Archive for the ‘compassion’ Category

Elusive dreams

January 8, 2013

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I awoke from a dream that ended up in a hut in Cambodia, with me hiding behind a curtain, desperately hoping an invading group of men would not see me. Before them, a group of women and children had passed along a nearby bridge, like lemmings migrating or fleeing perhaps. There had not been a sense of danger to the first but there was to the second.

The dream was far more complicated than that, but as waking comes, so our dreams and their accuracy disappear.

I was left with an uncomfortable feeling as I lay in the dark, conscious of the warmth and safety of my current condition, It was an unnamed anxiety that I left to unveil itself by lying still, soaking up the darkness, savoring the plummy feel of the warm sheets, the crispness of the cotton, the darkness of the room. Dawn had not yet broken.

I encouraged my mind to go into free fall, hoping that in a waking dream-state, I could recapture the meaning of the dream; but it became more elusive and my thoughts became more concrete, more tangible, but drawn from my personal miasma of memory, not the from the dream.

I cannot say how I made the various connections that landed me in the domain of my past loves, past affairs and other intimate but not-so-pleasant relationships. Quickly, I was sombering into disastrous affairs from so long ago and briefly feeling the hurt and bewilderment of them again.

Why did my brain still store up these negative events, unwise decisions and embarassing moments in time? Do we remember everything we have ever done; these peccadillos sitting there somewhere deep in the chasm of memory just waiting for the trigger that will release them from the subconscious bog to the troubled surface of consciousness? Do we not all make mistakes as a part of growing up and finding our way? They are over and done with. Why to they reassert themselves?

If I did not want to spend the rest of the day beating myself up for things from a distant past, I had to flee this self-indulgent reverie-gone-wrong, so I covered my head with the blankets to block out the coming light and switched on the bedside lamp. Slowly I lifted the covers to adjust my eyes to the brittle light of day.

As I watch a dear friend suffering with depression struggle with her thoughts she cannot lay to rest I liken my fleeting struggle with hers, all the while questioning how some can escape the debilitating battle locked up in our minds and how others are drawn back into a miasmic bog they cannot escape.

Fifteen minutes into this written “capture” of my dream-wakening, the details are slithering away like a disturbed nest of wood spiders running for a bolt hole. I have sent the negative thoughts back to the bottom. I’m analyzing in a purely rational way. I’ve locked out the baddies.

How did I learn to do that? Why can some do it and others not?

Like everyone, I have made mistakes in my life that I cannot undo, cannot even atone for. I even know that, in aging,  I have not necessarily learned my lessons from them. I can still, and do still, fall back into them from time to time but with a bit more success in managing outcomes. Maybe.

It makes me more humble in dealing with my friends with troubles. I’m a wayfarer with them, not a judge, as I listen to their tales. I’m more compassionate, less critical, more empathetic.

Day has broken. Outside the window, seagulls squawk and chatter, seals come up for air after a search for breakfast, the blue heron stands stalk still waiting for fish to wash up with the incoming tide, the eagle sits glaring down from its pine tree perch. A high tide laps persistently at the gravelly winter shore. Life goes on.

I’m headed downstairs for my first cup of coffee.

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Troubles in Paradise

October 21, 2012

I am responding to former Councillor Sandy Macdougall’s reflections on the Salvation Army’s current usefulness in the Maple Ridge. I’m sure we have many common concerns about our community and the welfare of its citizens with our friends and neighbours. We want safe, clean streets. We want to care for our needy neighbours and to protect our seniors. We want a healthy population and we expect that if we need to go to the hospital to get treatment it will be available.

We don’t want homelessness and we don’t want crime. We care about whether people have food in their bellies and a warm dry place to sleep at night.

I never used to worry much about how we did this. It was up to the politicians because we paid our taxes. It was a service our parents fought for to make Canada a more humane country. We have strong social ideals to take care of this sick, the elderly and those with disabilities. That is what a humane Canadian society does, or we would hope so.
But our dreams of a good society are slipping seriously and I am very concerned about it.

Mr. Macdougall’s position is that we need to run the Salvation Army out of town because an unsightly and uncontrolled element of society hangs about the Caring Place doing things no respectable citizen would do. Move the facility out of town, out of sight, out of mind.

In discussing this with a friend, he said, “It’s like saying, let’s get rid of the emergency ward at the hospital, then we won’t have any emergencies. Or, let’s get rid of the police and then we won’t have any crime.”

Normally, I wouldn’t go public with my opinions. But in the last few years, I’ve found that conducting one’s life in this society has become much more precarious. It didn’t affect me until I saw some of my friends teetering on the slippery slope of welfare, homelessness and destitution. It hits home when the people we are talking about are people you know personally. Hardworking people from the middle and upper middle – former teachers, psychologists, information technologists, health care technicians, to name a few whom I will tell you about.

Don’t think that these are bad people who should have saved for their retirement and it’s their own fault. Within my own circle of acquaintance, there was a man with a serious heart condition who lived in his van summer and winter, and could still work occasionally in his computer repair and support business to eke out his meager income. He had been a high earning Information Technologist with a wife and two kids. When the marriage split, he was still supporting his family. It didn’t leave him with much. When he had a heart attack, he was no longer earning,then his savings melted away. Few knew of his circumstances as he appeared like a gentleman when he attended all sorts of free events around town so that he could still feel somewhat normal and intelligent while he kept himself warm. Days were spent in the library. While he was mobile, he could visit Leisure centres for a nominal fee and get a shower and keep clean.

Alice, a close friend, has moved three times in the last three years as her income stays the same but her rent goes up. She has no savings after caring for her husband and his kids during a battle with cancer. She spent her life working full time at a decent job, giving to the community and caring for lost youths and fighting for social justice. She was honoured by Oprah for this. She still volunteers and is an active member of the community.

But this same person was refused treatment in our medical system for what she thought was follow up to elective surgery she hadn’t been able to get in Canada. BC Med wouldn’t cover the treatment she needed and she had to go to the States to get a baric scan. It turned out her problem wasn’t what she thought; it was nothing to do with it. It was far more serious. The delay almost cost her life. What she had to pay to go for the US investigative treatment she had to borrow. She doesn’t have enough income to provide for this herself. Each end of the month, she subsists on cereal.

Another friend is on a disability pension, has been for ten years. A psychologist by profession, his disabling illness has reduced him to a life of subsistence. Two heart attacks followed. He’s completely unable to earn his living. But he lives in dignity, studying and researching each day. Like my first example, he makes use of the library for a place to go for warmth and a semblance of normalcy. Up until last year, he spent time volunteering as much as he could at various charitable places around town. He lives within his meager income, proudly independent, asking nothing of anyone. He’s had to stand in line in the food bank though his energy has completely waned with his medical illness. This spring, one month after his last open heart surgery, his landlord decided to renovate. He was ordered to vacate. It was impossible to find something he could afford and he became homeless for two months. Imagine that, readers. How would you cope? Now, how would you cope, one month after open heart surger? It was only with strong advocacy from a friend that he finally found a stable roof over his head. Otherwise he would have died. But you wouldn’t have heard about it. We don’t report homeless people’s deaths.

My close friend whom I shall call Alice divorced three years ago from a destructive marriage. She was left with a small bank account for emergencies. As a senior, her income is low and is boosted by SAFER which allows her a decent small apartment, but the rent is going up and she won’t be able to afford it much longer. Her income is not going up. She’s not there yet, but she is looking at the edge of the slippery slope and is fearful of the days ahead. There are pitiful few low-cost housing places in Maple Ridge or in the Lower Mainland, for that matter.

Alice was a school teacher for twenty years of her life until she fell ill with cancer and was not able to work after that. She has been head of several volunteer committees in town. She still volunteers regularly. She is a thoughtful and important member of the community, living within subsistence means that you will not notice because she is  proud. Thank goodness for thrift shops like the Salvation Army and several other charities run. Normal stores are, in the main, beyond her means.

The story of Maria is equally frightening. Maria is an immigrant and writer and deeply religious. She came with her family twenty years ago with husband and two boys who just recently reached majority. It was an abusive marriage. Now that the boys have left home,  she has been able to escape, but she has no income but welfare and she sleeps at night at the Salvation Army Caring Place. There is nothing permanent about it. She bought a cell phone and she tries to get any work she can get. It’s mostly cleaning but she is new and has very few people who will trust her since she’s not got a “proper” place to live.

I’m telling you these things because they are just a few of the people whose stories I know. There are so many more in our society, in your acquaintance, who are proudly carrying on as best they can in fear of desolation, trying to keep the shreds of their dignity.

I can tell you that in trying to help my friends I found out that at least one third of the 17,000 people who are homeless in this Province, are there because the social system has pushed them there through indifference and lack of resources. For any of these precarious souls, if they lack concentration as many of the mentally disadvantaged or the sick and elderly do, then they can’t respond to the welfare system that is full of Catch-22 type rules.

The Province has cut back its services dramatically year by year. The homeless don’t complain and they don’t vote. When they do (the Occupy movement) they can be moved on by the police. As individuals, they have no voice. They are brushed aside because they are poor.

When a member of this disenfranchised group loses their housing, they also lose their “shelter” portion. If they have a place to live, usually they will have a place to store food and a place to cook or warm up meals. But when they lose the shelter portion, they are not only out on the streets, but they have no place to make an economical meal nor do they have the means to eat out. They have no place to go to the bathroom. They are chased from stores and malls. I remind you as you start to think “druggies, alcohol, nut cases that want to be independent” that it could be someone with a disability not savvy enough to deal with the system or a senior  making a choice to

to eat rather than pay rent.

We don’t want to see what is happening to our society. We want to push it somewhere where we can’t see it.  We’ve carved out fine lives for ourselves through our own efforts. We don’t see that we could be next. With a society on the brink of debt crisis, yes, it could be you, a friend or a relative.

I agree with Sandy Macdougall that we as a community need to do something about the situation surrounding the Salvation Army, but I disagree that we need to remove them from their location.

We need to tackle the root of the problem, not the symptoms, and we need to tell our governments, both local and Provincial, in no uncertain terms that we need to restore support for our disadvantaged citizens.

I would like to honour the District of Maple Ridge and the Province for the creation of Alouette Heights on 222nd Street. It provides 122 places for people trying to get back into mainstream society. But it’s not enough. It hardly touches the surface of the problem. All the residents have to move out within 18 months, but where will they go? There is little decent, affordable, permanent housing for them to go to. Just try to get independent living accommodation for $450 in this town. You have to wait until someone dies before something comes available.

I say decent, affordable and permanent housing because these low income citizens can’t afford to move when their rent goes up. “Affordable” is necessary because already, they haven’t sufficient to feed themselves properly. “Permanent, because we all know it’s expensive to move and it’s critically so when you have no money for food. “Decent” because a high proportion of the homeless are in fragile health and need clean, mold-free, safe homes.

So if we are to diminish the need for the services (and therefore the number of “customers”) the Salvation Army provides for, what needs to be done?

First, let your government know that dealing with homelessness and low cost housing is a priority. Phone. Write letters. Demonstrate. Our complacency in view of daily newspaper reports concerning the severity of the homelessness problem simply allows governments to ignore the situation.

If people can afford to be lodged, then they don’t need the shelter. If they have sufficient money to feed themselves, they don’t need the food services. So, upping pensions for seniors and those with disabilities to allow decent accommodations plus food is critical.

Thirdly, provide new low rent apartments with basic accommodation. Requiring one or two low rent units in new developments would help diminish the concentration aspect that concerns Macdougall.  The Alouette Heights-model of building with compact, no frills apartments is another good model, but ones that allow you to stay in dignity until you die. Allow more self-contained legal suites in homes that must rent for a third of an individual’s income.

Jessie

February 22, 2012

Whistler phoned at four o’clock.

I looked at the call display and almost didn’t answer. I no longer picked up any out-of-province number, the latest political leadership race having inundated the social media – e-mail, twitter, Facebook, Linked-in and telephone, to name only the ones I am connected to. This one was a 250-200 number and, though there was something familiar about the last four digits the description which said, “unknown BC resident”, I was wary of another recorded laudatory tape from the nine candidates for party leader.

“Hello?” I said, with misgiving, waiting for the silence and the click over to recorded message.

“Hello000, Auntie? It’s your perpatetic nephew, Whistler.”

“Whistler!” I replied with joy. “Where are you?”

“I’m with Jessie, here in Delta.”

“Oohh! Is Jessie home?”

“Yup. And I’m here helping her.
“How is she?” I asked, greedy for news. “Let me speak with her when we’re done.”

“We’re going to do something different, Auntie, if you can find time for us. We’re both going to come out to visit you. We’ve got today or tomorrow. Lunch. Dinner. Just an hour or  two for coffee. Whatever you can do. You can catch up with Jessie then.”

At that moment,  Wednesday was looking impossible. I was trying to get into Vancouver for a number of different reasons.

“Come out for dinner tonight. I’ll get a reservation. How about six?”

“How about between six and six-thirty?”

“Alright. See you then.”

I rung off. Carol who was helping organize my study said, “Who was that?”

“My nephew, Whistler.He’s in town from up-country. Visiting Jessie who’s just back from Ireland. Europe, really. She’s been traveling around.They are friends.”

In the back of my mind, I was thinking, why doesn’t he marry her?, as I turned from our task at hand to make a reservation at a lovely Italian restaurant, fireplace, table linens and all.

It was moments later as I was lifting a box from the top shelf of the wall unit that my head began to spin.

“Sorry, Carol.” I wavered, “I just can’t do this. It’s foolish for me to be up on this ladder. I’m getting dizzy. Can you?”

As Carol handed me down the storage boxes we were marking for future retrieval, my head began to spin even more.

“I have to lie down for a minute,” I said, and Carol continued on with a different task , scanning the ancient photos into the computer. I wrapped up in the sofa blanket and covered my eyes with a face cloth to block out the light. A slight nausea defined itself. The headache I had denied at the doctor’s office at noon had found it’s way behind my left eyebrow.

“What is it?” Carol asked. “What’s wrong?” I’d been perfectly fine when she arrived. The onset of the vertigo had been sudden.

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s the antibiotic. I don’t take much medicine. My body sometimes reacts strongly to new medicines. It says to take after a meal. Maybe it didn’t recognize my afternoon snack as a meal and it didn’t buffer enough. Just give me a little time. I’ll be alright.”

But as I sat under the blanket gathering myself back into a state of wellness, my mind kept thinking what to do. It wasn’t too late to cancel but, by God, I so delighted in their company that I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. But the gnawing head and slight nausea had taken away  my appetite. It was no night for a glass of wine, table linens and an upscale dinner for me. Much better a small restaurant, or maybe even take-out. That decision could be made when they arrived.

Carol left at five thirty. I was up again and feeling tolerable.I went to change and was upstairs when the doorbell rang, wouldn’t you know.

“Hey, Auntie!” cried Whistler. “Hey, Kay,” added Jessie, their smiles from ear to ear. What I loved about these two was that they could be serious, but they always carried joy with them. Every sad recounting  was filled with jokes or rueful laughter, and the good times were filled with stories and happiness.

“Don’t bother taking your shoes off. We’re going to dinner. How’s Chinese? My car or yours. I know where I’m going.”

We took my car and parked just beside Tim Horton’s.  I’ve just discovered The Happy Kitchen this past two weeks. Their food is glorious Chinese cooking, with fresh vegetables cooked to perfection – just a little crunch to them. Nothing soggy.

“Well, how about the house?” I ask, eager for news.

Jessie is the co-executor for her mom’s estate, a thing we had in common. Her sister, the other “co”  was decidedly unhelpful, uncooperative. I didn’t dare express my feelings until I knew where she was going. It wasn’t my decision, but I hoped she would make the right one.

Jessie is one of those ebullient beings who talks constantly, always has a circuitous tale to tell. She had other things in mind besides answering my question directly. It all depended on a thousand detail which had to be brought to bear, before I could deserve the answer.

“When I got home, I knew everything would not be the same. But I had no idea,” she started. “Melanie drops everything wherever she last used it. Nothing had been put away for six months. Carlos is coming to visit for his holidays. He’s a bit of a neat freak. Even though I’ve warned him, I can’t let him see this.  He’d turn his back and run away! And you know I ask Melanie to clean up after herself, but she never does.”
“I know I’m part of the problem. I am trying my best not to do for her the things she is responsible for. Now instead of picking up and sorting out her things, I just dump them in her room and close the door. I’m concentrating on the common rooms. I was so proud of myself. I got one of those blue-green stains in the bathtub downstairs completely removed – you know, where the tap drips. I was so happy about that. It’s the guest bathroom and is hardly ever used, so it rarely got cleaned. It must have been twenty years since that blue stain has been there. When I showed it to her, Mel said, “Wow, it’s looking really clean. That’s great Jessie.  I guess I should go clean my room up!” She never even thought about helping me with the common areas. And you know, I’ve been away for six months. It’s all her mess in the common areas.”

As Jessie served herself more crispy noodles and green beans with cashews, I caught my chance to say a word. Whistler, by the way, says nothing. Chuckles when appropriate. Smiles, if amused. Shrugs his shoulders or nods his head from time to time. You can tell he is listening, but he’s not talking.

“So what does this mean, about the house? I don’t think Melanie is going to change, do you?”

It was twenty minutes later that she confessed that she didn’t think she could live with her sister. They would have to sell this inherited house, the family home she had grown up in. But where would she come back to if she didn’t have a house? How would she get into the housing market if she didn’t  already have one that would keep pace with the vagaries of Real Estate?

“Do you know where you are going to be working? Or staying?”

Jessie’s new boyfriend was Spanish. Working in Ireland – an IT engineer. Headhunted from Spain. He had everything laid out for him before he arrived – a visa of long duration, an apartment furnished in IKEA modern. But Jessie had outstayed her student work exchange visa, gone traveling, activated a tourist visa and then it too had run out. She had to depart before the last day or it would be impossible for her to get back in. She could stay with him, but she would have to leave again. She couldn’t speak Spanish, but she would have to learn. They hadn’t explored the possibility of Canada yet.”

“So what’s his last name? Where does he come from? What do his parents do? ” Kay asked, laughing. “I’m sounding like my mother. But who is he? ”

“Hah! You are just like my mother. Asking questions.”

“Someone has to do it. And I learned from my mother really well. I hated it. But now I know how to say, “Don’t they have a last name?” really well. Whistler joined in the laughter. My questions were serious, but our collective friendship was so open that we could make fun of the stifling traditions we came from and still dig down into the important things.  We didn’t hold back. She wasn’t offended, rather, she said, “Now that Mom’s gone, it’s really comforting to be able to hear you say what she would have asked me. It really helps me think things through.”

It reminded me of the first time Whistler had come to  live with his grandmother, my mom, while he was going to university. We were raking leaves in the back yard together and I explained some family dynamic to him in all it’s gory detail, along with my analysis of what the outcome would be. I heard back from my sister, his mom, shortly after. “He said to me, a bit incredulously,  “Y’know Mom, she talked to me like I was an adult! Just like I was another person, not just a young kid who couldn’t understand. Why doesn’t everyone do that?”

I had hated being “protected” from the evils of ours and everyone else’s dysfunctional families. I had seen things with my eyes, only to be lied to. It was the only way to describe it. Lied to. Covered up. Euphimized. Obscufated.  To the point where I questioned my sanity. Only to find out much later that I wasn’t wrong. Only, the neighbours, the work place, the world, should not know that these things had occurred or our family, or their families, would be shamed, shunned, talked about, scorned.

I had felt that honesty and clear vision was better. If you knew about a problem and shared it, how much experience could be brought to your assistance from others who had already been there, coped or not coped, learned valuable lessons. Besides, many of the problems were not that drastic. But if you kept them as subterraneous motifs in a family, problems worsened, created a certain madness that crept into daily decisions, actions. I never shied the truth with Whistler.

We were back at my home now, getting an after-dinner coffee.

Jessie continued:

“We  visited his parents at Christmas. They’re really nice. He makes things out of iron in a shop that has been there forever. All of his life and the generation before him.Decorative things. Useful things. He’s an artist, really. I guess that’s what he is. An artist. Beautiful things. You’d love it. And they are so nice. You wouldn’t believe. But it was so stressful. Carlos didn’t understand why it would be stressful, but it was, like, I was meeting his parents and that would have been stressful in itself, but I couldn’t speak to them. Everything was said in Spanish. They said they were too old to learn English.”

As she continued on in her stream of narrative, I had a second narrative coursing in the back of my mind.

Jessie could have been my child. I had been shocked, just after her mother’s death from a massive heart attack, that her mother was only sixty four. It was my age. How would I have brought up a child? I had none of my own. I had brought up my brother’s boys for a short period of time – five of the teenage years. I had succeeded with one and less-so with the other. I had spoken the truth from my viewpoint with them as well. No secrets. I remember saying to each one of them as they stepped out into an independent activity, a first-time adult activity, that they could always tell me anything. I’d been there. I had faced tough decisions myself. Failed at things and gotten back up on my feet and carried on. They couldn’t shock me. I had been a hippie. I’d done drugs and thankfully escaped the consequences. And don’t go there. The drugs are a million times worse now. I hadn’t touched them for more than thirty years. Not even the so-called soft ones. Had loved and lost in anguish. Had moved forward after  a lot of soul searching. I had loved deeply and lost. I’d lived through the pain and survived to the other side of it. I had had sex before marriage, believe it or not,  and they couldn’t shock me there either. If they had a problem, we could discuss it. I wasn’t going to go ballistic on them. Of course, I found out that the world has changed. They could shock me and they did. But it didn’t stop the plain speaking or the ability to discuss it with them.

And now here was a blessing for me, indeed. I had a friend of that same kind of openness that I desired; and she was thirty years younger, and still able to talk to me just like a friend. But she was the daughter I would have liked to have had. Fearless in greeting the world. Adventurous in her travels. Savvy after several years working outside Canada, vacationing in between in exotic places half way around the world. It’s not to say she hadn’t had sad moments or moments of reflection, but she carried joy with her.

“I couldn’t go back to Ireland. You can only have three months a year as a visitor. I’d had thoughts of going to China, but the Lonely Planet says a woman definitely shouldn’t go alone. She could be kidnapped. It wasn’t safe. So I went to Prague. I loved it. I stayed in a hostel and had a great time. I met wonderful people. I shouldn’t have been lonely, but I realized I had been moving around too much. It was time to come home.”  Jessie peppered this with recountings of people she had met. She lapsed into an Irish accent as she described a Trinity College student who insisted on walking her home after a night at the pub there in Prague.

“He had rings in his nose and studding his ears. He had punk boots and belt.’ She stopped a moment and fixed me in the eye. “Do you know how crazily difficult it is to get into Trinity?” I did.

“I looked at him,” she continued, laughing, “and said to him that he was the most unlikely looking young man for such chivalry.He replied to me that he couldn’t help it.His Mam had instilled manners into him and there was nothing for it. I accepted his offer, of course. He danced around me as we were walking to make sure he was always walking on the outer side of the side walk. Heavens! Men in Canada don’t even know they are supposed to do that; that it’s a time-honoured rule!”

“And so are you going to marry him?” I said, bringing her back to Carlos.

“He’s so nice,” she continued her peripatetic conversation, not willing to divulge the answer too quickly. “He’s so good for me. But we will have to wait and see. He still has to come here and see who I am on my own territory. I don’t know where I am going to work. We can’t live at long distance. Something has to be worked out. I could live in Northern Ireland because I have the right to a British long term visa as a daughter of an  Englishman. I could work there and travel down to Dublin on weekends, or he travel up to me.?

I could see everything was in flux. No point in adding my two cents. She was doing just fine at finding her way, making her decisions. Not foolishly jumping into an untenable situation. I was proud of her. I was thrilled really, to have her as my friend.

On parting, she promised to come out and visit me after Whistler had gone home. Whistler, in a rare moment of speech, said, “And what? Leave me out of all the details?”
“Oh Whistler, you get to know them from me when we talk by phone. You don’t miss anything. But I don’t see Jessie that often.”

“I know. I don’t say much . But I listen. There’s always something new that I find out in the retelling. I don’t want to miss anything. I’m like my father that way.” And it was true. He was.

Jessie looked at me sinking into the comfy chair in the living room as I faded. I had managed to keep up with their youthful energy for three hours but now I was hardly holding up and the big armchair was no longer making it possible.

“I think we should leave and give you some rest. To bed with you,” advises Jessie. I nodded. I hated to let them go, but I was no longer operative.

It took another half hour. More stories. Me with some apricot puree from the summer for them. The impossibly simple recipe. Her desire for children, and Carlos, but at her age, the biological clock ticking.

They went. I watched from the window in the front door and waved until the car turned out of the driveway. I could picture my mother doing the same. Glad to be able to sink into my very comfortable bed until the ills righted themselves; wistful at their departure; happy as can be at their visit and the news.

I’ve heard them  talk about why they wouldn’t marry, these two; so I’m very glad that they are such good friends. Lord bless them both, I hope they stay friends even if Jessie ends up living in Europe somewhere. She’s making good decisions. Her heart’s in the right place. And I hope they will always be a part of my life.

I

If you don’t, then I will …

November 30, 2010

The plate glass window gave no privacy. It was at ground level, looking out to the courtyard. Kay pulled the thick red drape across. She didn’t like the room and this made it worse. She would be a self-made prisoner of her hotel room. But it didn’t matter. It was only for two nights.

She selected a water bottle, some whole grain bars, a pen and note book, her map of Zurich and her camera and stuffed them into her black carry all, slung it over her shoulder and locked the door behind her. As she unlocked the tubular steel gate, she noticed a commotion on the road. Just in front of the cafe doors, a paddy wagon was loading a street person.

At least the police frequent the area,” Kay said wryly to herself, repeating “it’s only for two days” as a mantra. It was a small measure of comfort. She checked to her left and right. There was no reason why she shouldn’t cross, and she stepped out smartly towards the corner to head back to the station and then into town.

When she went past the circus area, she crossed the street to the other side to avoid a small knot of people. A drug deal was in progress. She hastened her step, consciously not looking, keeping to herself, passing between a police woman with arms crossed, waiting, and the midnight blue van with the circulating blue light. It wasn’t her business.

Soon she arrived at the canal and instead of heading to the station she followed the canal  into the old city where she sought a cafe. A hot steamy cup of European coffee would do much to restore her spirits.

The center of the city was filled with holiday-goers and upscale shoppers. There were quality stores for clothing and watches, for footwear and for financial dealings. There was little in sight for dining or cafe-people-watching. She walked along, alert to her surroundings, knowing she would have to find her way back to the hotel without the aid of Gretel’s white stones.

It was getting on in the afternoon, but the September sun wouldn’t set until after seven. She walked up to St. Peter’s church and was shooed out of it. It was too late.  She wandered down an adjoining street and found a place  filled with smartly dressed people where she found a small empty table and ordered coffee. At ground level, the store fronts were modernized and elegant. One story up, the stone carved window frames spoke of centuries gone by, with shutters wide open to let the least breeze in against the unseasonal heat.

It was, she decided, not really a pretty city. There was a greyness to it.  What was she doing here, she asked herself, wandering alone through less than exciting streets while her green luscious garden was growing back home? She didn’t like shopping at home and she didn’t like it when she was away. It was ridiculous to be window shopping day after day for something to do.

She had been traveling too long. She had no one to share her table; no one to share her meanderings through the street. Traveling with someone was much better, she concluded. But she would not waste the day, and she rose to tackle a few more streets in search of something interesting.

At six, she began to find her way home through streets that were ill marked. Finally she saw the station and knew she could orient herself from there.  By now, she was tired and putting one foot in front of the other with stubborn perseverance. It was time to find some dinner.
I’ll eat near the hotel.  I won’t be trying to  finding my way in a rough part of town in the dark.” She was determined to be home early, though in her effort to travel light she had brought very little to amuse herself for a whole evening in her miniscule hotel room.

When she came up Militarstrasse, she passed by the pizza place making a mental note that the men outside were swarthy and mafia-like. It would be a last choice, she thought.  At the corner, she poked her nose in the cafe, but it was dirty and the customers looked none too clean either. Outside the cafe, only men sat at the side walk cafe, but inside there were a few women. The proportion was about ten to one.  She would not eat here.

She passed by this establishment a few steps forward to the Irish Pub, but it had no windows to be able to see what it might offer.  As she came alongside it, she stopped to see the notice board. Strip dancing shows were continuous, a poster stated. The lovely ladies were displayed in black and white photos behind the glass encased notices. That was definitely not a place for dinner.

Across the street, another cafe offered it’s wares. The tables were rickety, covered with plastic tablecloths and the chairs were old and worn. It was six o’clock but there were only four men in it, drinking. A large television had a sports program running. The walls and the decor was all a muddied buttercup yellow making it look lurid. There was no evidence of food except for a soiled menu posted on the door.  Kay was uncomfortable about it and didn’t even come close to read it.  She continued on.

Beside the yellow cafe was a lingerie shop. Red lace garters and black brassieres  were lustily filled with dark skinned mannequins. Next to it was an African  jewelry store displaying the wares in a wholesale style, crowded together. There were mannequin heads with wigs in a rainbow of colors – cotton candy pinks, greens and blues; an electric blue, a lemon yellow, an orange and a purple – that sat on a shelf just above the necklaces and bracelets. Who would wear these?

It was evident. There was no decent place to eat up this street. So Kay turned back to explore the lateral streets, with no better success. She sighed and returned to the pizza place.

At Milano Pizzeria, the men at the outdoor tables eyed her, mentally calculating her interest to them. She went swiftly by them into the cafe and found herself in a dining room with thirty tables, each dressed in a linen cloth with folded napkin, silverware and a wine  and water glasses.

A tall, thin waiter who had been lounging outside the door turned back into the cafe.

“Can I eat inside?” Kay asked, warily in French.

“Of course!” he answered in French without an accent. “Where would you like to sit?”

The place was empty. She chose one with her back to the door, close to the door where people walking by outside could not see her easily. He handed her a menu and left her to make her selection.  Across two tables, there was a bar where a young man was rolling pizza dough in the air. The waiter returned, spoke to him briefly in Italian. The man at the bar brought out some glasses and filled them with red wine and the waiter whisked them away to his sidewalk patrons.

He returned to Kay in five minutes.

“Have you chosen?” he solicitously.

“No,” she said, forlornly. “I can’t read a word of what is written here. It’s all in German. The only thing I can guess at is Schwein.  That’s pork, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” His  mouth registered a trace of a smile. Diplomacy was good business if a tip were to be earned.

“Well, please would you chose something for me? Not too expensive. I just want a light dinner. And not spicy.”

“Cotelets?” he asked. “Everything is very good. I think you will like this.”

It was schwein with tagliatelle for twenty two Swiss francs. Expensive, she thought, but what was she to do? Whatever tagliatelle was, she would eat it. She had never heard of it before but she didn’t want to expose her ignorance. She nodded her agreement.

“And an entrée?”
She declined, shaking her head, “No.” He looked askance as if she had offended the propriety of eating out. An entrée was de rigeur!

“But a glass of house wine. Red. Please?”

“Of course.” And he went to place the order.

Kay sat, her head spinning, wary like a fox of her surroundings, railing against the expense of eating out day by day and not even getting what she wanted for dinner. There seemed no middle ground for nourishment for a tourist much less any low cost options.

Two men came in from the sidewalk tables. They sat four tables away from Kay and she watched out of boredom. They did not seem interesting. Then the waiter came to their table and sat with them. The lad from the bar brought them each a drink.

They were not noticing her, so she brought out her sketch book and drew them, noting the particularity of their shapes, the dark of their business jackets, the  light of their faces, in comparison, and the dark of their hair.  She drew them rapidly, hoping they would not see her doing so and perhaps object.  What if they did not want to be seen here. Her sketching of them might be interpreted as an invasion. A danger.

She flipped the page and began a drawing of the tables with the repetition of cutlery and glassware, serviettes, tables and chair backs. The waiter came carrying a pizza. She closed her sketchbook.

“Would you like a piece?” he asked.

“Oh, no thanks,” Kay replied.

“Go ahead. It’s mine. Really, have a piece.”

She felt as if she might insult him if she did not accept, so she smiled and allowed him to give her a slice on a small bread plate.

It was delicious. She had not expected her hunger was so strong; it was due to all the walking; but she was thankful that she had not ordered the pizza for dinner. It was thin crusted and there was very little on it.

Soon her dinner arrived. It was indeed a pork chop, a thin one, covered in an excellent creamy pepper sauce and it came with a small portion of pasta.

“Did you like it?” he asked when he picked up her plate.

“Oh yes! Your sauce master is an excellent cook! May I have a coffee? ”

” No dessert?” He seemed offended.

“No dessert.”

He brought the coffee and the bill.

When he left, she examined the bill. The main dish. Twenty two francs. Wine. Six francs. Tagliatelle five francs. Coffee, four francs. Total thirty seven. The Swiss franc was even with the Canadian dollar. Thirty seven dollars for a thin pork chop and hardly anything n the plate. That was outrageous.

So he had charged her for the pizza after all, she thought bitterly. They can see a tourist coming a mile away. But she was determined not to  complain. She felt too vulnerable, all round, to have to challenge the bill and she wanted desperately to have a pleasant part to her day.  Especially in this place, she would not complain; but she vowed she would not eat in this district the next day. But really! Five francs for a slice of pizza!

She brought out her money and placed exactly thirty seven francs on the table. At this price, with so little dinner, I’m not giving a tip besides, she thought.

He came and lingered at the table.

“Alors! A budding Picasso!”

“Picassa, I think. Do you want to see?”

“Fantastico!”

“Here. It’s yours.” Kay tore the page from her sketchbook and gave it to him.

His smile stretched wide and he took it.

She packed her things and left.  At the corner, she stopped at the grocery store, a grim little place with ready-made snacks. She took an apple, yogurt, a bottle of spring water and a cereal bar. That would give her breakfast. Thirteen francs for a Rothaus hotel breakfast was just too much!

In her room, there was a book, her journal and the television for the remainder of the evening.  From her bed, the only place to relax, she watched Pretty Woman with Richard Gere in dubbed Italian.  Kay didn’t understand a word, but she had seen it twice before, long ago,  and knew the story.

The next day she toured the city for galleries and points of interest. She ate her meal late in the afternoon and was back early at the Rothaus. Just as she approached, she once again saw the paddy wagon, blue light flashing, doors open just at the entrance of the hotel.

A man was being loaded into it. On the ground, a woman sat, dazed, the entire contents of her purse spread around her – condoms, syringes, pills, lipstick, personal effects. The police woman was urging her to gather her belongings and come with her, I suppose, the second customer for the wagon in blue.

Kay caught the police woman’s eye, pointed her finger towards the Rothaus gate and received a nod. Yes, she could pass by with impunity. She could get into her hotel.

At least the police frequent the area. It’s just one more night. I can leave early in the morning,” she calmed herself. “It’s just one more night.

Kay was telling her experience to an Italian friend when she got back home.

“Anyway,” she said, “what is tagliatelle?”

“It’s pasta.”

“Pasta? They charged me five francs for pasta? That’s outrageous!”

“But he didn’t charge me for the pizza. It really was a gift!”

Kay gets flowers

June 19, 2010

“Can’t a girl get forty winks in the middle of the afternoon” grumbled Kay as she slid off the couch to the floor then levered herself up, leaning on the little side table. Her knees weren’t trustworthy. She rubbed her eyes.

No one ever came to visit without calling first. No one ever rang her door bell without warning except for FedEx, exceptionally, yesterday, with a gift basket in a large clean cardboard box.

Kay, being somewhat warped in her priorities, extolled the virtues of a cardboard box big enough to transport mid-sized paintings and this one would do just fine. But who would send her a gift basket? It must be for someone else!

There, tucked in voluminous folds of cellophane wrapping, was a tiny card on a stick, “Thanks for allowing me to list your home.”  So it was for her after all. “Bloody gift baskets,” she thought, “Waste of money. Why don’t they ask what you want first. I’d rather have had flowers.

Still grumbling and half asleep, Kay hurried to the front door and looked out the window. An affable man in his early sixties, and to her surprise,  stood holding a beautiful bouquet of flowers in a cut glass vase.

With no heed for security, Kay opened the door wide and the screen door too. Feeling a bit incredulous, she stuttered, “For me?”

In the back of her head another conversation was going on. It went this way:
“Are you crazy? You don’t know who this man is. You’ve never seen him before.  What makes you think that a man with grey hair slicked back over his pate wearing glasses from the ‘Eighties is a good man without evil intent? You know you should never open the door to strangers.”  This message, oft heard, came with her mother’s voice. She, in her latter years, was constantly morphing ordinary, gentle people into burglars and kidnappers.

“This is 12649 on 119th? he asked, though it was evidence in itself, since he was standing under the house numbering.

“Yes, but who would send me flowers?”

“Kramer?” he continued.

“No, Karer,” Kay answered.

“It’s so close,” she said, now a bit bewildered. “Let’s see”, she asked, extending her hand for the gift card that was now in his hands, that he was turning over and back again to see if there was a clue on it as to this beautiful bouquet’s true destination.

“Ha ha,” chuckled Kay, kabbitzing.  “It’s okay, you can leave it with me.”

“I guess I have to call the office,” he rejoined, not sure in his duty, but laughing.  “I don’t think I can leave it with you.  I’ll have to find out….” and he pulled out his cell phone to ring up the florist’s shop.

“And I was thinking house invasion” continued on Kay. “You don’t have an AK 70 or a Kalishnikov in your pocket do you? What a great way to gain entry to a home. Nobody would suspect that  a nice looking man with a bouquet would do any harm. See?  I just opened the door, no problem.”

“That’s right,” he says. “It’s a great terrorist ploy.”

He snapped the phone shut. There had been no response. He took the gift card again and tested the seal on the envelope. It gave slightly on one corner, then ripped. No matter what, he was going to have get a new envelope for the card, so he finished the tear to the end and extracted the message.

To Karen and Jeffrey, it read, Deepest sympathies from all the gang.

Deepest sympathies!” exclaimed Kay as she recoiled a foot.

“I don’t know of any Karens or Jeffreys. There’s no one here by that name. I think you had better take those flowers with you. I don’t need any deepest-sympathies here.”

He laughed and without a word, turned down the stairs, back to the sidewalk and his truck.


Prisoner for a night

May 21, 2010

It was hot this past week.

As we stumble out of winter and into spring, bravely facing the elements in the garden to start the yearly ritual of planting so that we can sit back in the summer and watch the vegetables grow, we complain. It doesn’t matter what we complain about. We simply are in the habit of complaining.

It starts this way:

“Spring will never come. It’s so rainy! Aren’t we ever going to get some sunshine?” followed by:

“It’s too hot!” This last complaint comes after the first morning of sunshine in a week – but this time with a bit of force behind it. It’s not the weak thready sunshine of winter. No. This sunshine has some punch and it heats up up to a whopping sixteen degrees. “We’re not complaining though, ”  we follow on, but really we are.

We start to wear layers and can be seen tossing off one of them or putting one back. The sleeveless padded down vest is replaced by a fleece one. We rake up the leaf mould and put it in the compost to rot some more with kitchen  compost and the first grass clippings, mixing as we should the brown with the green.  After a few moments of such labour, off comes the sweater. It’s too hot.

Stand in the shade – it’s too cold.

On Tuesday, the sun came out in full force. It was mightily pleasant and I wore my shorts in a devil-may-care attitude although I shouldn’t be seen in shorts in public any longer. No matter! I was in my own garden and sure to be overheated if I remained in my winter fleece.

In late afternoon, I took the car to pick up some bread and milk at the grocery store. The black interior had absorbed the day’s heat with a vengeance. The black leather was ready to barbecue my tender flesh, but I had changed back into decent leggings and sat for a few minutes to let the hot air out and to soak in the delicious heat.

When I got back, both front windows wide open letting in the eighteen degree weather, I reflected that it takes a bit of time to adjust to temperatures. Normally even in winter, I only keep the thermostat at nineteen degrees throughout the house, so why was it, on this day, that I was feeling cooked while indulging in temperature that was a degree less? It’s all relative. I would have to adjust to summer one more time. For summer was surely coming. Four more days of this heat were forecast.

So as I  left the car, I opened the skylight a fraction of an inch to let hot air rise and leave and I left only one of the front windows open a wrist’s worth, not open enough for a car thief to get in, but open enough to let a breeze go through. I parked it in the shade of two grand cedar trees that surely began life in the early 19oo’s. They are easily one hundred feet tall.

Next morning, we had a mission, Frank and I. Yes, Frank has come back into my life a little bit, returned from the Far East where he wintered for a couple of months, and he phoned up to see if he could help me turn the decommissioned sauna into a storage space. That was last month.

I went on a trip of my own to Victoria to visit some friends a few weeks ago and he, knowing that I wanted some work done in the garden, asked if he could help me with that as well. He’s at loose ends and is looking for company.

It suits me. I know that he has a work ethic bar none, and that I can trust him to do a good job. That being said, if he doesn’t approve of what I want him to do, he pulls an adult tantrum and I often bend, if it doesn’t really matter to me.  I might also end up with something that he wants rather than what I asked for, another familiar manipulation that a gal learns after twenty years of marriage and ten more of on-and-off relationship.

It was in this manner that my two garden beds shifted ten feet to the west and lost their unique U shape.  He insisted that the sun I would get would be much better where he wanted them. I didn’t hold my ground (nor stick to my brand new, not yet fully paid for,  garden design). It seemed like a little concession and I could fudge the design back into looking much like it was supposed to.

All the way up until the end, we talked about the U shape. When he laid the planks out in the garden to show me where it was and for my confirmation that the beds were parallel to the fence and acceptable for my design, the U was still there. But when he called me to see his final product, somehow the little end  of garden had disappeared.

“What happened to the U?” I exclaimed is some disbelief. But with a sinking feeling, I knew what had happened. He didn’t approve of it. I wouldn’t be able to get the wheel barrow in t either end. I would have had to back in with it to roll it out forward. With both ends, I didn’t have that problem. He recognized that the design was prettier than it was practical and with out saying, just made a one-sided decision.

What was the point in protesting. If he didn’t want to do it, I would have to get someone else to do the work. It wasn’t worth the argument and the bins looked quite handsome the way they were. I let it go.

But this little detail of my story comes after my saga of the prisoner, so now I regress.

On the morning where we were going to pick up the lumber for my raised beds,  we headed out to the car and nothing looked unusual.  It was when I opened up the driver’s side door that I was confronted with a robin-sized bird flapping with panic.  It had somehow thought that my car was a likely candidate for a summer’s nest.  That wrist-sized opening had just been enough to get into the car but the configuration of things had not been sufficient for him to get back out.

I looked him up in my bird book later. It was a fairly rare Rufous-sided  Towhee.

He must have cried for help because both rear-view mirrors were decorated with a thick layer which I imagine was deposited by two family members, one on each side, keeping the prisoner company.

Frank opened the two doors on the passenger side and I opened the back driver’s side door and the panicking bird flew off without so much as a thank-you for its liberation.

Talk about decoration! We spent half an hour getting the car cleaned before we could drive away in it. The steering wheel had made a perfect perch for the night but it wasn’t the only place to be cleaned, by any means. All the frustrated wanderings of the poor bird to discover some means of escape had been marked of the passage.

As nests go, it was spacious and luxurious – leather padded lining, plenty of wing-room, some practice-flying space but it lacked in accessibility – or should I say exitability.

In the afternoon, I spent an hour and a half re-cleaning the interior of the car and then the outside. It was a good thing.  I rarely do cleaning, not to say that anyone else does it for me, so it had become dusty and full of Sierra’s dog hair – my sister’s pet whom I had dog-sat for the month of May.

I just want to add this little bit of adventure, which relates to our search for lumber.

On the bird’s liberation day, we went to a big-box hardware store to find the wood we needed for my raised garden beds. Good grief! It was very expensive. With my green thumb which tends more to a dainty pink colour, I would never grow three hundred dollars worth of vegetables. This really was a hobby farmer’s luxury! Each two by ten by twelve was worth almost twenty dollars.

On an off chance, the day that we picked up the wood, I insisted on going to the local lumber yard /hardware store to see if we could get a better price – or even just support local business.  Wouldn’t you know, there was someone very knowledgeable who directed us to something called garden-grade lumber. It was really all that we needed.  There were some faults to it, but nothing major. Instead of twenty dollars a plank, we paid  seven. That’s a mighty savings.

Frank insisted that a six foot plank would fit into the car if we simply put the front seat down as far as it would go. He would travel back and forth in the back seat behind the driver (me).

Now if my car was a clunker, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so worried. But my car is a Lexus with black leather upholstery and I would never have had this car on my own doing if Frank hadn’t insisted that it was a bargain that couldn’t be passed up.  I would never have thought of buying a luxury car.

Last year when the prices came down on cars because of the market crash, I looked for another car, a newer one with less intrinsic faults than this one. It is, after all, seventeen years old now. But anything I drove was so heavy to drive, so clunkerish, so tinny, even though it was new.  The clincher for keeping this vehicle of mine is that the car dealers will only give me three thousand dollars for it! Some luxury! I’ll just keep the thing and run it into the ground!

But by that I didn’t mean losing the ceiling cover to some rough piece of cedar, nor scratching up the fancy leathers. I cringed at the thought.

Once again, I bent to his insistence. I did not gain my way to have the lumber delivered for fifty dollars.  We made three trips in the pouring rain (and the temperature fallen to ten degrees once more) back and forth with eight pre-cut six foot long planks piled on the passenger seat.  I admit that I prayed for the leather and was prepared to curse if anything befell it.

Frank’s smiley face at the end of the third round tells the tale. “See, I told you so” he says. “Trust me!”

So those were the adventures that surrounded my new garden beds.

I must say though, I can’t help thinking of that poor Rufous thing locked up in the clink all night, weeping and gnashing its “hens-teeth”, abetted in its frustration by two watchful friends on the rear view mirrors. Poor Towhee!

I bet his lady isn’t buying the “Trust me!” quip.

In fact, I might even have heard her saying, “I told you so!”

Where are those keys?

April 14, 2010

My cousin writes a mass mailing to friends:
Hello All!
Once again I’ve put my keys down in a spot where I know I will find them and now I can’t locate them.  I cleaned out the van yesterday, making sure not to lock them in as I closed up.  I have checked the spot where they are to hang in the basement and the pockets of the pants I had on yesterday.  Those should be the only two spots where they should be living.
But voila, like magic they aren’t to be found this a.m.
So get out your spidy eyes…all eight…or is that legs…and watch out for them for me please.
Reward?!  Yes, a drive in the van if you’d like!

I’m miles and kilometers away. I’m not concerned by this loss of keys, but I’m very empathetic. I can have four pen on the desk and have them disappear, one after the other while I have not gone anywhere – not moved whatsoever – and still they are lost to me. Later in the day, I may find them in my jacket pocket.  It’s the desk imp who hides things for wicked fun. And so I reply to my cousin:

Dear Cuz,
Do you not remember the car-key imp? He comes and steals away things  so that you can’t find them when you need them, and then just after it’s too late, he places them before your eyes!
Frank was here for eight days while he did a lot of renos and repairs for me. You should see the outside of my house sparkle! He power washed all the siding!
I kept looking for a stud finder that he gave me – a very expensive one, he was keen to tell me – and I couldn’t find it, so that he could put up some secure hooks for my paintings in these plaster walls of mine.

He went home on Wednesday and then came back again this Sunday to put in some decent and operative taps in the main floor bathroom. I still couldn’t find the stud finder – never opened, still in it’s packaging, yellow and highly visible – even though I opened every drawer and work box where it might have been, even on an off chance.
Then yesterday, not twenty four hours after Frank had gone back home …
I was cleaning up the studio more since this guy is coming to photograph me in the studio and there, in the pile of things I was tidying up (that I had abandoned tidying because I was distracted by R’s many requests for this and that) was the stud finder. Like, five minutes more, staying at my own tasks, I would have had it and he could have pounded some nails into the walls to hold up my heavier paintings. There’s not a chance that he is coming back. He simply lives too far away.
Anyway, Dear Cuz,  I empathize. You know you had your keys at home. They can’t be far.  The car-key imp is playing a trick on you, so they will turn up. Do you have a spare?

Your ever-loving Cousin

K

Endings and beginnings

March 29, 2010

Hugh is  elated. He has been appointed as an Intern to an International Mission for Canada in Europe. It’s his first job in his own field.

Kay , bursting with excitement for him, has been pointing out potential pitfalls, handing out advice that rarely meets the mark because, really, Hugh is an intelligent guy and has it all in hand. He’s  good at planning what he needs and procuring it, mostly through the Internet. Over the three years of his studies, he has carefully fostered contacts, too, and he’s been briefed before departure by a number of professors, research gurus and friendly field service officers, all of them friends.

He is nervous, anxious and excited all at the same time.  Wouldn’t you know, though, he gets the flu a week before departure and it develops into a secondary infection. He’s out of commission for two days and then struggles to get his affairs in order – emptying his room to storage so someone else can rent it while he is gone; collecting his visa which is supposed to be ready at the Embassy (but isn’t); getting to the bank and arranging his financial facility; completing his taxes because he won’t be here at tax time; ordering two suits and a few good shirts so that he can present himself well; buying two pairs of dress shoes because he’s sure he will not be received well in either hiking boots or running shoes.

The comforting thing, he mollifies her, is that Skype exists now. The only difference to their twice weekly calls is that he’ ll be calling from his new posting and he’s another few thousand kilometers away.
He says, “It’s not like when you  stayed in Europe; and Skype is still for free.”

“No,” she agrees. “When I left, it would be ten months before I got back home.  Long distance phone calls were prohibitive. I wrote letters, but I wasn’t staying in one place.  I was moving around. There was no place for anyone to write me until I got an apartment just before I started school.  I felt dreadfully lonely. No one around me spoke my language except other back-packers like me. I struggled with French. I could barely speak it. My Lord! What ever got into me – going off for a year like that, all alone,  without even being able to speak the language!”

“It was six months before I found anyone to talk to, and those were a pair of Norwegian girls. I thought I would go starkers with loneliness!”

“Darned if I was going to give in, though. I started to take second-language lessons at the University and then things eased up.”

“Your aunt Lizbet was in school in Geneva that year, but there was no phone where she boarded. I couldn’t call her. She wasn’t much of a writer. She spoke the language, at least. She’d taken her Masters in the teaching of French. When finally she wrote, she too was feeling very lonely.  I suggested that she come visit me for her birthday in December and she said she would.”

“Then, in a panic, I didn’t know what to do.”

“She didn’t turn up at the train station at the appointed time when I went to meet her.  She just wasn’t there.  I turned up for every possible train and went back home after midnight, my head spinning. What had happened to her? Had she missed the train? Was the train delayed? Did I have the wrong day? Perhaps she had not been able to get a reservation for the day she said she was coming?”

“On Saturday, I went to the train station from morning to night for every possible connection just in case I had made a mistake and still she was not there; and then I knew that she was not coming.”
“Should I tell the police? Or had I gotten something wrong? She had said Friday, but what if she meant the next Friday. Had she had an accident on the way? Had she been abducted? We had both been warned about the white slave-trade .”

“I waited, each day my stomach churning and my head filled with tragic possibilities. Should I call our parents? But what could they do from there? And what if it were nothing and they came all the way from Canada to find everything was alright? The expense of travel was prohibitive. I decided to wait.”

“A good ten days later, I got a letter. Her classmates had for the very first time invited her to join them for dinner and it turned out to be a surprise birthday celebration for her. She had stayed. But she had no way of getting in touch with me.  She rationalized that I would understand; that I would get her letter of explanation in a day or two and everything would be alright.”

“It was. But I had felt ever so vulnerable, ever so sick about it, all of that time that I didn’t know.”

“Auntie, Auntie,” interrupted Hugh, ” It won’t be like that. I will have a work place. I have a rooming house already, thanks to Cousin Barb. We have Skype and if need be, the telephone. I’ll call you twice a week – maybe more because I won’t know anyone there in the first month or so; and you can always just e-mail me.”

When Kay and Hugh finished their phone call, Kay returned to her chores in the basement where she was sorting out boxes of books to keep or not to keep – boxes that had been stored for two and a half years now as she settled into the new-to-her house. While she was mechanically opening boxes, chucking books into the keeper box or the other, her mind began to dial back to that earlier time.

How thoughtless she had been. Perhaps it wasn’t so much thoughtless as ego-centric. She had never thought how her mother might have felt, her rebellious and rather naive daughter winging off to France for a year without a place to stay nor a relative to depend on, with nothing but her clothing on her back, whatever she could stuff into a backpack and a wad of American Express cheques.

It’s the way of the world for the young to leave the nest, to try their own wings.  A generation later, it was Kay herself who told her nephews that it was their time to find their own paths, to find out who they were and what they wanted from life; that they didn’t have to ask permission to go or have a fight about it. All they had to say was, “I’d like to go live on my own now.” And here was Hugh, doing it.

Not to say that he hadn’t been fending for himself all these years of University; but it was his first job in his own field; and he would be living abroad.

As Kay’s heart twinged at  his leaving, she thought back to her mother. She had been the same age or just-about as Kay was now. And then Kay remembered the last of the three summers she had come back to work to allow herself to return to France to finish her Diplome.

“I’ve met a man,” she said to her mother,” and I’m going to meet his mother this fall.”

“You can’t go with that ragged coat,” Mother had replied, eyeing Kay from head to foot. ‘I’ll buy you a new one. If you are going into a new family, you will need to show you come from a good family.”

So they went shopping and Kay selected a brown and white herring-bone coat that reached to her ankles. It had a rust-coloured leather collar and buttons to match.  With her leather boots and three inch heels, her long blond hippie hair flowing down her back, she looked like a tall, slender Russian poet.

Kay admired her figure in the mirror. She would turn heads, she thought, with smug satisfaction.

Had she said thank you, thought Kay? Not just the words, but a proper thank you? Or had she just thought it was her due – parents buy their offspring clothing – or had Kay had any idea of the the reconciliation that this gesture had been from a mother to her headstrong daughter? It had been such a concession on her mother’s part.  She was letting go, for once, without making a fuss and showed for once, a certain trust in Kay’s judgment.

Kay sighed.

It was odd how life brought these bits of wisdom to her too late. It wasn’t a regret, exactly. Mother had come from a different era. One didn’t express one’s emotions. All her longings and vicarious wishes for Kay lay under the surface, bottled, capped, bundled and wrapped in a tight explosive corner of her heart. Kay’s too, thought Kay.

Kay was grateful that time had taught her to say what she felt. Kay had not wanted to make the same mistakes she felt she had grown up with. She was determined to let the boys, these nephews of hers, know that she loved them and encouraged them.  It had worked with one but not the other. Hugh was close, but not Ron.

Kay felt especially grateful about Hugh. She would not lose him for years at a time as she had been estranged from her mother. Hugh had become a friend – a deep and lasting friend. She would have the pleasure of sharing his adventures, she knew, and wished, far too late for it ever to happen, that she had been able to do the same with her Mom.

How different the world had become in thirty years! How much smaller the world had become because of all these electronic gadgets! And how much more open had become the ways of speaking one’s emotions to the people we loved.

Hanky panky

February 2, 2010

“Have you got your lunch? Have you got a handkerchief? Have you got your bus fare?”

The litany repeated every morning when I left for school, then later, when I went out to work. As if I could forget!

“Yes, Mom.” The reply was  a “stop-nagging” whine.

It changed on Sundays. “Have you got your handkerchief? Do you have some money for collection?”  Always, a nice girl would need a handkerchief. One did not touch one’s face. Or at least, we were not supposed to, but I was always getting chided for this sin of commission. And of course, if you had sniffles….

I brought the shoe box up to my nose. It was full of handkerchiefs and there were a few head scarves as well. It had an old smell, not musty, but of face powder and bath salts that women seldom use these days.

I noticed one day that my friend Geraldine carried cloth hankerchiefs and remarked on it.

“One day, I’ll come across the box of Mom’s handkerchiefs and I’ll give them to you,”  I promised. “I don’t use them, myself. I picked up a lot of them for her at the Lutheran Church at their Christmas and Easter sales. It’s amazing how many brand new handkerchiefs I could pick up there, for less than a quarter a piece. After a few years, the lady who ran the thrift table saved them for me. ”
“People brought them back to Mother, too, as presents – from Switzerland, from Germany, from England.”

“My box runneth over with handkerchiefs, ” I mused.

And here was the box with wrinkled and mussy handkerchiefs still smelling of Mom and her toiletries.

Just as mother was reaching her teenage years,  Kleenex made its debut in 1924, designed as a facial tissue made of  “Cellucotton” to wipe cold cream or make-up from one’s face. But it was The Depression and resources were scare. A cloth hankie could be used over and over again, but a tissue could be used but once.

I left the sixty-plus handkerchiefs to soak in a basin of hot water laced with a delicate-fabric soap and came back to rinse them and dry them a few hours later.  In a futile attempt to save time, I did not take them to the basement and the automatic clothes dryer, but began to stretch them, as Mother used to do, flat on the bathroom counter, but I quickly ran out or space and began to hang them out on the towel racks, along the edge of the laundry basket and all along the bathtub rim, and I was only half way through.

Later in the afternoon, I came back to do the other half and take the dry ones to iron.

As I pressed the first one, a light translucent cotton printed with a gay pattern of red and blue flowers, it came to mind that I must have learned to iron on these practical little squares of cloth, something that a child of seven could not ruin easily in her first domestic ironings.

As I continued on the task, I became conscious that I only had six matching handkerchief. Every other one was different.

Of the older types, there were ones with cut work lace (above) and embroidery (below),

with tatted edges or ones with crochet

The needle work is often hand-done with a finesse that is rarely seen today and the fabrics are so sheer, sometimes, that I marvel at the delicacy of it. How do they spin the cotton so fine so that the fiber is strong enough not to break in the weaving process and yet so small in diameter that  the fabric is almost see-through.
There are plain ones and flocked ones, there are silk ones brought from China by some thankful student;

there are ones with crocheted edges in variegated colour;

There are ones made especially for Christmas,

Some are geometric, or striped – regular horn-blowers for days of groggy flu or sinus numbing colds,

and some have curious, modern calligraphy upon them.

And this nest one was her favorite. It was the kind a flirtatious woman could drop on the floor and her eager swain would stoop to rescue.

Father passed away in 1983.

One day when I was visiting, before I came to live with her, to care for her, we had a cup of tea in the afternoon and she was being coy. Something was on her mind that she wanted to say but she wasn’t sure what my reaction would be, I discovered later.

Finally, she told me she had received a letter from one of Dad’s and her university acquaintances whom they had kept in touch with all their lives. He was an prominent Engineer – a brilliant man, she assured me.

“I can’t read his writing any more,” she said. “Would you read it for me?”

I struggled with the chicken scratchings that marked the page.

“Mom, this isn’t writing. It’s code. It’s unreadable!”

I was teasing her. There were occasional words that were recognizable. With a bit of effort, the entirety could be decoded. I read it to her haltingly as I deciphered it.

“He’ll be here on the twenty-fourth. He’s asking you to have dinner with him.”

I suspected that she already knew, that she had already read the letter and knew its contents.

She had an expression on her face that made me think of a wary animal waiting, not knowing if she were to be caressed or smacked.Timid. Unsure.

“That’s fabulous, Mom!” I said.  “How exciting! You do want to go, don’t you?”

“Yes, but what will you children think. Do you think I am being disloyal to your father?”

“Heavens, no! For Pete’s sake, Mom. Dad would want you to be happy. He would want you to enjoy your long term friendships still. I don’t think he want’s you to be a nun and cloister yourself away.”

Now I knew why she was being shy and coy! She was over eighty, but she was thinking of him as a suitor, a beau, a potential boyfriend.

On the twenty-fourth, I was summoned to get her to the hair dresser, then to help her dress. I brushed her clothes to ensure there was not a hair out of place, nor an escapee dangler left on her shoulders. I polished her favorite necklace – a Haida silver man-in-the-moon pendant.

She sat at her dresser, her sterling brush set sitting before her, as she trimmed her nails and put on polish, then selected a bracelet to go with the pendant. I put it on for her and secured the latch of it. She selected a perfume and dabbed it behind her ears.

She powdered her cheeks and brushed on rouge then wiped it away gently with a paper tissue.  Nervously, she fingered the little cut crystal pots with silver lids that were her pride and joy – her symbols of ladyship – and moved them, reorganized them, tidied them.

She leaned into the mirror, puckered her lips and carefully drew over her lips with a strong red lipstick.

Into her evening bag, she slipped into it  a twenty dollar bill, her lipstick, a compact with rouge, her driver’s license (though she no longer drove), a comb and a nail file.

“Do I look OK?” she asked when she was all done.  She was unsure. Excited. Like for a first date.

“You look wonderful, Mom,” I assured her. “There’s not a thing out of place. You look beautiful!”

“Have you got a handkerchief?” I asked. She hadn’t. It was the last thing to do.

She opened the top drawer beside her, pulled out a wad ironed handkerchiefs and picked out this one, her very best, with hand-made Belgian lace and a ruffle on each corner.  Soft and refined. The kind one could drop, for a suitor to pick up and admire. And she tucked it into her sleeve.

It’s threadbare now, but that doesn’t matter. I think I will keep this one, in memory.

A free ride and a free lunch.

December 8, 2009

Mrs. Patrick waited at the stop sign as several cars passed by from either direction. As a large construction pick-up truck barreled towards her from the North,  she suddenly hit the accelerator and lurched out, turning left in front of it, narrowly missing being T-boned.

All within the same time frame, Kay whipped her arms up across her eyes waiting for the crash that never came. Mrs. P  had just made it by without so  much as a whistling wind passing to spare between the two vehicles.

With the calm and assurance of a grandmother who had seen many risky ventures of children and grandchildren play out safely, she said, “He’ll see me and slow down.”

She shouldn’t be driving!” Kay murmured to herself in shock. But how could she say anything? The ride was for free.

Kay was visiting with her sister in the small coastal town on the Sechelt Peninsula. Heather had her medical reasons for no longer driving, and anyway, her husband always had their one vehicle  which had graduated from car to van to truck over the years. Heather had lost her assurance to drive it and therefore, had become dependent on him or her friends to drive her to all her activities – swimming and exercise classes, the weaving club, choir and church events and various other things that might come her way.

Today was the day for the Christmas lunch for women of their church and Mrs. Patrick had agreed to take not only Heather and Kay but Mrs. Boop who was sitting in the front seat of the flashy new Buick. Dear Mrs. Boop  was rapidly losing her eyesight, thought Kay, or she should have equally sent her arms up to protect her face from the oncoming monster truck, but she  turned and looked calmly at Heather and inquired after her most recent trip to Nelson to see Lizbet, Kay’s other sister. No one but Kay was having this anxiety attack.  Kay admonished herself to be calm.

Mrs. Patrick then made an announcement. “I’m not going to park in the parking lot today. You will have to climb the stairs from Hudson Street. Last time I did so, Stella Smith smashed my front headlight; and I had parked there expressly to avoid the traffic on the street.”

“So I won’t park there again, ” she restated and continued: “I felt so sorry for Stella, but it was her fault, so she just paid me for it. I checked with someone else who saw it all, and they agreed it was Stella.”

“It cost her five hundred dollars because they had to take the bumper off to get at the headlight!”  Mrs. Patrick exclaimed. “It’s so very expensive now to get cars fixed. The least little thing… and now you will just have to climb the stairs and walk.”

Kay groaned. Not that she cared about climbing the stairs. It just seemed that perhaps Mrs. Patrick’s car was a giant shiny magnet for other cars and that her nonchalant attitude was too devil-may-care.  In Mrs. P’s books, others could look out for her. Kay was not at all reassured and wondered if they would actually make it to church and then home again.

At the church, Kay thanked her foresight for having eaten a sturdy breakfast of two boiled eggs and coffee. Long folding tables were set up for about eighty women.  Each table had four places set on each side and two on either end.  On each table were two large chargers filled with baked goods – date squares, Nanaimo bars, coconut creams, cherry berry thimbles, speculas, cranberry slices, nut squares, some pink moussy confections  and other Christmas sweets.

Kay marvelled at the variety and the quantity. There was a lot of sugar represented on those fancy plates, enough to keep a Cuban sugar plantation busy for a year. She looked at her waistline and prayed fervently for something more healthy, more substantial than sugar for lunch.

Having chosen a place to sit, with Heather to her right and Mrs. Patrick and Mrs. Boop across the furthermost table from the front, Kay took the time to survey the company. With a swift glance, she estimated there were four potential candidates for the under sixty club and with a sigh of come-uppance she realized that she, too, was no longer eligible for that group. Way more than half of the others were over eighty and the telling features were the colours of their hair.

Mrs. Patrick had a lovely even golden-brown colour, tastefully maintained and curled tightly in a cap, trimmed smartly at her neck. Mrs. Boop’s short, wavy hair was salt coloured with a good dose of pepper and coiffed a little looser. Across the room Kay saw three or four absolutely white heads gleaming. One of them was decorated with a pair of red felt antlers that jutted out a foot above her head and had little brown ears. She looked quite charming.

Beside her, an ash blond woman wore a jester’s cap of felt in red and green; and another to her left, was wearing a red Santa Claus toque with white rabbit’s fur.  A few ladies had tinges of pink and blue in their hair. Most had been recently coiffed for this event at the hair dresser and the tightly curled hair-dos wafted the scent of salon spray throughout the room.

One table was reserved for the ladies choir, not the church’s, but a local glee club. Each lady sported a white blouse, a necktie with a predominantly red plaid tie around the neck and a poinsetta corsage backed by a red foil doily pinned to the right bosom.

At twelve o’clock precisely, the congregation of women was called to order. An agenda was read and an apology was made that the luncheon would have to be followed by a church women’s meeting because there were cheques to be written for which the group’s approval had to be given.

Next the choir of plaid throated women sang in reedy voices. The choir-mistress introduced and welcomed their new choristers as if, in this mid-sized town, everyone should have remembered the names of the others from the previous year. There was only one young singer in the group.

The choir mistress proceeded to say that since everyone must be hungry, she would keep the regular concert  short, though we listened to Christmas hymn-classics for the next twenty minutes.  There was a solo number by the youngest member which was quite lovely. She had a trained voice and sang with a rich, clear voice.

A devotional story  followed, read by a lady standing at the back and then Grace for the food that still was not in sight was given by the Minister of the church who was the only man present. He grinned from ear to ear. Never were the odds so good for this retired and greying preacher. Eighty to one!

An hour had passed before four ladies began to bring out chargers of delicate sandwiches cut in four small triangles, two chargers per table of ten. There were egg salad and ham salad sandwiches and tuna. It was now twelve thirty and the ladies were hungry.

Mrs. P. took two quarters and announced it loudly, then passed them along. Everyone followed suit, then refilled their plates as the sandwiches were consumed.  In less than a minute the plates were empty. The ladies serving them brought more plates of sandwiches. Mrs. Boop mumbled something about having taken seven quarter sandwiches and someone else rudely muttered, “but who is counting?”.

There was no wait between  sandwiches and sweets. Heather, who was fond of chocolate, joked that all the chocolate ones were for her. This suited Kay who could not eat chocolate without getting a migraine.  Nobody  spoke to each other as the food was consumed. It was serious business.

After most of the sweets were gone, the women began to catch up on news, to introduce themselves to new attendees and to discuss the weather. The voices rose clamorously. A woman stood and called the group to order, but the ladies were absorbed in their discussions  and the noise drowned out her voice.  Kay took pity and tapped her tea cup with a spoon loudly. The voices subsided reluctantly.

“You all know Stuart McLean of CBC,” she announced. “I am sure you have heard this before, but no matter how often it it is played, it retains it’s humor. There is always something new to hear in it. It never gets old. We are going to listen to one of his best Christmas stories.”

She had before her an ancient boom box with a tape in it. She flicked the switch and Stuart began in his unmistakable voice the story of Dave having to cook turkey for Christmas dinner. There was a hush and then silence. It was true, everyone loved this story. There was not a disturbing interruption for the entire tale; and when it finished, the silence remained in the room until the hostess again rose and invited the treasurer of the group to open her fund-approving meeting.

When expenditures for Christmas hampers for the poor, a Christmas supplement for the Minister and his family, and contributions to the Haiti project had been approved with formal motions, seconding and the raising of hands to vote, the  meeting was adjourned. It was time for the singalong.

The hostess now invited the ladies to open the newsprint Christmas song books on their tables and join in a sing-along.

The choir’s accompanist scuttled to the piano and introduced some chords to  Jingle Bells. The first verse was terrible but as the crowd warmed to the singing, the fervor developed and a decent chorus rang throughout the church hall.

Jingle Bells was followed by Go tell it on the mountain and Christmas in Killarney, What child is this, King Wenceslas and God Rest you Merry Gentlemen, three rousing verses of each.  Finally the accompanist announced the last carol, We wish you a Merry Christmas.

It was almost over.The hostess reminded all that the Junior High students of the congregation had fostered four children in Haiti. Without  everyone’s help, that work could not continue. A collection basket would be coming around. Would everyone please be generous?  An osier basket topped with a wooden carved duck’s head came from table to table for offerings and each lady pulled out some paper money out of their purses to place it soundlessly into the basket.  Tacitly, the luncheon was finished now.

Ladies got up, chairs scraping the linoleum floor, and discreetly tried their limbs,  stiff  from too long of sitting, arthritis and other ancient aches and pains.  The women regrouped to greet friends they had not sat with.  Mrs. P began to herd her car-load towards the door and stood beside Mrs. Boop with visible Christian patience as Mrs. Boop caught up on a friend’s family doings.

It was a quarter of an hour later that Mrs P, Mrs Boop, Heather and Kay exited by the side door towards the steps and down to the waiting car.

When they were all buckled safely in with their seat belts, Mrs. P drove around the block to get back to the main road. They had not gone far before Mrs. Boop cried out, “Mrs. P! Where are you going? You are supposed to be taking Heather home.”

Nonchalantly, Mrs. P answered, “The car knows its way to my home. It just took the road to the left by itself.”  She continued on up the road several blocks when she should have been going back down to the main road and turning right towards the sea in the direction of Heather’s place.

Not to worry, Kay consoled herself. At least she isn’t driving on the road most traveled.  That would mean less chance of destructive car magnetism occurring. Worst come to the worst, Kay and Heather could walk home from where they now were.

But Mrs. P soon took a road descending towards Maple Street and at Heather’s house, thanks for the ride were given and Heather and Kay went inside. Jason, Heather’s husband, was waiting to welcome them home.

(To be continued)