflies.

When I sat down this morning to write, I intended to tell this story. Wordy person that I am, I ended up writing two posts about Whistler. The first was meant to be a preamble, but it took it’s own direction and I just had to finish my thought, so it went it’s merry way without me really having to work at it. It got too long, so I wrote a sequel which should have been the short preamble, but it was not meant to be. That diversion that I took just kept me travelling down that same road with Whistler.

What I really wanted to say was this:
Whistler and I were watching television. Numb3rs, to be exact. I like the program and rarely miss it if I have my way, each Friday night.

In the way that Whistler reads while watching television, I need something to occupy the other side of my brain. I’ve been wanting to interest Whistler in the family history, so I pulled out some of the archival material that has become my Nemesis. It came with the boxes and baggage from my mother’s Estate, and as executrix, I have to determine what is kept and what is disposed of.  Over and above that, I’m at the age where I am curious about our family origins, as far back as we can gather from living members and from deductions from primary sources – letters, bills, addresses, photos and the like.

I thought that Whistler might like to dabble in some of my preparations of all this stuff and so I brought out the document that I’ve created to date which contains all the photos and as much description as I could muster and let him peruse it.

I sat with three boxes of the collected jumble I’ve inherited and started to sort.

First of all, I had a box of Father’s technical documents complete with transparencies he used in teaching Surveying and other university Civil Engineering subjects. I’m looking for things I can throw out and yet, I look at these things and they are the only tangible records I have of my beloved father. It’s his handwriting. His oh so careful, oh so precise mechanical drawings.

I pondered as I went through them, how I might do some work of art with these images as an element in them. That kind of activity would have to wait until later. I need to get this stuff sorted and away unless I want to still live with ceiling to floor boxes.

The only file I found that could be chucked was a file of applications by students from other disciplines requesting admission to the Surveying course that he taught. It contained school records, dates of birth, copies of diplomas. In these days of Privacy Laws and identity theft, it was incredible that he had kept these at his home and now, thirty years later, I was looking through these records and thinking, these men who applied graduated from University the same year that I did! And then, I reflected, there were no women applicants. How different the world was, in just 30 years.  When I left work at my Property Management company, most of the new engineers coming in were women!

I took and shredded that file batch, but there was precious little else that I could let go. It went back into a new and rather spiffy box that I will be able to tolerate looking at if I have to store it for long.

Next I tackled two boxes of Mother’s things. There were the usual things that Mothers keep. I found my Piano Certificates from the Toronto Conservatory of Music and transferred them to a box for me. I found several drawings I had done as a child, several invitations to various shows I had had in my career, and a notice of a class that I taught a UBC Continuing Education. I found letters from Lizbet and Heather and put them aside to give to them later.

Some had already had been sorted. There was still room in that box for more but one of the sub-boxes, a black and redshoe box marked VERY OLD ADDRESSES in fat red felt pen. It was filled with old addresses and it was not going to fit, as was, into the remainder of the new spiffy box everything was to go into.  As a result, I decided to dig in and see what could be chucked.

I had a first thought to just chuck the works. After all, even Mother had marked this box “very old addresses”. Historic sleuth though (that’s me) could not just do that. Maybe there was something important in the box. Maybe just maybe there would be a tidbit that would trigger some memory that would turn into a family story or would help define a family tree member that was otherwise missing. If nothing else, my mother was a thorough soul. When she was afraid of forgetting something – a birth date, a spouse’s name, a brother’s anniversary date, a child’s full name – she wrote it down.

I found several of these for her side of the family.  I found a good treasure trove of addresses that I lived at that are beginning to slip from my memory if I have to come up with them in a hurry. I found the same for my siblings. I had a horrible thought when I found cards given to her at the time of her mother’s death and then was assuaged that I had actually done the right thing when I found letters written to her by all of us siblings. Mine was a hand made card on brown Canson paper with a gold design on the front that I had done myself. Even then I was outraged at the price of store bought cards.

I did find records of  my uncles’ and aunts’ birthdates and their progeny, complete with those life altering dates of births, marriages, deaths.

I kept these and I kept anything that mentioned her life long friends – ones I recognized, ones that might trigger stories about her life or fill in blanks.

And then I settled down to the serious business of going through her address card file. Now, card file is only a way of speaking. While many of the addresses were written on the back of a series of black and white postcards I had produced in my youth when I had dabbled in the gallery business – a one-summer-long store in the resort town of Garden Bay, B.C. , many were on legal size charity envelopes. These were folded to postcard size. I challenge you to try it. The folds were many and the thicknesses cumbersome.

Some envelopes simply had a pre-printed address, the kind you get through the mail with every fund-raising group that has garnered your address legally or otherwise. There were stamps on these going back, the oldest to 1972. Now, those aren’t ancient stamps, but they still will look good in a stamp collection, so I tore those out before chucking the address, if that were its fate.

She had addresses for friends and family. I had moved around often, from Pender Habour to New Denver, to France, moved twice in Rheims, and then back to Vancouver and then to Burnaby with three more addresses before I came to live with her,  twelve years before she died. Three cards were stapled together for me and they included the business cards I had used for the Antiques store my spouse and I had in Rheims and every new business card I had with the large Property Management company I had worked for when I came back to live in Canada.

Lizbet had a smaller collection; Heather as well. Funny, I’m just thinking, I never saw one for Otto. Perhaps he never wrote a letter to her. He wasn’t the literary type to do so.

As I went through, I saw names and sometimes clues, for the hundreds of addresses she had collected:

Bishop, Bialecki, Bicklehaupt, Blum, Nurse Bauer (now there was a clue!) Sinke, Dodworth, Chronell, Byle, Chilton, Carrick, Fawcett.  Who were these people? I knew none of them. I thought I knew so much about my mother and here were people, significant enough to hit her address collection, and I knew none of them.

There were addresses for institutions – University Women’s Club, Faculty Women’t Club; University of Manitoba, Grace Hospital, The Red Cross, a Life Membership certificate for the Christian Blind Mission.

And back to names – Hergest, Hobek, Halford, Kanseth, Kaser, Melhorn, Moshoeshoe.

Moshoeshoe was from Africa and there was a fine stamp attached. The letter was still within and it began with an apology for not writing followed by an explanation – she had written but the letter had come back to her. She must have had the wrong address, or missed a number. That was the entire letter.

There were several other letters still enclosed. Of these, there were a significant number of people whom she had met on her travels through tour groups. One told of her dissatisfaction with Maupintour and how she had been sent from pillar to post in her search for satisfaction, then dropped. No satisfaction at all. Another requested that they plan a tour where they could meet up again. This one was written from the other side of the continent in Alabama.

There were two complete letters from Norah, the black woman she had met in Columbus Ohio while whe was taking courses towards her Masters degree in the teaching of children with disabilities. Norah was a Minister’s wife and it brought to mind the day Mother, Father and Lizbet were invited to join Norah at her church on Sunday for the regular service. It turned out that Martin Luther King was murdered, assassinated, that same week and my parents were fearful that they would be the only white family in a church entirely composed of blacks.  What might the reaction be? Might it be unwise to go?

They checked with Norah. Norah assured them that everyone would know that they were connected to the minister and his wife. There would be no risk. No need to worry. So they went.

I don’t remember Mother telling about the service. It’s not that that stuck in her mind. It was the fear and the uncertainty that she felt about going. It was April 1968. There were other protests throughout the country. At Kent State University, students had been killed during a demonstration. She felt vulnerable and unprotected.

She and Norah corresponded for twenty years and then the letters from Norah stopped. I remember her very sadly saying to me one day, “The worst thing about getting old is that your friends disappear and you never know what happened to them.” Norah was one of those. Probably no one in her family knew she corresponded annually to my mother and wouldn’t think, even so, to send a note of her death. Certainly, if she had been put in a retirement home in ill health, nothing would have been sent at all. There was a stigma to that. One did not easily send bad news to almost strangers to the family.

And so it went. I found other letters but I didn’t have time to read them. As it is, I’ve reduced two full boxes to one and I’m happy about that. I’ll be shredding and recycling the paper from them for the next few days. There’s quite a pile of it.

I’ll read the kept letters later with a bit more leisure. Right now I’m trying to find space and visual tranquility in my office and writing space. So, onwards and upwards, it’s time for coffee and a bit of a Klatch with Whistler.

I’ll get out another box to sort while I’m at it.

Whistler and I go walk-about

September 20, 2008

If you haven’t read the previous post, you might want to read it first.

Whistler and I are living in harmony while Whistler is still waiting for his specialist appointment.

As Favoured Auntie of the moment (after all, I’m putting him up, aren’t I?), I’m trying to keep Whistler busy, not thinking of his medical troubles. When I went to the gym the other day, he accompanied me, just to get out of the house. Not that he was into the treadmill thing nor the reclining bike.

He took the opportunity to walk to the bank and then to the walk-in clinic. There he made in-person inquiries as to the status of his appointment with the specialist.

“It’s on our posting board. We’ll call and see if we can get one for you,” smarmed the receptionist.

“It’s been a week since the doctor determined I needed one!” he almost wailed, voice raising.

“We make our specialist appointments on Mondays if there’s nothing urgent,” declared the young women.

To Whistler, it seemed that she didn’t care a whit. Of course, she had no idea how desperate he was beginning to feel, not knowing what was the matter with him

During the week gone by,  Heather had been speaking openly amongst her friends in Sechelt as to Whistler’s case. The minister from the church confessed that he had had the same problem and that he knew of four other men with the same condition – all had turned out to be cancerous. Of course, Heather had passed this information on to Whistler. Now armed with his conviction that this was his fate as well, he tackled the nonchalant receptionist.

“Good grief! he exploded. “I’m being assessed for cancer and you sit on making the appointment!”

The girl did not change her demeanor, but she was paying attention none the less. She couldn’t afford a crisis in the reception area.

Whistler is normally a mild mannered young man. It takes quite a bit of passion to get him to be assertive. He defers to many; but this wasn’t one of those occasions. He caused a fuss (so unlike him) and he left the clinic, adrenaline pumping, with a promise that the specialist would be contacted within the three hours left in the work day.

Next day, he was back up at the clinic asking for status; and then the weekend came in between and there was no point in checking.

Heather, in one of her phone calls from Sechelt said,, “Don’t they know how agonizing it is to wait when you are sick and don’t know what it is; nor how sickening it is to wait while you know something is worsening and they don’t do anything?”

Monday came. Whistler heard from the specialist that he had an appointment on the thirtieth, two weeks away, but he still hadn’t heard from the doctor nor from the clinic’s receptionist.

And so Favoured Auntie is trying to keep Whistler amused. Distracted.

On Saturday, we went to the Haney Farmer’s Market. It was Sunflower day and the contest for the tallest sunflower was on. There were about ten giants lying on the ground, their shallow roots dripping dusty dirt, their glorious and sometimes misshapen heads burgeoning with seeds. They were the kind of plants that would have made Jack and the Beanstalk believable to young children.

We didn’t stay for the judging. The tallest one there by the time we left was over thirteen feet!

“Twice my height!” I remarked to Whistler. “Twice MY height” he replied. He’s a good seven or eight inches taller than I am.

We bought some Artisan Foccacia bread, top sprinkled with sea salt and rosemary; some farm fresh tomatoes; did the tour of the craft products – bead stringers, jam makers, soap producers et al –  but I could see that he was losing interest. We went to the produce market and picked up some fresh fruits and vegetables; we went to three garage sales on the way home and then he was tired and slept the afternoon away.

On Sunday, he showed me how to use the pressure washer that I’d bought and never opened. It wasn’t rocket science. He offered to powerwash the peeling paint from the front steps that needed paintingbefore the snow flew, and I left him to it.  It kept him busy. He had a date on Sunday, too, with a long time friend from college. He drove to Burnaby to meet her and they had coffee that they took down to the beach. It was a fine, sunny day, just like the summer we almost missed out on this year. (We had only two weeks of really hot, sunny weather).

On Monday he primed the stairs and on Tuesday he painted them. We’d also gone out to select a colour of paint and done some banking for me and a trip to the post office. At the end of each activity, he was tired. Not so tired as required sleep, but that lethargic “I-can’t-hold-myself-up-any-longer” kind of bone weariness where one needs to stretch out on a bed or a divan and let all the muscles sink into the sofa cushions.

On Wednesday, he still had not  heard from his doctor’s office that he had an appointment, although he was feeling much better to know that the number of days to the thirtieth were diminishing day by day. He phoned each day to see if there were cancellations; but, no.

On Thursday, the sun was behind clouds. A more dismal day I had not seen for a long time. It was grey – a deep depressing grey that pervaded the house. It was better outside. Still twenty degrees out, despite the gloom, it was a perfect day for gardening. I was out in the garden digging up a bed that I would like to use for vegetables next year. At some time, someone had filled it with excellent quality top soil. Things that I’ve planted therein have flourished.

Whistler came out at  about eleven o’clock, just breakfasted, looking for something to do. He fixed some hooks to the fence so that I could tie up the raspberries. He mixed some grass seed with sand in a large container to let it germinate (which is a great way to keep the local denizens of the garden from eating all the seed and becoming permanent pests).  He pulled out the overgrowth of Lamia so that I could dig out the next bed. He helped me transplant some big plants from one place to another (as I slowly sort out this big garden to my tastes).  There’s a fine line between providing him with things to do and overtaxing him. It’s the last thing I want to do. It wasn’t long before he was going in for another couch hug.

We did a second day of gardening on Friday with similar progress. He lasted about an hour or so and then went back to his Ken Follet thriller whilst listening to the television.

And there it rests.

We visited Mr. and Mrs. Stepforth in the evening for a cup of tea and a lot of chuckles. They are a great pair for lifting the spirits. Nothing is sacred and everything is fair game for a dig and lampoon. We laughed and sipped our tea and then came home.

We watched Numb3rs on the television until it was time for bed, and the rest is another story.

Coming home

April 19, 2008

Heather sent a package down with her husband when he came to Vancouver for a doctor specialists appointment. He was going to stay with Kay until the medical appointments were over.

“Mailman!” he cried out as he came in the door, a mischievous look on his face. He extended a large Kraft envelope to Kay. She, perplexed, tilted her head and lifted a brow questioningly.

“It’s Saturday. There’s no mail today. What is this?” she asked.

“Remember Mom’s dresser that you gave us? When we were lifting it up the stairs to put it in the spare bedroom, we had to take the drawers out. It was too heavy. When we did that, this mail dropped out from the above on the top drawer. I don’t know how it happened but it was stuck up there.”

“Hmmph!” Kay laughed and shook her head, as the import of it all fell into place.

Nonnie-Mom had become paranoid. She had wanted to hide the mail in case the boys saw it and got nosy. She had become fearful that they might know how much money she had; she became fearful that they might do her in because she had seen on television a case, right close to the Vancouver area where two teens had engineered a murder of their parents so that they could get the insurance money and the inheritance. How she could have suspected this of her two lovely grandsons who were living in our house and did so much for her comfort, I don’t know. It was just an aging thing that couldn’t be helped nor assuaged.

The other thing she had become paranoid about, for the same reason, was Hugh and his kitchen knives. He had worked in a major up-scale restaurant to earn his University money. One of his tasks in the restaurant was food prep – cutting up all the vegetables for the day in an efficient manner. To do this, he needed a sharp knife and since he was now cooking many of the family meals at dinner and preparing fresh lunches for Nonnie-Mom while everyone else was away working, he had bought himself an professional cook’s knife for his home cuisine.

The yellow-handled knife was large and very pointy at the end. He sharpened it daily with an old whetstone that his grandfather had used for the turkey-carving knife. He kept in a knife guard when it wasn’t out from his work. He treated it like a knight in armour would have cared for his parade sword. Nonnie was daily hiding this knife from view and dinner prep always entailed looking for the knife.

And so Nonnie-Mom raced to the door as fast as her walker would go to scoop the mail, sort it out, leave the boys’ mail there at the door and go, hers and my mail in her walker basket, to her room to hide it. She had several hiding places. One was under her pillow; another, in a shoe box in her cupboard; a third in this dresser drawer, underneath her scarves.

When she suspected that the boys might know about one of her hiding places, she would shift the mail to a new hiding place – a rotational exercise, since there weren’t really enough places to hide it in. In truth, she was very good about giving the mail to Kay on a daily basis. She would sit in her walker at the door at four o’clock waiting for Kay to get home. Closer to five, she would open the main door, lock the screen door and park there, looking out the glass and mesh to wait for Kay.

Kay had mixed feelings. The welcome was wonderful and this devoted show of missing Kay told her how much her mother had come to depend on her, in a loving kind of way. She desperately wanted all of Kay’s company. Shut in as she was, cabin fever was a major enemy. On the other hand, for Kay, all her time was vacuumed up and disposed of like so much dust, looking after things that the old woman could not do for herself.

As Kay negotiated the six stairs up into the front door, Nonnie lifted herself from the walker seat, undid the latch on the door and swung it open a little for Kay to enter.

Nonnie’s eyes lit up, her face beamed a magnificent smile while she clapped her hands in joy. Her devoted daughter, her patient care giver had come home! It was another of her paranoias, that her precious Kay might not come home. Then who would look after her? Perhaps it was a realistic fear, not paranoia. What would she do?

“Nonnie, you have to move back,” Kay commanded. “I can’t get in if you don’t move back.” Kay, laden with her briefcase, some last minute groceries and her sack full of her daily requirements could not get in the narrow crack that had been allowed by her mother, once again blocking the door swing.

Nonnie kicked her feet along the carpet propelling herself back a foot and opened the door another bit. Kay squeezed in.

“Mom, when you park there, I can’t get in,” she chided, as she gave her mother a quick peck of a greeting and let her worldly baggage drop to the floor. Her mother’s gnarled hand caught her face between them. They were soft, silky and mottled pink but the bones and the veins stood out beneath the skin. It was a brief and lovely blessing.

“When will dinner be?” Nonnie asked. Kay, who often worked late, had been unable to meet the six o’clock deadline that her mother had religiously met throughout her active life. Kay sighed inwardly. She had hardly breached the castle walls and she was now supposed to magically produce a meal for five within a half hour.

“Come this way,” commanded her mother conspiratorially. When Kay asked her what it was about, her mother simply shook her head and lifted her index finger to her mouth in a sign for silence.

It was the mail. They had to go find the hidden mail before anything else was done.

And here was the mail, stuck in the framework of the dresser drawer, delivered six months late.

Kay took the items one by one, read their addresses, calculated if any harm had been done and shifted them to her free hand.

There was a Christmas card to Judith. Kay had not affixed a stamp and it had been returned. There was a Christmas card from Freedom 55, the life insurance company; an advertisement from the Municipal art gallery with a request for donation; there was a PAL membership renewal; a brochure for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives;a thank you Christmas greeting from the young musician whom Kay had supported with a scholarship; and an Opus Framing boxing sale advertising that had had ended six months earlier.

None of it was critical. There were no unpaid bills. There were no appointments missed. Nothing was harmed.

She looked straight into her new “Mailman’s” eyes and laughed a short chuckle. Behind her eyes, he could see the wordless endurance;the reluctant humour and the silent pain of loss. It had not diminished. She would forever see her mother waiting at the screen door for Kay to come home but Nonnie-mom would never be sitting there, blocking the door again.

Kay goes to the Gym 3

February 3, 2008

Pedal, pedal. Pedal, pedal. Pedal, pedal.

Pedal, pedal. Pedal, pedal. Pedal, pedal.

Pedal, pedal. Pedal, pedal. Pedal, pedal.

No need to count. The electronic counter was reporting on time spent, counting down from 25, second by second and slowly, ever so slowly counting ascending calories spent.

Kay regulated her rhythm on the reclining bicycle to the metronomic rhythm of a jogger running on the treadmill directly in front of her. There were three joggers running at much the same pace. Kay started to hum Bach’s fugue in G major which she was relearning at home. The timing was perfect, baroque in its regularity. Slap, slap, slap, slap… it continued on. Thirty minutes, these folks were doing. Slap, slap, slap, slap went the feet. Pedal, pedal, went Kay, round and round, left foot, right foot, and she started to think while the notes ran through her head. She was determined to do fifty calories or fifteen minutes, whichever came first.

If only her mother could see her now!

Every time that exercise was mentioned, Kay’s mother would quote an adage that she had appropriated from one of the vamp actresses of the twenties.

“When ever I get the urge to exercise, I go lie down on my bed until the feeling passes,” she would say with a mischievous smile. Mother had been a good athlete, a winner of foot races and high jumping events. Its deleterious effect upon her children was that they had little respect for sports and exercise.

Swimming was encouraged, but that was chiefly to ensure that the children would be prepared not to drown. There had been ballet lessons for a year or two. That had been considered much more appropriate for a cultured girl, but Kay had rebelled. Though she had dreamed of becoming a ballerina, had envied balletic agility and grace, she had felt like an awkward ugly duckling. There had been that disastrous parent’s night performance where Kay had lost her choreographic sense and done a boner.

While the ten other children danced to the left and then to the right, then twirled, Kay danced to the left and then to the right and then mistakenly sat down on the stage. The whole audience twittered then laughed out loud while shy Kay rapidly stumbled up, clumsily trying to fit back into the group of girls as the chortles continued. She was confused, horrified, ashamed and ran from the stage. That was the end of ballet classes.

Aside from mandatory high school Physical Education, Kay had never been in a gym except to watch games that other people were playing.

Forty years had passed by without a thought of exercise troubling her mind any more than it had seemed to trouble her mother’s. Year by year, she gained a pound or two or three or four. That pencil thin child of fifteen, at last freed of her baby fat, was obsessively concerned about her weight. She had turned into thirty year old, lovely and rounded; a forty year old slightly heavy, but attractively so; and a rotund fifty year old; and now she was sixty, broad in the beam, lightly jowled, heavy of arm, thick of thigh and she was peddling. She no longer recognized that girl in the mirror. “Where had she gone?” she wondered.

Pedal, pedal. Pedal, pedal.

The counter turned over a tick every left and right thrust she made. Slap, slap went the jogger just ahead.

“Neither of us is going anywhere”, mused Kay with a wry smile, but she conceded that it felt good.

As one jogger slowed then quit his treadmill and then another, leaving only a single jogger beating out the same tick-tock pace, Kay reflected that here was another similarity with Bach’s Fugue, with one voice after another disentangling as the fugue comes to its denouement.

There had been that first day on the machine where she poked the green Quick Start button and nothing happened. She placed her feet on the pedals and pressed the Quick Start button again. Again nothing happened.

“Excuse me, ” said the young woman, scarcely twenty and looking very trim if somewhat non-descript, “You have to pedal first and then you hit the Start button. The machines are difficult. You have to press it quite firmly.”

Kay started to push the resistant pedals and a light came on like an electronic advertisement. “Press Quick start to begin” it announced. She pressed it and red letters indicating 25 minutes starting to count down to zero came on.

“Oh Lord, it’s quandmeme simple!” she groaned to herself. “Thanks!” she said out loud to the young woman. Pedal, pedal, and the cycle worked like a charm.

That day, Kay had achieved a stellar four minutes of reclining bicycle without stopping. It was enough for the first day. Now she had been coming for four weeks and she had set herself a challenge. The last two weeks, she had achieved ten minutes of uninterrupted cycling. Today, she would do fifteen.

The worst part was the boredom. Pedal, pedal, pedal. It was not inspiring.

Pedal, pedal, pedal. Today she had brought a book, Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey and now she was multitasking – singing her Bach Fugue in G in her head, keeping pace, peddling to the jogger’s metronome and reading about this man’s time alone as a park ranger in the desert near Moab, Utah.

Kay read:

But for the time being, around my place at least, the air is untroubled and I became aware for the first time today of the immense silence in which I am lost. Not a silence so much as a great stillness – for there are a few sounds: the creak of some bird in a juniper tree, an eddy of wind which passes and fades like a sigh, the ticking of the watch on my wrist – slight noises which break the sensation of absolute silence but at the same time exaggerate my sense of the surrounding overwhelming peace. A suspension of time, a continuous present….

Pedal, pedal, pedal. Kay rode on, time disappearing as she read. It had not seemed so long with a good book to accompany her. She had immersed herself in the words, in the world of the desert, in Abbey’s escapade with a rattlesnake, and his friendship with a gopher snake who drove off the rattlers. Abbey is curious, visually perceptive, literarily descriptive and captivating.

Kay glanced at the numbers. She was at 50 calories and fourteen minutes and sixteen seconds. She’d made it!

She slowed her pace and completed her fifteen minutes, took her book back to the cubicle where she kept her outdoor shoes and her jacket and continued on to her circuit of other machines.

It was a good thing, Kay reflected as she went home an hour later, that she had lost her childlike inhibitions. She no longer cared if she was only one of three women in the gym. She was too old to be noticed. They young muscle men were interested in their own physiques; they weren’t interested in an old grandmotherly woman.

She no longer cared if they thought she was out of shape. She knew she was. How could she get back into shape if she didn’t do something about it? Kay totted up the family longevity and subtracted her current age. If she still had a good twenty plus years to go, she had better be in shape. Three recent falls had been the turning point. This hobbling with a cane business would only get worse if she didn’t fight it. And here was proof. She could do it.

In three weeks, she had gone from five minutes aerobic to fifteen. She smiled. It was better than lying on a bed and waiting for the feeling to pass.

The rag tag choir or The road to Hell

November 27, 2007

Do you remember, way back, that three elderly ladies full of vim and spirit came to visit my mother as she lay dying, to bring her comfort and friendship. The nurse had said that the last thing to go was a person’s hearing, and as we she was almost in a coma, we had nothing we could discuss with her. There was no conversation to be had.

And so it came about that my two sisters, Heather and Lizbet, and the three ladies decided to sing hymns that my mother was so fond of. We all knew them. They had been the stock of Sunday School and childhood. We were a little hazy, these many years after, on some of the words, but we found two hymnals in Mother’s room and that supported our valiant efforts to surround Mother with spiritual songs.

This Sunday, just yesterday, was the last Sunday of the Church calendar. I had not known that before. Advent at the beginning of December is also the beginning of the Church calendar, the beginning of Christ’s life. The week before that is, de facto, the end of the Church calendar and the souls from the congregation who have departed this earth are honoured in a special ceremony.
All my siblings were invited to come this service where one of the family members comes and lights a candle at the altar.

Heather and Lizbet live too far away to come for this service and Lizbet needed to be at work the next day, so they didn’t come. Otto had been committed to being Santa Claus at a festival and so, being double booked, so as to speak, on his calendar, he relegated the task to me. So it was that I represented the family at the church service,

I gathered a pocketful of handkerchiefs. I don’t do well at church services at the best of times and the last time I was at church with Heather in Sechelt, the benediction was “Go thou in peace”, the round that we sang at Mother’s bedside. I couldn’t stop the tears welling up and spilling over. If I was the only representative of the family, I didn’t want to do that again in front of a whole congregation.

I arrived early which was a miracle. I had left all my clothing ready the night before, set the alarm, and got up with an hour to get myself out of the house and on the road. It takes an hour at the best of times to come from my new home to our church in Burnaby. With only an hour to get there, I was still dawdling around the house. I looked at the time and bolted. But being Sunday, the traffic was sparse and there were no delays. My normal one hour and twenty drive took me only forty minutes today, for which I was very thankful. I would have been mortified to have been late.

When I got there, Louise, one of Mom’s favourite people, a friend from her University days and a member of the church, was just extracting herself from her car. She too was early. It was her turn to prepare the after-service coffee in the meeting rooms in the basement of the church.

She welcomed me with a hug and the broadest smile.
“I’m so glad you are here!” she exclaimed. “I was prepared to light the candle if no one came. We weren’t sure you were coming.” I rapidly searched in the back of my mind. Had I never acknowledged the invitation? Had acknowledged it and been wishy-washy about my acceptance? Had I said yes and been uncertain about the other three siblings?

“I’m here.” I stated firmly. “Sorry if I wasn’t clear about it. Did you find some things amongst the clothing I brought you?” I asked. When bringing out things for the Thrift Shop, I had retained two large green plastic bags of Mom’s favourite clothes for her friend Rose and for Louise.

” Yes! I can tell you, but don’t let on to anyone else. They won’t know. I’m wearing her suit today. You’ll see. You are the only one who will recognize it.”
I looked at her. She was wearing a red plaid suit; looking very smart in it, too. I didn’t recognize it. I could remember a plaid jacket but there was no skirt to it. Was my mind playing tricks on me?

Soon I was sitting in the front pew, waiting for the service to begin. I leafed through the bulletin with its order of service and its announcements. I read the list of souls being honoured.

“Oh, no! I gasped. There was Ethel’s name. She had passed away in September. September 18th, to be exact. That did it.

I tried to explain to the elderly person sitting beside me, but either she didn’t hear or she simply did not get the import of my words. Ethel. Rough, loud, and boisterous Ethel. Ethel full of fun and jokes. A party girl. Ethel, stricken with kidney failure, going for dialysis three times a week. Ethel, frustrated by her wheelchair. Ethel angry with her fate. Ethel who could belt out a hymn as if her audience was God and she had to reach him in the uppermost back row of Theatre under the Stars. Ethel was gone.

And where was I when she was dying? Where was I with my promises to visit? Where was I with my phone calls to keep in touch? I simply hadn’t, with all my other things going on, with my moving and arranging, with emptying out Mom’s house, and with all my visitors.

Tears welled up and I fished for my handkerchiefs. At least I’d thought to bring some.

I remembered Mom at Father’s memorial service. I was awash in tears of grief that I couldn’t stop. Every time I managed to control them, someone would speak to me and say something comforting and I would redissolve into tears. Why couldn’t they talk about the weather?

“Get a grip on yourself!” Mother said sharply. “It’s not appropriate to bring your tears in here.” It didn’t make a difference. I just went further away from her view and continued to cry.

And now, I was determined to face the congregation without tears. So I “bucked up” and dabbed the tears away. Poor Ethel.

I lit Mother’s candle and sat back in my pew. The service rattled on about rejoicing and renewal. We sang a few hymns, contributed our collections, rose and sat back down again accordingly. The Benediction was one I did not know and I was thankful for it.

Afterwards, at the tea down in the meeting room, several friends of either Dad or Mom came and spoke to me. The flowers from the alter had been wrapped in a bouquet and presented to me and another woman who had come to light a candle. The men did not get bouquets.
Just before I left, I sought out Louise. There she was, dressed in what had been my mother’s black and white herring bone jacket and black skirt. She winked at me.

” Nobody knows,”‘ she said in something less than a whisper. “It fits perfectly. We were just the same size. Everything that you sent along – I’ve kept everything. We were friends from Engineer’s Wives as well as the church, you know. Having these things makes me feel close to her still. I think of her so often.”

“I thought you were in a red plaid suit?” I said, perplexed.

“Oh that was my coat” she replied. We talked a while then we hugged. I gave her rouged and powdered cheek a small kiss and I said my good-bye. While I was in town, I was going to go see Mom’s friends from the Residence, the faithful three, the rag-tag choir. I picked up a healthy lunch on the way – a good strong coffee and a thick slice of banana bread.

At the reception of the Residence, it was Emma on duty. She’s a sympathetic gal. I’ve always liked dealing with her. So I commiserated with her about Ethel.

“She went fast,” she told me. “She was at the hospital for dialysis and she went into a coma. She never came out of it.”

“Well, is little Ethel around?”

“Down there, playing Sunday Bingo.” She pointed to where I should be able to see her.

From forty feet away, I could see her precious, impish face concentrating on her Bingo card along with about thirty other residents. I’d just wait, I thought, until the Bingo was over and not take her away from one of her favorite pastimes.

“How about Dorothy, then? Is she in this afternoon or has she gone out with her daughter?”

“Too late. She’s gone.” she replied with a sad grimace. “She passed away two days ago. When she started to go downhill two weeks ago, she went really fast. Didn’t wait around, that one,” she said in commiseration.

Sookie, one of the care aids, brought me a cup of coffee and a peanut butter cookie while I waited for Little Ethel. It gave me time to think. Rambunctious Big Ethel and Dorothy. Both gone. It was a shock. Two out of three who had been there with Mom at the end, gone. Euphemistically, passed on. I hated that phrase. It seemed to gloss over a whole life as if it had never existed. I was truly sad. And I could hardly believe about Dorothy. She was the most vigorous of all three, the clearest of mind, out and about with her daughter and forever reconnecting with the yacht club and the tennis club for lunches and dinners. You could tell she had been authoritative in her life; she seemed as if she had commanded those around her with a surety of vision. She knew how thing should be and upheld them with pride and tenacity. She had a heart of gold. It was she who had given me hugs and pep talks to keep my spirits up when Mom was having her most difficult struggles.

And so it was with thankfulness that Bingo ended and I went to have afternoon tea with Little Ethel.

“Oh, it’s you!” she said joyously. “It’s so wonderful to see you. So wonderful to have a visitor.” She had not changed. She was sweet and happy like an aged fairy-imp. Her face lit up from inside; her head, wreathed in her soft white curls like a halo, nodded gently as she spoke.

I saw Ruth, not so far away and brought her to the table as well.

“Shall I go away so that you can visit?” asked Ethel, always so thoughtful of others.

“No, stay,” I said. I’ll just repeat all my news and give you a test afterwards.”

Ruth came to join us. She too was glowing with her joyfulness. They lifted my spirits; we said a few kind words about those who had gone; and then we enjoyed our little pear tarts and tea.

Old hurts and frustrations

November 8, 2007


Heather and her Dauntless Husband helped me tirelessly to vacate all the chattels from Mother’s house. I can’t complain, since without them, it would have taken me months instead of two weeks. Their support and sustenance was crucial to my sanity. And then they left.

In our haste, we didn’t sort things out. Boxes that I had emptied from my original move were reused for packing up Mother’s things, especially, for this missive, her files and papers from her study. It was thus that the ancient four-drawer standing file cabinet was emptied into boxes marked “kitchen” “studio” “General household” and “bedroom”. None matched their original contents.

We spent all day at the house, packing, arranging, loading DH’s truck and my car. Each evening, we would come back to my house, unload the vehicles, have a touch of dinner and go exhausted to bed. Then next day would begin again with an hour’s drive, eight hours of packing and arranging, the return drive in the dark or in rush hour, an hour or more of unpacking, then thankfully, a meal, and to bed.

Boxes were brought into the house and pile in higher piles, in more rooms until it was almost impossible to walk around the house without moving a box or a small piece of furniture, or scrambling over a pile of something. Not even the kitchen was exempt from this accumulation of goods.

On one hand I was happy to have them here so that I didn’t have to go to some storage place to try and find what I needed; so that I could work through them at my own pace. On the other hand, this chaotic visual wasteland that I now lived in was depressing to the extreme. Often I would stand, paralyzed by the chaos, mesmerized by brown cardboard boxes. Daunted. Immobilized.

In those two weeks, I let drop every other responsibility that I had. All the incoming mail piled up, was moved from location to location as another series of boxes arrived looking for a place to stay in my tinier and tinier house. The walls were pressing in. Things were getting lost.

I took refuge in a game of Freecell. It helped sometimes to free my mind and let it spin in neutral. A game is somewhat misleading. One game leads to another and I don’t stop until I lose a game; and then I play until I end with a winning hand, so as to speak. So this may mean ten or more individual games. A computer pop up announced “1 new mail in your local mail folder” and I stopped my mindless playing to see who had written.

“It is essential to obtain a vacant permit for a house once people have moved out. Please make sure the house is fully insured.” It was from Otto.

Otto and I were hardly speaking. Our communications had always been fraught with tension, but the Estate had crystallized our rapport into one of two sparring knights. I fashion myself as the White Knight standing up for Right and Reason. Unfortunately, he fashions himself for the same but is at opposite poles in my idea of Right and Reason. I don’t understand how he thinks. I can affirm however, that when things don’t go his way, I feel the brunt of his vindictiveness. I have a nasty letter to prove it wherein he calls me liar, cheat, cheapskate and thief, not quite so concisely. It may be some time before we can speak to each other more than ten words without becoming uncivil.

And so, rather than a happy distraction, his e-mail reminder was an untimely prod to do my duty, that very duty that I had been Freecellianly avoiding.

Ten days worth of in-coming boxes have been reduced to nine days worth of boxes in the interim. With my survival policy of “one foot in front of the other, one step at a time” I began opening each box, looking for the box with files that contained the house insurance policy file.

I began to panic. I couldn’t remember the name of the company. If it was the one I expected, then how did I contact them. I really needed the agent’s name and telephone number. I needed to find the file in the cardboard carton haystack. I needed to insure the vacant house.

That was last night.
There are now piles in my office that are separated out – books boxes in one pile; Family archives, old letters and photos in another pile; office and current files in a third. The Estate box of files and the “Have to do” box of files sit right beside my computer desk.

In the living room are the unopened files; the review and shred boxes of files; miscellaneous household goods; ancient clothing for the Historical Costume Society. On the long sofa, there is a box of goods for Otto, one for Heather and one for Lizbet.

By the stairwell downstairs are the boxes that will be flea marketed, or household goods that are to be kept but are seldom used – for the storage room. Paintings still are stacked throughout, waiting to go downstairs. Items for the Thrift go in a box by the back portch. Chairs are stacked in the dining room. I now have three dining tables and two sets of chairs for them. There is no room for Mother’s kitchen table – a really fine one. It’s resting outside under an overhang of the house waiting for DH to transport it to Lisbet.

There must be a better way of doing this. Did you never write to the insurers for Mother? Couldn’t you find a file on your computer that would give you the contact info?

I looked, but in the way of so many computer file searches, the was nothing to be found.

After another four hours this morning of opening boxes, determining its contents, resealing it or putting away said contents, lifting the boxes it to their new designated holding station I found the insurance file in a box at the bottom of the file. I had opened, categorized, labeled and moved more than 45 boxes.

And so I phoned, and so I arranged for the insurance to be amended to cover the vacant house.

“Just write us a letter. Tell us you are canceling the policy. Give the date that it became vacant. Tell us your new address. Have it signed by all the those named insured.”

My heart sunk. It couldn’t be changed until Otto agreed to sign it. I would have to talk to Otto. “How on earth did he get to be a named insured?” I grumbled to myself. Bile rose in my throat. “I should have dealt with it then.” I mentally whipped myself for my laxity, years earlier. Or I would not have been in this situation now.

Otto, who had come to live with Mother and I much against her will, had suffered financial reverses. He was homeless. While Mother and I were away, I on a much needed vacation overseas and Mother staying with Heather for that interim, Otto who was supposed to be caring for the place occasionally, moved in lock stock and barrel, carving out a place for himself, displacing Mother’s and my affairs. When I returned, it was already done. He was firmly ensconsed, all his possession stored in the house and garage, immovable.

With the fait accompli, Mother agreed to give him refuge. He took it for nine years at her expense.

When next the insurance came due, he asked for his computer to be added to the list as an additional premium. It cost twenty five dollars and he paid it. Weeks after the policy was completed and the company sent documents, I read them over, surprised to find that Otto was now a named insured! I phoned the agent to see how that had happened.

“Oh, he’s the son, isn’t he? He phoned up to say that he was phoning on her behalf that he was to be added and so we did. That’s right, isn’t it?”

There had been so much tension. What difference did it make anyway, I thought. For the sake of family harmony, I let it go; did not make a fuss; let it ride.

“Yes, I guess that’s alright” I answered with a silent sigh and a shake of the head.

But it wasn’t. And now…

And now, I could not cancel the policy without his permission!


November 7, 2007

“Read it to me from the beginning again” she commanded.

I sighed inwardly. The repetition was getting to me.

I write to you concerning the news that has reached us about 300 people that have allegedly been tortured by police in Namibia. I appeal to you for help. Many people were arrested and detained. They were accused of being involved with a political group (Capri Liberation Army). ”

She considered the words carefully, found a phrase to mull over and refine. After all, it was the Minister of Justice that she was writing to.

Legally blind, she could not type her own letters, though she practiced touch typing daily. It had become a way to spend time; a way to challenge herself. She only had to get one key off and everything got to be gobbledy-gook. ;ole tjos! (like this).

Sentence by sentence, she constructed the letter in her mind, always gracious, alway extremely polite. I marvelled at her ability to do so. I strained to keep my composure. It was so boring for me!

“How did I say that last line? Read it just one more time,” she directed me. It wasn’t just one more time. It was the fourth time and I knew I would be reading it out fifth, sixth, seventh time. I was impatient to be doing something else. I could not hasten the process by writing something I thought she would say. It was never refined like hers was.

“No, No!” she would object. Then she would say what she thought would be appropriate; I would type it just as fast and re read it to her. “Wait! Go back please. Read that to me again.” And I would start over. She had so little meaningful tasks that she could do that this was supremely important to her. I could not let her down.

I appeal to you to ensure that legal aid is provided for those in detention. Please find resources to provide this legal aid. We know they are guaranteed to a fair trial. Please use your power to find financial help for them.” she concluded, “I courteously make these requests and thank you for your attention to this letter.”

She never signed her full name. She said, “In some of these countries, they don’t take women’s opinions into account. If I want my letter to be heard, I can’t point out that I’m a woman writing.”

Now I have a file folder with her copies of letters, hundreds of letters that she wrote, pleading for humanity and kindness, for fairness and for legal rights. Each letter was courteous in the extreme. “They won’t listen if you aren’t polite; if you don’t treat them as if they are fair and just.”

She wrote to minor princes, to Heads of state, to Presidents and Premiers, to Ministers of Justice. Working alone at home, writing, like a dripping tap wears away the surface below it, so did her letters, accompanied by other members of Amnesty International, ceaselessly pleading for victims of dictatorial regimes.

I read through these letters worthy of a diplomat and marvel at her will to help people, her desire to bring comfort to the weary and the tortured; and justice to the mistakenly imprisoned.

She wrote these letters by herself until she was ninety and then with my assistance, still in her elegant, measured language, until she was ninety two. For her last Christmas, Alex Neve sent her a card, and she was thrilled that somewhere, through this, she had been able to make a difference.