Archive for the ‘continuum’ Category

New Year’s Eve

January 1, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go!” Kay pleaded, at one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Whistler comes to stay

September 20, 2008

Whistler came to stay in May for a few days. He’d finished his ski season at Sunshine Peaks and when the hotel closed for the season, he was on his way back to his parent’s home to say hello, all the while looking for a summer job to tide him over to the next ski season.

Whistler is thirty-five and though he has a University degree in geology, he’s never practiced in the profession. Job hunting was tough when he graduated and he either had to go back to university for a Masters to get anything decent in the way of a job or settle for something more mundane. With his love of skiing, he found a  job in the hotel industry and had worked his way up to desk manager. It was a good enough living if one didn’t have lots of bourgeoisie dreams of house and family, but it worried my sister Heather that he wasn’t going anywhere.

And now it was September. Whistler had not found a job. He was visiting at his parent’s home with his brother who also had come, from Japan with wife and child in tow. Even so, though he had sent out resume after resume, he was tired and dispirited. His energy levels seemed depleted and his response to any reply he got from potential employers was lacksidaisical.

“Yes,” he told me, ” I could have worked in a Vancouver hotel, but the rents were too high, so it wasn’t worth it; and I was offered a job at Blackcomb, but I went for three days and couldn’t find accommodation so I had to turn it down.”

When we held the Fortieth Wedding Anniversary party for Heather and her steadfast husband, Whistler came down from Sechelt with them and he never left here afterwards. His lethargy had become worrisome and there were other signs that needed checking out. At first the doctor said it was an infection, and then when the antibiotic treatment made not a whit of difference, further tests were required.

“Just don’t get the big C. OK?” my sister Lizbet urgently whispered to him in his ear one day. She’d just been through a spring session of having pre-cancerous patches removed from her face and there were still a few red spots where the skin, not yet fully healed,  had been abraded from her cheeks.

Whistler’s tests needed to be done over a period of weeks. Since he was technically homeless while he waited to find his dream ski job, he had to make a decision – miss the party and stay in Sechelt while the test were done, or come to the party and stay with me in Maple Ridge, find a new doctor who would take him on for the length of time it took to get a medical appraisal of his situation.

There were tests to be done at labs and specialists to see. Sechelt would have meant trips into Vancouver and back. That would not only be tiring and time wasting, but costly also, and Whistler was now out of work, had been for three months and his Visa Card was mounting up to max.

Now, if you are aware of the crisis in medicine these days, you will know that trying to get a doctor to look after you is a dicey thing. When I first came to live here a year ago, I could find no one but rotating walk-in clinic doctors to care for me, so for the small things that befell me, I went to these doctors. Then I had a bout of something more serious and in three visits I got three different diagnoses from the same clinic! I went scurrying back to my Burnaby doctor even though I had miles to drive to get there. I trusted her. She knew my history for the past 12 years. She was lovely and not a) officious b) disdainful nor c) obviously uninterested as the three walk-in clinic physicians had been.

When I went to get a family doctor who would keep me as a patient (I wanted none of this rotating door business) in April, I was advised that there was one doctor in town who would see me and I could have an interview with her to see if she would take me on. “You understand, she might or might not like you. She doesn’t just take anyone. We’re just receptionists. We can’t just tell her that she’s got a new patient now,” said her nurse. “There’s an appointment open to see her in July – July 28th. Will that be fine? Shall I pencil you in?”

July!

July was three months away. Just to get an appointment!

Pencil me in? I had visions of erasers dancing through the appointment books at night, searching for vulnerable patients, first time supplicants, wiping out their dates with destiny, driving the poor, the sick and elderly out of the book so that the doctor who had spent years training for his or her profession could pick the cream of the crop, the body builders pure in shape, the bikini girls with flawless skin, the fashion plates in perfect size 10, the men who looked like the models in Sears catalogue, mothers with well behaved children and grandfathers with a Maurice Chevalier je-ne-sais-quoi kind of dapper elegance.

On his own, still mobile but not very energetic, Whistler started to do the rounds of the walk-in clinics trying to find a doctor. To his credit, and perhaps to the credit of the doctors, he found one quite quickly – one who would see him through the whole suite of tests and trials that he might need to take if one test led to another. He went for his tests. He’s been to the doctor. The diagnosis is still up in the air.

With the ponderousness of our mammoth health care system, answers do not come quickly. All we know is that the tests have been done, but Whistler is now waiting for a specialist appointment and waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

Forty years of wedded bliss

August 23, 2008

It felt like a task of Biblical proportions. For forty days and forty nights, Kay cleaned her house for visitors of the non-familial sort.

“First impressions are lasting impressions” Kay’s goaded herself for the entire prelude to the Fortieth Wedding Anniversary Tea for Heather and her husband. The phrase could have been used for the chorus to a feminist opera, with women on their hands and knees, scrubbing in unison, round and round., rubbing windows round and round, sweeping side to side, hanging the laundry on the line in a repeated stretching arabesques, and breaking into an operatic dance with feather dusters.

Kay mused on the Walt Disney production of Fantasia and replaced the frentic dancers with house cleaners, their heads topped curlers, covered with scarfs that looked like Oriental potentate’s turbans. Drifting into these absurd fantasies was the only way Kay survived the drudgery of housework.

Kay lay on the carpeted floor, stretching to hide boxes of papers under the studio table thinking of the saucy stretching cats and Andrew Lloyd Webber. With the house now full of family – eight, to be precise – at least she now could call on assistance.

“Whistler,” she called.” Could you please run down to the basement and bring me up the hand vac?”

Whistler did as she had bidden and brought it upstairs. Kay, in her supine position, was closer than anyone to the electrical outlet, so she sidled to it and plugged it in.

With a deafening whine, the minor appliance went into action; swiveled and shifted along the carpet, vacuuming, snorting the dust into its belly with a ferocious suction. The upright one had quit on her two days before leaving bizarre polka dots of dog hair deposited on the rug. This was Kay’s last chance to provide a good impression. She sidled along to reach underneath the table, to reach around the borders of the carpet on the bare hardwood floor. The carpet was changing colour from a dusty grey to creamy white as she wove the vacuum back and forth across its pile.

“My lord!” she exclaimed under her breath in amazement and a modicum of disgust. While she had been moving furniture and laying carpet in the basement, while she had been painting walls and unpacking boxes; while she had been cutting back the jungle of a garden and planting perennials, she had ignored housework. “Oh well,” she consoled and forgave herself philosophically, ” it’s only worth doing when you can see you’ve made a difference.” Kay was making a difference.

“That’s it!” she announced firmly. “That’s the last act of cleaning I’m going to do before the party begins.” She awkwardly rose from the floor, wound the long black cord around the vacuum cleaner head to put it away. “What time is it?” she called out to anyone who could hear.

“That gives me ten minutes to get dressed,” she announced, equally firmly, when she heard the response to her query. She was tired.

She put the vacuum in Whistler’s hands as she passed him in the hallway.

“Hide this somewhere , would you please?

Whistler raised his eyebrows, taken aback. His clear blue eyes seemed to pop, then he started to laugh.

“Anywhere it can’t be seen” Kay instructed and started to laugh herself.

She was slipping her dress over her head when the doorbell rang. She listened with a cocked ear. Someone was opening the door. Someone was greeting the comers. She wasn’t going to rush. This was the party. It was time to relax. But good grief! Where were her good shoes? They’d disappeared in the clean-up. She put on an old pair and hoped no one would notice. Surely the good ones were in the study where everything else that should not be seen and did not have a regular putting-away place was stacked.

Only last night, Kay had been worrying that there would be no guests besides family. She had received a reply from Linda and her husband, but of the other ten couples Heather had given invitations to, only two had replied, out-of-towners, who could not attend. So the count was eight of us and two of them.

“How on earth did I allow myself to spend two months renovating and cleaning for two non-family visitors?” Kay groaned. She had phoned to the people on the list still without response. Perhaps the mail had not gone through? Could that be possible? It was summer. Were they away? And then two other invitees had called last-minute. Now the number of invitees coming was six, with family, a total of fourteen. That was more like it!

Kay had stewed over having too much food. Now she stewed that there was not enough food. Whistler offered to take her on a food run which resulted in a purchase of a food tray of chicken wings and another of raw vegetables. Party or no party, they would get eaten.

And here was Kay now, coming down the stairs to greet the guests some of whom she had never met before whom had been greeted by Heather, all standing in the front entrance, packed like a herd of sheep not knowing where to go. With a sinking feeling, Kay realized that although she had cleaned her house and laid in a feast, she had no idea what to do at a party. When it came right down to it, she was shy and retiring. She felt awkward. What were all these dressed-up people doing in her house? What was she going to say to them? She had to think quick. They were all looking at her waiting for her to do something. Ack!!!! Double Ack!!!

Like turning on a light, her social upbringing switched on and she went into motion, introducing herself, greeting those she knew, herding them into the living room, encouraging them to sit down. In a bubble of time that seemed to form itself over her, everyone was in motion except her and Heather.

In that second of sheer panic, Kay turned to Heather and whispered. “I don’t know what to do? What do I do now? Do I give them all drinks? I forgot to get the drinks out. I’m not ready.”

“I don’t know,” shrugged Heather. “It’s your party. You do what you want.” Kay fled to the kitchen. Abandoned Heather. Those people all knew each other. They would manage. They could talk to each other. The awkwardness would pass. Hers. Theirs. At least she had something to do. She could get glasses, get drinks.

Soon everyone had a drink in hand and Kay turned her efforts to passing around food, while in her mind she continued to dither. These people were here for two to three hours. They were all sitting in her living room in deadly fixed positions, but now that she thought about it, she hadn’t really wanted them in the living room. She had wanted them in the garden. She’d prayed for a lovely day despite the forecasts of heavy rain but the rain had dutifully stayed away and it was beautiful in the backyard.

Now that she had them all sitting solidly in the living room, how did she get them out of there? At least they were beginning to talk together.

Piece by piece the food was disappearing. A good sign. The nephews and nieces were passing plates, refilling glasses. They too were looking for a way to fit into the unknown present. Don, a former teacher, came into the kitchen and started a conversation. Soon a few more came. The party had changed from static to mobile. Time flew. Migration to the garden occurred. Whistler took the tray of champagne glasses to the garden. Toasts to the bride and groom were made. Heather’s dauntless husband came prepared with a tribute to his wife and to their married life that made us all weep at the depth and the joy of it. Heather cut the Mango Passion mousse cake and portioned it onto plates. Sister Lizbet posed groups for pictures, flash lights flashed, photos were taken. Four hours had gone by.

Then on some magic cue, the guests left, two by two. It was over.

Kay slumped into the easy chair. Lizbet brought her a cup of coffee. The relatives sat down, one by one. Just family. And that, my friends, is what it is all about.

Family.

And Kay has a clean and tidy house.

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.

Visitors and thoughts about retirement

February 5, 2008

After they left, I thought about Christmas; how just after all the celebrations and visits are done, you look at your house that was sparkling clean and ready for visitors such a short time ago and now the little bits of daily living are creeping back into that pristine lodging as the first tiny spring buds of normality return.

Here I was, house empty again after an all too short, three hours visit. It wasn’t Christmas. It was February, but the snow was falling again after four days of respite. The silence which I appreciate so much on most days, was sounding thunderingly quiet and the view out the window was decidedly grey. I walked slowly about the house noting that I had forgotten to give them some homemade chutney that I’d put out so that I wouldn’t forget to give it; and I had forgotten to show them my little sun porch at the back. Three hours hadn’t been long enough.

So what was the best thing for me to do for the remains of the day, now that they were gone? I thought about digging into the big paper box of estate duties, correspondence, bills and miscellanea that I had to do (Heaven’s knows what is lurking there to bite me, I haven’t looked at the pile that was there waiting for me since I came back from Ottawa a whole month ago). I rejected that. What a way to let down a five star afternoon! What a way to break a magic spell!

I thought about playing the piano, but that would have been an abrupt and jangly transition from my now pensive and peaceful mood.

I looked at the dining table with the remainder of lunch sitting on it and considered tidying it and doing the dishes, but that too seemed such a letdown, so I rejected that, too. No one else was coming. Dishes could wait until I felt like it.

In my night owl manner, I had stayed up to odd hours of the night for a week running. Then knowing I would have visitors and I couldn’t let anyone see the disorderly depths that I had sunk to, especially for a first visit to my home, I set my alarm clock for an early rising so that I could get some daytime hours of sorting, boxing, putting away and getting ready as well.

In that silence that followed, I looked at the clean and tidy living room which even this morning had been strewn with the sorting of various boxes of papers in toppling piles, waiting for their final destinations. The long flowered couch looked mightily inviting. The thick green afghan so tidily rolled at the end of the couch promised warmth. I had no desire to start any activity that might return the house to its daily disorder and so,

gently,

kindly,

unusually,

entirely out of character,

I gave myself permission to take an afternoon nap.

And a nice long warm nap it was, too, wrapped up in that thick green woolen afghan, two throw pillows at my back, and the long four-seater couch stretching before me to cradle me and my long legs into the land of nod.

My friends come from Idaho just outside of the city of Coeur d’Alene. I knew them when I was teaching. We were all living in the Slocan Valley of British Columbia. That was thirty years ago. I went to Europe, to France, to Art School. They continued on in their lives and eventually, as so many of us did over the years, their careers morphed into something completely different.

He had a penchant for carpentry and began buying houses to fix up and sell, then began building brand new ones. He’d created a comfortable income from that and knew how to enjoy life on his own terms. Freda had moved her way inexorably up the ladder in her school district until she was running it.

She has flair, this girl. She knows everyone in town; everyone in the School District; everyone in school. Because of her work, she knows half the State politicians. That’s how she gets things done.

Everyone loves her. She’s bubbly and dynamic and yet contains that depth of feeling and empathy that makes a life long friend. She has a fierceness about her that no one would mess with. She stands her ground. And yet her softness and kindness is legendary.

Even today, we talked about that time when her closest friend in Coeur d’Alene, dying of cancer, was not getting the care she needed as her friend’s three sisters, her caregivers, so unthinkingably fought over the potential upcoming inheritance. Freda got a lawyer and took them to court to ensure her dying friend’s care! I swear, this is one person you really are privileged to call Friend.

The years go by and we work in the same job year after year, not counting the changes that come with promotions and special projects. We finally get tired of some of the political nonsense that pervades our jobs, whether it be in the corporate world or the public sector. It’s the politics of who rules who, who makes the decisions, whether those decisions are wise or not. It’s the competing interests of one department of the organization over another. Eventually, if you don’t have to stay, then you don’t. The mental stress isn’t worth it. And you can go do something else.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I loved my job while I loved it. It was exciting and I met people from many and various walks of life. I made good work friends with so many of them. I enjoyed the responsibility and the constant learning. But after twenty plus years, and it not being my life’s work, I was ready for a change. All the petty miseries of it crashed in on me when I was doing double duty, looking after my dying mother. When it was time to go, all those pluses disappeared. I wanted to leave. It was time to go.
Fortunately, we are in an an age when there is lots of work and not enough people to do it. We could go hammering on a construction site. We could unstressfully work in a coffee shop. Barrista Kay! I thought, with a smirk.

One of my colleagues took a sabbatical and amongst other things she did with that time off, she worked at Starbucks. And loved it! I’ve dreamed of running my own art gallery, but I don’t know much about how to do that. I’d like to volunteer in a public one until I do know how. Wouldn’t that be cool!

I saw a lady holding a party for young girls, each of which was dressed up like a princess. The girls were awed and giggly. The attending mothers were thrilled. Now wouldn’t that be a fun way to earn a living?

But back to my visit with Freda and Alan. Just lately, Freda, like a number of my friends, has retired, glad to be free of the politicking that was driving her crazy. For such an active woman, sitting around was not an option (although she can take a vacation and enjoy it to the full) . She took her exams for a Real Estate license and began practicing right away. It’s slowed since Christmas in the USA because of the mortgage crisis, but for the preceding months, she instantly had more work than she could take on. That is to say, that if you are dynamic at what you do, you most certainly have the ability to take on something new and become dynamic and successful at career number two.

Freda’s husband Alan is a great hobby cook. Good thing, too. Freda doesn’t like to cook at all. After our first burst of hugs and a tour through my new-to-me house, we fell into our previous modus operandi of telling about our lives through stories. I set them laughing about Charlie the Painter (see previous post). Alan was about to tell a road trip story when I signalled for a halt.

“We’d better sit and eat lunch while we talk or you’ll be leaving here in an hour needing to find a place to eat and I’ll be regretting that the quiche in the oven has turned overly brown and dry. ”

I shared my lemon grass soup recipe with Alan: a fresh lemon grass stock as the liquid addition, paper thin slices of celery, a bit of finely chopped fresh parsley and a tin of mushroom soup to make it creamy.

We downed a delicious new red wine discovery, Luigi Leonardo, a Sicilian product. Unfortunately, I had purchased the last two bottles at our local liquor store. Due to renovations, they were liquidating end of stock items and this was one of them. It might be impossible to get it here again.

We ate baby bok choy smothered in a butter and pesto sauce. The Caesar salad sat on the table untouched. It was a bit much – quiche, a veggie and soup – for a lunch. The salad would be a fine dinner – I wouldn’t have to cook.

Alan told his tale of speeding on the highway. He loves his cars and he had just bought a new luxury model suburban. “Turns on a dime,” said Freda.

“It has Idaho licence plates. The cops see you coming. I couldn’t have been going more than ten k’s above the speed limit and I saw the police car with flashing lights behind me. I pulled over and he stopped right behind me. I knew I was in for it.”
“You might as well admit it when you are caught, ” he said. “So I got a ticket and lumped it.”
“I noted the time on my dashboard when we took off again, driving sagely within the speed limit. The cop warned me that although the speed was 100 in this zone, it was 90 only a few miles up, and I kept that in mind.”

“Not four minutes later, I saw a cop coming towards us and pass. In less than a minute he turned around and was coming up behind us, his siren going and his red light flashing. I thought he must have an accident to get to; but we were his target. Can you imagine? Twice in a day. Twice in five minutes, really. They must look for out of State licenses as targets. They must have a quota, and who from out of State is going to come back and fight a ticket?”
“The cop said I was going 120. Now do you think I would be going 120 four minutes after having received a speeding ticket? I told the policeman all that. He told me to get my speedometer checked. It’s a brand new car. You don’t think I’d be starting off with a faulty speedometer do you? But I have to check back in within a week with them to prove I’ve had it tested. At least he gave me benefit of the doubt. It ruined my timetable for getting here though.”

We went on to discussing common friends from the old days. Where was Elena? What was she doing? Had I heard from Margaret? Did I know that Martha was undergoing cancer treatment? There was altogether too much of that going around. I knew of five people in my acquaintanceship that had cancer and were in various stages of chemo or radiation.

We had moved onto a feminine bit of gossiping that would have fazed many a male. But Alan loves his Freda; and he loves women in general. You can see it on his face. His eyes have some gently carved laugh lines. They light up as he watches the banter go back and forth. These two are a healthy, happy couple and it shines through.

Now all of this might sound a bit banal, with talk of people you don’t know – Freda, Alan, Elena, Margaret and Martha – but this is the stuff that friendships are made of. The caring for individuals that we know. The network of support that weaves through our lives whether we see each other daily or whether we see each other after a hiatus of two years or ten, makes the fabric of our lives.

Regretfully, Freda rose and announced they had to go. Alan rose with her, and I followed to go get their coats. They were expected in Whistler by four.

I saw them away, standing at the front door, not willing to go out in the steadily falling snow. It was cold out and slippery. Outside, there was a general greyness with a polka dot screen of white falling snow. It was accumulating on the ground. Since their arrival, an inch of fresh white had deposited on my car and on the roundabout.

I could be a Realtor too, I thought, as an odd non sequetor. The silence that comes with snow wrapped around me. The silence that comes from guests leaving wrapped around me. I was alone in the house, savouring the flurry of friendship that had come in the door and warmed it up toastily for three hours.

I napped my nap. I got up and had a hot cup of café au lait. I sat down to write. I didn’t want to lose the moment. I wanted to capture it somehow; to freeze frame it; to solidify something elusively undefinable and extraordinary. Friendship.

I didn’t know where to start; and once I did, I didn’t know how to end. After all, it’s wonderful when friendships are endless.

I got up from my computer and went for a second cup of coffee. I stepped out of my little study into a blackened hall. Where had the time gone to? Without a light on in the house but that of my study and the computer screen, it was very dark.

Friendship had lit my whole day. My whole afternoon.

Truth and consequences

November 18, 2007

Women bristle at each other differently than men do. With men, there is a palpable threat of underlying physicality just waiting for a dare.

With women, there is more of a defensive mode; a stony closing in; a self-protection against heart-hurt that lurks, waiting for a truth that cannot be borne. Or so it is in my experience, in my family. We were an intellectual family, promoting rationality, abhorring violence.

Mother stood beside the head of her bed. Kay was standing at the base of it. Their eyes were locked, unmoving, while behind the eyes there was a rapid and minute inspection of each other going on and a long, interminable silence that lasted at least two minutes.

“I’d heard…” ventured Mother.

“Heard what?” defied Kay.

“…heard that you had had an abortion.” It came out painfully. All defensive walls were already up. There was only an arrow-slit window left into her watchful soul. With her mother’s sensitivity, her lie detector was on, full volume.

“You heard wrong,” said Kay. Her voice was equally guarded; her face did not change. She stood a little taller. Only the eyes, still locked with her mother’s, equally searched for the slightest change in her mother’s facial expression that would give a clue of whether the answer had been accepted as given. They could not stay like this forever frozen in time until eternity, waiting for the other’s eyes to drop.

Kay dipped slightly to pick up the afghan that served to decorate the bed. It was the final item that needed to be straightened before the bed was done up for the day. Her eyes did not flinch; but the motion was enough. Mother moved towards the afghan and picked up another corner of the knitted blanket. The move had been made on both sides . A signal that the statement had been made and would be accepted for now, was left for minutious inspection like a sacrifice made at the Oracle in Delphi, later

The motion had broken the tension. In silence, they pulled the blanket straight, smoothed bumps and wrinkles, aligned the top edge parallel to the base of the bedstead and tucked in the bottom. Women’s work.

Kay could not fathom her mother’s credence. Would she accept it or wouldn’t she? Mother would never let her know. All the the things that had been unsaid in this short, but seemingly endless exchange coursed through Kay’s mind like a torrent.

“Shall we have a cup of tea?” said Mother. Mother’s guard had not dropped.

“Let’s,” said Kay. Neither had Kay’s.

But a cup of tea was motion. The kettle, the teapot, tea bag, a plate for a bite to eat. spoons, sugar and a small jug of cream. Like the measuring of blood pressure, the tight band squeezing, pinching the upper arm, the air seeping away and slowly releasing the pressure – so had our tension released then dissipated gradually, leaving only a diminishing memory of the sharp, temporary pain that had been allowed to reach the surface of the skin.

Not much was said over tea. Kay was eager to make it short and leave. Mother seemed to readily accept that.

It had been years, maybe ten, since Kay had found herself pregnant. How could it be so? With all the new contraceptives at one’s disposal, how could this have happened? With everything falling apart, with the marriage in shreds, with her job in question, how could this be added to the craziness? It was just too much.

Kay thought of Rosemary, that slender, freckled, auburn-haired friend who had brought her “Our Bodies, Ourselves” to read, that recently published women’s medical handbook. It was incredible, really, that the taboos of women’s health, the functioning of one’s own body, could be exposed in print for women to read and understand. Kay had had no explanations about her womanly functions from her mother. She devoured the pages greedily, nodding from time to time as light-bulbs lit up her understanding, mysteries uncloaked.

Kay remembered Sharon, the nightclub dancer. No, she had been a stripper and not shy to say so. Sharon had moved into the small town with her beautiful, youthful body, like a fury of destruction, guiltlessly sleeping with every man she met, ravaging marriage after marriage. It was ironic that Sharon had been the final straw in Kay’s relationship and at the same time the only one who had offered an escape to Kay’s dilemma. She knew a doctor who would perform an abortion, if need be.

Sharon and Kay left for North Vancouver, Kay driving, to Doctor X whose name Kay had, by now, these ten years later, completely forgotten. How convenient for Kay, she thought, that she had been born in this generation where abortions had so recently become legal. She would have been pilloried. Her friend Nan, in university, only four years earlier had had an illegal abortion at one of those back door places and it had changed her forever.

Nan had clammed up and never spoken an unnecessary word since. Not to her mother. Not to me. Not to any friend. She wouldn’t eat. She had wasted away, locked in her room by her own choice, to the utter distraction of her mother who, it seemed, never knew what had wrought such a swift and terrible change on Nan.

Her thoughts in turmoil, Kay considered her options. Having a baby did not seem to be one of them. She was falling apart as was her marriage, if you could call it that. She’d barely seen him lately unless he was bringing home his ragtag collection of hangers-on all eager for free dope or booze that had become his modus operandi. Either she was completely alone for huge amounts of time at home or overwhelmed by a houseful of partying people she did not want in it. How could she raise a baby in these conditions? How could she have a baby and work to support it at the same time? She was losing her mind and her job at the same time. How was she to cope? Her whole world was catastrophically caving in.

And what kind of baby would she have, anyway? Kay hadn’t exactly refused to smoke or ingest some of the drugs that had freely walked in and out of her hippie household with her husband and entourage. Would it be deformed? Brain damaged? How had she gotten into this situation, she berated herself. More to the point, how could she get out of it?

The doctor was a woman, kindly and sympathetic. The pregnancy test was positive. She explored Kay’s reasons for wanting an abortion and Kay spilled out her miserable collection of dilemmas in reply. An appointment for the abortion was set not so many weeks away. Timing was critical.

In an odd turn of thought, Kay left the office elated. She could conceive! She was a woman!

That night, without advance warning, Kay went to find her friend Lina in Richmond to stay the night. Kay could no longer go home to Mother. How could she? Mother was so uprighteous and religious. Mother must never know of this or she would never speak to Kay again. Nor would Father. Kay was doing the unthinkable. It had to remain an ugly secret locked up forever. Only now, too late, did she understand her university friend, Nan.

Lina welcomed her in without question. They talked an hour with no limits before Lina said, “I’m working tomorrow. I’ve got to go to bed. Anything in the fridge you want is yours. Stay a day, stay a week; the choice is yours. Here’s a key so you can go in and out. Just drop it in the mail slot if you decide to leave. I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon.”

During that week, Kay barely slept, ideas elbowing and jostling like in a swarming train station, in her brain. Kay desperately wished and prayed for a miscarriage. Kay tried to induce a natural one with extreme yoga and other exercises. Kay pounded her abdomen trying to chase the unwelcome incubus from her womb.

Kay considered throwing herself down stairs but never could quite commit to the other permanent ills and hurts that she might invoke by doing so. She considered various means of self-destruction – slit wrists, poison, drowning – and rejected them all. They were all too messy, too painful or too ugly to leave behind for other people to clean up. And besides, it wasn’t her that she wanted gone, it was her problems – and this little growing thing that would be, by half, the product of this ugly relationship gone wrong and the man whom she now loathed.

And so it was, weeks later, that Kay sat in the doctor’s office, taking another pregnancy test, just before the intended operation.

“Why do I have to do this again?” Kay asked the doctor a bit querulously.

“Because I have to verify if you really are pregnant. ”

Kay sat waiting in turmoil. All the women’s magazines seemed frivolous, stupid really. Her eyes cursorily scanned the other patients. Were they there for the same reason? She continued to inspect the others, too numb to inspect herself inwardly.

“This test says that you are not pregnant.” the doctor informed her, “but we are going to go through a little procedure, a D and C. You say you haven’t had any bleeding but if you have miscarried, I’d like to make sure that we have removed any tissue that might have remained. It will be more certain that way.”

Kay nodded.

She left with a certain amount of glee. How it had happened, she did not know. Whether the first test had been inaccurate Had she been pregnant at all? or had she naturally aborted, miscarried, There had been no evidence of it, she did not know. She did not have to have an abortion. That was how her mind read it.

But here, ten years after, all these events came flooding back into Kay’s mind as she stared at her Mother who was inspecting her for a sign. What, really, was the difference between a D&C and an abortion? Had she really been pregnant? Even Kay could not say, and so she had been able to hold her Mother’s gaze, albeit guardedly. All of this was sitting on the razor’s edge of truth waiting to be cut, one way or another.

Break the News to Mother

November 9, 2007

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Break the News to Mother

Whilst the shot and shell was screeming Upon the battle field

The boys in blue were fighting their noble flag to shield

Came a cry from their brave Captain, look boys our flag is down,

Who’ll volunteer to save it from disgrace.

I will, a young voice shouted, I’ll bring it back or die,

Then sprung into the thickest of the fray,

Saved the flag but gave his young life, all for his country’s sake,

they bought him back and softly heard him say.

(Chorus)

Just break the news to Mother; They say there is no other;

Ant tell her not to wait for me, for I’m not coming home.

From a far but noted General had witnessed this brave deed.

“Who saved our flag, Speak up lads, ’twas a noble brave, indeed. “

“There he lies, sir” said the Captain, “he’s sinking very fast”;

then quietly turned away to hide a tear.

The General in a moment knelt down beside the boy

Then gave a cry that touched all hearts that day.

‘Tis my son, my brave young hero! It thought you were at home. “

“Forgive me father, for I ran away.”

Chorus

“Just break the news to mother….”

Just say there is no other to take the place of mother

And kiss her dear sweet lips for me and break the news to her.

H.G.

My apologies to the author if I’ve misquoted and misspelled – I’ve just copied the  little pencil written note that I have in my hands:

I found this little handwritten song that was tucked into pile of Mother’s news clippings. I wonder now if they were clippings about grandmother’s family friends and their losses during the first war. This little heart and hand drawn piggy softly watercoloured in, was stuck to it. They seemed to belong together, though the clippings are now separated from the drawing.
It was a heart rendering song, the kind that was meant to rally the troops, give them patriotic fervo, and to keep the home fires kindled and ablaze for the war efforts.

We look at it now and scoff a little at the sentimentality. Neither of mom’s brothers went to the war of 1914-1918 – they were just children still.

During the Gulf war, I sat across the table from my two nephews whom I was just beginning to care for in Mother’s home. They were seventeen and eighteen. I looked at their innocent faces, their fresh young skin and their boisterous well being and thought what a travesty it would be if they were called upon to serve. Cannon fodder. Lives stopped before they have time to live out even a modicum of their potential. And yet, one of my nephews – Lizbet’s boy, at twenty two – was doing exceedingly well in the military and loving it. He was ready for the fray – quite a different fray from that of 1914. He will go to Afghanistan in February.

Life seems to be a continuum. After the war to end all wars, there has been a war somewhere, doggedly continuing in the world, wreaking havoc on the countryside and killing our youth.

And so, the poem, the song, bears a heavy emotional charge. Lizbet talks often about what would happen to her if her tall, brave son were to die in a war.
“I put it out of my mind as much as I can” she said to me the other night, “or else I would go crazy. I don’t know how I could live if I did not know my son was out there in the world, alive and well,”

Amnesty

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.

The Ice Box

November 5, 2007

It was a desultory Sunday afternoon conversation. Mr. and Mrs. Stepford were sipping tea and Mrs. was rapturing over a piece of lemon flavoured pound cake.

Mr. was leafing through a box of old newspapers and magazines that had been brought from Mother’s house as I was clearing it out. I hadn’t time to sort it out at all, so the boxes and piles of stuff from her house were now encumbering my living room, my dining room, my studio, my office, my basement, the outdoor tool shed. Boxes, boxes everywhere, and not a drop to drink, I thought, remembering Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and massacring the lines of the poem to suit my purposes. I could have done with a short sharp nip of something. I was getting worn down by the aesthetic depression I was getting into, looking at all the boxes.

“These are all about the Niagara Falls Rainbow Bridge,” said Mister Stepford. “Nineteen Forty-two” he muttered, as an afterthought.

He carefully handled each newspaper and magazine that he brought out, laying them upside down in the box top so that he could easily put them back in order when he had looked at them all. He was searching for my father’s name amongst the myriad credits that were cited in reference to the bridge.

“He was just starting as a Civil Engineer. I’m sure he must have worked on it. But they woudn’t have credited a rooky Engineer. It was the middle of the war. I remember Mom telling me that all the women were encouraged, that is, coerced, into assisting with the apple and peach harvests because all the men were off to war or doing something essential at “home”. She went picking, she told me, but she hated it.”

Mr. Stepford fell silent as he turned the pages, careful not to tear the fragile paper, careful to keep the folds that were already there aligned so that no damage would occur from his handling them.

Then he found a 1941 calendar. “Whose year of birth was this one?” he asked.

“Heather’s”

Next he found the May 1945 NATIONAL home monthly.

“Look!” he remarked,” There are several companies that are still going strong today. “Cow Brand baking soda; Old Dutch Cleanser; Kotex; Arrid deoderant; Swift’s Premium Bacon;Jello; Gold Seal Salmon; Yardley’s soaps; Coca Cola; Magic Baking Powder!”

“Ice boxes!” he exclaimed, as he read on. “The new Ice refrigerators are here!” he quoted.

“I remember the day they brought a refrigerator into our house on Thirty-sixth Street.” said I. “We had an ice box before that. It was before we moved to Burnaby, so that must have been about 1950. I was little, but I remember. No more messy blocks of ice; No more emptying out the drip pan in the bottom. Times sure have changed.”

“Mother had the first refrigerator on the block. And the first dishwasher, too. We called it James, like it was a servant, but that was it’s brand name as well. Someone else had the first television. That was 1953 because we kids all went down to the Hillman’s house on the next block to watch Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation. That was really something!”

“And do you remember the horse and cart that delivered Dairyland’s milk from door to door? There was so little gas available and at such a price, that the retailers went back to delivery by horse rather than by automobile.”

The memories come in bits and pieces. A comment made, an object to touch – they all have ghosts behind them. Ghosts of the living – that person I used to be whether small, at five or tall when I was eleven, or twenty – still stirring, remembering threads and patches in the fabric of my life and bringing them forward.

Nostalgic endings and Auspicious beginnings

October 28, 2007

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I dropped out of sight for a while. Life has a way of overwhelming us sometimes and the only way out seems to be tackling one task at a time, ignoring the rest. Piece by piece the puzzle clarifies, takes shape, forms and resolves, if only one can keep putting one foot before the other, doggedly completing one more task towards the goal.

In resolving Mother’s estate, I’ve come to the point where I have to sell the house. Otto, with much protest, finally left Mother’s house. Although he was to be out by September 30th, his affairs still are encumbering various rooms. His son, my nephew Ron, helped him finally take his accumulated goods stored in the garage yesterday – October 27th. He left behind all the things he doesn’t want – debris really.

I got someone from our family’s church to come take possession of anything amongst these that they thought they might sell at the thrift shop and that was helpful to me, Otto and the thrift store, so that was a good thing. I’m annoyed that there are many of his things still left to dispose of – dismantled IKEA furniture that he cannot use in his new apartment, boxes and boxes of empty wine bottles for his unrealized wine-making projects; tools no longer useful because they have been left to rust; unspeakable debris – dust, spider webs, scattered screws, badminton rackets and squash rackets, camping lanterns, sleeping bags with burn holes in them; lids to baking dishes; useless kitchen ware that has sat outside, boxed in the garage for the ten years he lived with Mother and me.

There is more, but I won’t keep you enthralled with the grime of it.

What is driving me now is the Realtor. I took two weeks to interview Realtors and found an excellent one to sell the house. He’s holding his first open house for other Realtors on this coming Thursday. From start to finish, that gave me ten days.

My dear lovely Heather and her dauntless husband complete with pick-up truck and a U-haul trailer came from Sechelt to help me, with some vested interest. Heather was taking away a load of furniture – Mother’s bedroom suite, some teak arm chairs; the 1950’s teak stereo set, a marvel of Danish craftsmanship; a mattress and box spring; boxes of Lavender Rose china dinnerware; familial linens both for table and bed; and assorted treasures.

Dauntless husband is a real treasure. He was able to lift massively heavy things with engineering tricks – rolling them down stairs and across lawn and sidewalks out of the house and to the truck with a dolly, leveraging the weight of the furniture with two-by-four planks on to the truck, sliding things on mats and rugs. We two sisters helped, but without his manly packing tricks and muscle, I would never have been done clearing out the house. It saved me having to select a mover and find storage (mind boggled as I am, this is one of my daunting thoughts). Now the work was done and over with. To me it was an incredible feat and I am bottomlessly thankful for his generosity of time, brawn and expertise.

Heather and I sifted through the small things. The storage shelves held things stored for forty years and more. There were the crewel stitched, tulip patterned drapes that had graced the dining room in our house in Vancouver which we left in 1956. There were other fabric treasure, surely not useful, of similar vintage. There were large pieces of beautiful burlap that were intended for some project or other that had stayed in the wooden steamer trunk, unfaded by time by virtue of their forty year exclusion from air and light. What had Mother intended for these? All for naught.

A forty year list would be too long for here – and boring. But there were treasures. In a large paper bag, four feet by two, there was a cotton sheet wrapping something precious. Marilyn Munroe would have died to have this dress. All frothy pink netting on the outer layer, it was strapless with a white netting froth of trim along the top of the bustier shape. It was form fitting to the waist with whale-boning inside. These were covered over with a fine black trim that descended in arrows to ten inches below the waist as the skirt flaired out into a crinoline supported fan shape. She must have looked just like a princess, a movie star. At five foot eight in her glory days, she must have been so thin to wear this dress – a size ten or so, I guessed. Who had made it for her? It was all hand stitched on the inside. A marvel of couture construction.

Heather also found a tin box that had once held shortbread, with a picture of King Edward VIII’s coronation memorialized on it. His reign was so short, it must be rare. It contained precious family letters which are a real treasure.

Heather and Dauntless Husband left on Friday morning. They had medical appointments to keep in Sechelt. They had both worked like slaves and for long hours. I was so profoundly thankful for their help and yet my heart sunk at the remainder to be done.

On Friday after they left, I hopped in the car and headed back to the house. I had made an arrangement with Sheri at the Thrift to go straight there first, so she would know that I was back and so that she could come pick up another batch of goods.

On arrival, I could not help myself but look through the Thrift to see if there was anything I wanted. I found an original painting, badly framed, water damaged on the framing, waiting to be rescued. While there I met a Mexican lady who was helping with the work. I asked her what had brought her to Canada.

She was wife of a visiting professor, a researcher in Engineering. He had Immigration status on an exchange basis, but she, with her Masters in Business Administration, was not permitted to work and she was here at the Thrift, looking for some contacts and useful volunteer work to keep her busy. Knowing that I was cleaning out the house, she offered to come and help me with the rest.

I was sorely tempted to have help, but I declined. Cleaning was hardly the kind of work to ask a visiting professor’s wife and a professional in her own right to do and I said this to her. She protested.

“I only live on the corner from your house, ” she pleaded. “I have nothing to do. It fills up my time. I would be happy to help and I know what a big task it is. I would love to. Besides, if you are throwing away furniture, there are a few things I could use. Please let me.”

I thought about Mother and Father, the year they went to Columbus Ohio for Dad to finish his Doctorate degree. Had someone welcomed him in with simple kindnesses. But Mother had been studying. She would not have been at wit’s end to entertain her active mind with simply anything.

I remembered my four months in Montpellier, accompanying Franc on a new job, sitting day after day alone in a studio apartment that we could ill afford. I never once was invited into another person’s house. I never spoke in a friendly manner to any French person even though I could speak French fluently by that time. Though I had my amusements – letter writing, painting, reading, walking – I almost went crazy with loneliness, the want of a friendly chat. I went walking in stores, talking to store clerks just to hear a human voice in the long hours that Franc was away working. I would have been so grateful for the opportunity to meet another person, to have conversation, to exist outside of myself.

And so I did. I let her come, and we made our arrangements. She was not free on this day, but she would come tomorrow.

We met on Saturday. She was efficiency itself. She organized me and kept me going. I was her business project for the day. As we worked, she told me a bit about herself. Her family had come in September. They were living in a basement suite. “Oh, the rent is so high, for just this” she exclaimed. We are working on a Mexican professor’s salary, not a Canadian one.”

But she had furnished it quickly with furniture from the Salvation Army and the Thrift store. People who knew them had given them things. The only thing she missed was having access to a laundry.

“Well then, bring your laundry. We have a laundry here and you can use it while we work. That will save you at least one trip.”

We worked away. We cleaned, room by room. Not the heavy cleaning – a company is going to do that. They will come and spit polish the place for the showing. While I sorted, she took a broom and swept up the dust balls. We gathered every last thing in the kitchen. She washed the dishes; packed up some remaining glassware for the Thrift.

When her laundry was dry, she called on her husband to come take it away along with the few things she had decided to take . There was a book case, the shipping to my house would have been more expensive than buying a new one here; a simple side table in plastic laminate; a glass vase; a few cooking vessels and utensils.

Miguel and his son Miguel packed away their new possessions and came back to lift and pack all the boxes I was bringing back to my home to sort and dispose of. I didn’t have to pack the car, this one more time, and I was grateful.

When that was done, Miguel-father said “Come eat with us!”

“Oh no!” I demurred, ” I should probably head off for home.” I was thinking that they did not have much.

“Where are you going to eat lunch?” asked Diana pointedly. She sounded like my mother though she looked ten years or more younger than I. “Come with us.”
What’s stopping you? Where have you to go? Who is waiting for you? Would you not have loved some simple company when you were travelling, living in a foreign country, especially company of the locals who would help you understand their country and their ways?

And so I went. Miguel the father departed immediately to make the lunch. Diana and I wrapped up our day’s work to give him time to set his cooking pot going.

Half an hour later, we arrived at their basement suite, just at the corner of the lane. It was a one bedroom basement suite with the only windows at the top 18 inches of the North wall.
“See?” she said excitedly to me,” here is the book case a friend gave to me.” That was me. “And we love the lamp” It was casting a warm glow into the room.

“And the vase.” It already had a few colourful autumn twigs in it. I subtracted these few items from the room and thought “How barren this room must have looked without them. How those few things had brought some home-like grace to it”, and I was glad for them.

We sat down to a delicious repast of Basa filets stewed in a butter sauce laced with a chemist’s brew of kitchen spices, marinated fresh tomatos, fluffy rice and a dinner roll. We held hands for a blessing of the food and the gracious kindness of the Lord in providing new friendships. We shared a glass of dry red wine and toasted our acquaintance. The table fell silent as we ate, then with a bit of cherry ice cream sitting on our plates before us, we chatted for another two hours non-stop as if we had always known each other, as if we had been friends since Methusalem.

It was four in the afternoon when I left. The day had been brilliant in the morning. It had become lightly overcast with high thin clouds above. As I drove out the number one highway towards Maple Ridge, the autumn oranges were tempered in a blue haze, blending the landscape as if in a soft pastel drawing. Mile after mile, kilometer after kilometer, the verges of the highway were dressed in crystal clear images that David Lean would have waited months for, had he been filming. My heart was full of happiness.

Then at the Pitt River Bridge, I saw the trees on the river’s edge, just recently turned to lace with the last fall of leaves silhouetted in black against the pale peach sunset and the pale, slate blue sky. They were reflecting in a perfectly calm river. It took my breath away. I could barely look at the road for wanting to fix the image in my brain, and I was driving!

Just after crossing the bridge, there was Mount Baker completely visible and clear, pink and blue in the dusky light. The wonder of the Pitt River Bridge trees was blasted out of my memory as I drank in this new, beautiful image.

Then I was past it and onto the Old Dewdney Trunk Road, the last stretch to home, through the Pitt Meadows farm lands. Looming before me was the series of barn red outbuildings – including a traditional shaped barn – stretching like a panoramic photo – underscored with a thick swath of brilliant red blueberry fields. That same dusky pink sky sat behind it all.

I was contented. I thought nothing could be better than these things I had just seen, but as I approached the red outbuildings, Mount Baker reappeared and made a background to the red barns. Oh, Lordy! And no place to stop to take a photo!

I was home not long after. What a glorious day, for one that had started off with such misgivings.

How fortunate am I! Praise the Lord! And I have a new family of friends.