Archive for the ‘forgetfulness’ Category

Fire!

July 20, 2009

The day started quite unprofitably when I agreed to keep Mrs. Stepford and one other friend of hers company during her garage sale. If I was going to sit  four four hours there, I was also going to bring a few things to the fray.  Since it was just next door, it was relatively easy to trot out a few pieces of furniture and the old solid fir door. I brought two ancient and very heavy wooden ladders, the kind one would no longer use because they are deemed much less safe than the new aluminum ones, but they are apparently valuable for garden decor now, or polished up and revarnished for decorative use in front halls with plants hanging from each rung.

I brought three liquor store boxes of books and a wheel barrow full of Irises recently planted in six inch pots. I had a box of bric-a-brac, a kettle and captain’s chair.

I’m getting smart in my middle age:  I like to break up tasks into smaller parts so that I can do these things myself.  I took the ladders and the door across the way on Friday night, then on Saturday, the big things would already be  there. I could just bring the boxes and plants. Nothing would spoil by being out overnight. The day was forecast to be brutally sunny, and so it turned out to be.

We were supposed to start at ten but Mrs. Stepford had advertised it in the newspaper and the dealers were there at eight-thirty before we had really put things out properly.

It was a disinterested parade of potential buyers that came by. Who knows why,  but few stopped to inspect our glorious collection of overly used items. In the first hour, I bought a very kitchy jewel box from Mrs. Stepford and from her friend, I found six interesting books I hadn’t read.  I was now minus ten dollars in my attempt to make a fortune. But I was not intending to tell you so much about the garage sale. I have other more important items to get to.

During our five hour vigil over our desirable, distressed junk, two buyers bought six of my books. In total I had three dollars in my pocket on the profit side and when I compared that to the debit side, I was sadly out of pocket by seven. I contributed three lowly loonies as a share of the advertising and my debit side was back up to ten.  With much grumbling and weariness, I packed the whole lot back home. I got it to the back basement door and left it there to be brought in later.

Once done, I found I was ravenously hungry. There was nothing prepared and I had to invent something. I had no intention of cooking on a day as hot as this.

I rummaged in the  refrigerator and found salad things – a lettuce, some tomato, carrots and onions. It wasn’t appealing, so I rummaged in the freezer, hoping to find a quick meal and found just the thing. At the very back of the freezer, of course. Ice cream. On a hot day, it was perfect.

The cavity was efficiently packed. The only way to get to the ice cream pail out was to efficiently unpack it all off the top shelf, serve myself and pack everything back up again.

While ice cream has a real come-hither taste and the advantage of being very cool and refreshing, it does not have great texture.  I’ve discovered a delightful way to rectify this lack. I ate it with a handful of crispy  Kashi whole grain breakfast cereal, lining the bowl with it, adding in the  ice cream and garnishing it with some pecans and a fistful of fresh blueberries.

Then I succumbed to a fit of exhaustion. The heat, the carrying of heavy objects back and forth in the beating sun and an ice cream sugar slump combined to put me flat out, in seconds.  I slept on the couch for a few hours. This unprofitable mercantile venture had simply done me in.

I awoke with a phone call a few hours later, then spent the evening sorting out a horrible accumulation or office papers whilst watching TV. There were some over due bills, applications if varying states of completion for galleries, offers of all kinds of merchandise  and appeals from charities.

At about eleven, I was getting my last coffee of the day and pilfering a few more candy-like Kashi clusters. I went to the fridge to get some milk and just as I was opening the fridge door, a plastic margarine container started to fall off the top of the freezer compartment. It was full of meat balls in tomato sauce  left from one of the social gatherings I had hosted.

What to do?

Everyone knows that ground meat is dangerous if left in luke warm conditions for any length of time. I’m not exactly a starving artist, but I have been from time to time. I loath throwing good food out. It riles me beyond measure. But was this good food? Had I brought it out two hours earlier after the phone call when I rummaged for some dinner or six hours earlier when I ate the ice cream? It had been frozen solid which was in my favour, but it wasn’t now. How long had it been thawed?

I decided to heat the whole lot, steam it for half an hour. After all, it was a spaghetti and meat balls sauce and could tolerate hours and hours of cooking.

I added a modicum of water so it wouldn’t stick on the bottom and set it to heat on the gas stove. I would have to stay up another half hour at least to watch the pot boil.

I began to tidy away the detritus of the day. I emptied the dishwasher of clean dishes and loaded it back up with the utensils from lunch and dinner. I took some papers from my early-evening sortings into the office and shredded them; I put another small pile into the green recycle bag.  I noticed a light in the basement and went to turn it off.

Down in the basement, I discovered baskets and book boxes from the garage sale that had not been put away. I stacked them in a pile then suddenly remembered I had left a few things outside that still had to come in.

Might as well do this properly, I thought. Lets get rid of some of this volume, and I shifted three book boxes into the back store room and started packing the loose pieces – a few old plates, a vase with long-necked white farm ducks all around the top, a small delftware vase in blue and white, some old – really really old – pant hangers from the ’20s.

All of a sudden the smoke alarms were both going off. I raced up the stairs and into the kitchen. I had forgotten all about the meat balls.  Smoke was pouring from the edges of the lidded pot.  I whipped the pot off the element and shut off the gas. I turned on the hood fan over the stove – after all, there was no fire, just a lot of smoke and an ear splitting alarm.

Everything was safe, and I then leapt up the stairs to de-activate the alarm, then to the hallway to downstairs to deactivate a second one that had just begun to add to the chorus. My adreniline was on fire.

Good Lord! Could I not remember that I had things cooking on the stove? Soon I would be burning the place down, or someone would decide I had to be packed off to a residential care unit because of my forgetfulness!

I opened both front and back door and turned the upright fan on full force. I took a towel and waved the smoke down from the ceiling and out the front door.  Now I would have to stay up another hour while the house aired out.

When the visible smoke was gone, I sat at the piano and played a Bach Prelude and Fugue to calm myself. I  sat and puzzled out a Sudoku. I turned on the television and watched the end of Inspector Morse in a play where women priests of the Anglican persuasion were banding together to elect a woman as headmaster of an Oxford College of Theology.  I polished some silverware. I worried about the recent news of a home invasion not six blocks from where I lived – and here I had both front and back door open, welcoming moths of the night, mosquitoes and fresh air into my my main floor. Why not home invaders too?

What would I say to one?  “Oh, thank goodness you are here. I’ve been expecting you. I’m just waiting for the fire department. I thought I had a fire. ”

“I had a bit of a catastrophe  here with a pot of spaghetti sauce and meat balls. It’s only burned on the bottom.  I tasted them and they are even more delicious than before I burnt them.  Would you like to try them?”

Do you think that would confound a home invader? Make him back out as fast as possible if the fire department might actually be coming? Or would he be a poor soul, so happy to have a meal, even a burnt one, that he would gobble them up, and in gratitude just leave me and my poor possessions alone?

I know. I know. I have an over active imagination. All of a sudden, I felt tired. I locked the front and back doors.  Had I locked the basement door?

This time, I checked the stove before I went down. It was off. All was in order. I checked the basement door. It was locked.  I turned off all the lights but the one that lit the passage to upstairs and went to bed.

By the way, if I don’t post in the next few days or forever more, you can tell the coroner that it most likely was the meatballs.

Yes, I tasted them, and they are so-oooooo good.

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Memories

February 24, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here’s my new trick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twirling dirvishes at the wedding

January 28, 2008

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Mrs. Stepford’s son was married in August to his Glasgow sweetheart. His bridal princess wanted to be married in a castle, full regalia for the laddies, and so they did. Both father and son were got up in kilts, sporrans, white knee high socks and Ghillie brogues, those shoes that lace half way up the calf.

Mrs. Stepford missed out on the main event and so Mr. and Mrs. threw a party here in Canada for the bridal pair. It was a good gig with excellent food provided by the Stepfords but also from the parent’s friends who all wanted to excel over the Stepford’s other friends in bringing a specialty dish to feed the cast of thousands that were expected to come.

I had concocted a salad of macaroni, artichoke hearts, laced with finely chopped onions and celery to give it a bit of crunch, then topped with olives and parsley for decoration. I also had cooked a large pre-sliced ham since Mrs. S. didn’t have room in her oven for all three in hers.

I arrived at the reception on time, but barely. I’d had a migraine in the morning and nevertheless chopped a ton of red pepper, cilantro, parsley and green onions for her salads. Mid afternoon I took a nap and arose quite refreshed; but I was late. I had to hurry to get dressed, package up the things I was bringing and get myself out the door.

It was snowing again and I donned my boots for warmth and walking safety – better than just going in my slippery-bottomed leather shoes. Much to my dismay when I arrived, food parcels in hand, I had forgotten the shoes. The locale not being far from home, I returned home to pick up my shoes. This dithering is just an aftermath of migraine days so I don’t worry about it too much. I had realized that the setting up at the hall was well underway and they really didn’t need me for fifteen minutes.

I arrived back at the hall, dancing shoes in hand and proceeded to unwrap – snow encrusted umbrella, Sunday going-to meeting fur lined coat; warm, flat-heeled boots, only to discover to my mortification, that I had neglected to put stockings on. I was still wearing red leg warmers that peeked out with a frill at the bottom of my dress pants and below that bright pastel sky-blue fuzzy bed socks! God forbid that anyone should see this atrocious get up that I wear at home to keep myself warm. It was as if I had turned up in my pyjamas for this prestigious event!

Rapidly I removed the offending pastel blue socks and stuffed them in my coat pocket. I stuffed my now bare feet into my dancing shoes and looked around somewhat guiltily to see if anyone had noticed. It seemed not. Good grief! What was I going to come up with next!

Wedding feasts are wedding feasts; but wedding reception music differs widely and we were in for a treat. Both father and son belong to rock bands, father on bass guitar and son as lead singer. There are also a drummer, a lead guitarist who sings as well. As Stepford son belted out “I can’t get no satisfaction” I wasn’t particularly listening (my tastes run to Classical) and at the end of it and I breathed a sigh of relief that the loudness had diminished, I was quite surprised not to see Mick Jagger on stage, it was so well done. There were several other like tunes, recognizable, excellently played, excellently sung. For a home grown band, it was sounding mightily professional.

Stepford son had been hoping to get the entire invitational list up and dancing, but no one seemed ready to budge after having scarfed a wonderful dinner and several rounds of joy juice. That is, except three little girls who were high on coming to an adult party.

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By looks, I would imagine that the youngest was six or seven, the next one eight and the last one about ten. The only other “child” that was there was Stepford son’s cousin.

I said to this lovely shy girl, “What grade are you in now? Twelve?”

She looked a little frightened at my question and then a bit bit pleased, then enormously proud that I had taken her for an adult. She was only thirteen and in Grade Eight, she informed me. She comported herself so well that it was easy to make such a mistake.

The little girls seemed not to have any inhibitions about dancing. At first, I had only sensed that there was motion on the dance floor. Someone was up there but not worth paying much attention. Then a flash of red racing over the dance floor began to flicker regularly in my peripheral vision and I took my camera with me to see if I could capture the spellbinding dancing that was going on.

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Dance after dance, these little sprites were using up the floor space, sometimes running in circular motion, sometimes twirling; arabesques, pliés, petits jetés, pas de chats and pirouettes. They did not fatigue. There was boundless energy. The little red-skirted child twirled and twirled, then varied her choreography with some runs and graceful flailing of arms.

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The band eventually tired and the children continued to move about, dancing, wishing that music would recommence. Their parents gathered them around and began to say their goodbyes.

I came up and said both to parents, “That’s quite a dancer you’ve got there! Youthful energy! Don’t you wish we still had a fraction of that?”

And then to the little miss I said, ” Are you going to be a ballerina when you grow up?”

She drew her self up in the tallest reproval she could muster, indignant at my comment.

“I’m already am a ballerina!”

How true she was. She knew herself. Dancing, she was a human bundle of self confidence.

Not one of my pictures turned out. The digital camera simply could not focus on such a twirling dirvish. Nevertheless, there is a certain je ne sais pas quoi in these images of speed and innocent artistry.

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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.

Potatoes in the Geraniums

October 19, 2007

She came in the back door holding a small geranium plant pinched between two fingers. I could tell by the look on her face that I was in trouble again. If not me, it was someone else.

“Who took the geraniums out of the pot?” she said sharply. It was the latest of mysterious violations of the garden that had occurred, probably in the middle of the night. Mother was quite suspicious more often now. She felt there were prowlers about. Unusual noises and unusual events made her nervous and vulnerable. She became critical of my “management” of the house and the environs, and yet she was utterly dependent on me now.

The previous week, we had lost the whole crop of pears from the tree in the back yard. The day before she had tested them and she suggested that in two more days they would be perfect to bring in.
“I don’t know, Mom” I replied as evenly as I could about her wilting geranium. “I’ll go take a look-see. It doesn’t take much to put it back in.”

I relieved her of the offending plant that was trailing bits of dust and root upon the kitchen floor and took it down the back steps to a large planter that I had used for summer annuals. Indeed! It had been dug up and sloppily. There was dirt surrounding it scattered on the cement sidewalk.

I took a small trowel and began to prepare a hole to put the geranium back in. To my consternation, I found potatoes had been planted instead. This truly was silly! Ridiculous! Who would plant potatoes in a flower pot?

I pulled out one of these red brown potatoes only to be confronted with another amazing thing. What had been planted, inviolate, no tears, no scars, no nicking of the skin, were the pears off the tree!

I pulled out the pears and stuck the geranium back in, tamping it firmly so that the roots would survive their adventure out of their element.

“Good news and bad news!” I declared to Mother as I reentered the house. I told her what I had discovered.

“It must have been the squirrel that stole all the pears so you can stop worrying about the two legged variety of animals coming in to steal the pears. But they are all gone, planted somewhere for the squirrel’s pleasure when they ripen.”

Not many days later, I watched a rat climb the pear tree for one of the three remaining pears. It was hanging on the end of a fragile branch and the rat was fearful of falling. It gingerly descended the branch and extended one short front paw out to bat the pear from the stem that held it to the tree. It took a long time, advancing, losing balance and regaining it, tamping that unsteady, wavering branch, his fat, well-nourished body trembling only slightly higher up on the same branch.

As I was out in the yard tending to garden maintenance a few hours later, I noticed that he rat had succeeded in getting the pear to the ground. There it lay, a plump ripe pear with little teeth marks indenting its surface.

I never told Mother about the rat so that it could not trouble her already active sense of vulnerability and doom.

Windstorm number eight

June 21, 2007

Down the eerie hallway, emergency lighting kicked in. It was dinner time and most of the inmates of this kooky residence were on the main floor waiting for the aides to help them up the elevator. With the power out, the elevators weren’t running. Over a hundred residents and most of the employees now had to stay on the main floor.

People seem to forget that elderly people have had experiences in their lives. People seem to assume that once a person is relegated to these hellish antechambers to heaven, that they are incapable of thinking or reasoning. In fact, the generation of people being processed through the entrance trials for dying are full of experience that has been parked at the door, waiting for the final run. Staff and visitors are generally ignorant of their personalities, of their rich lives behind them, of their accomplishments, their tribulations they have conquered, the prizes they have won and the works they have excelled at.

Most of these residents were from pioneering families who lived with grit and determination to carve out communities where none had existed before. Most had lived through the Great Depression and at least one World War; many have lived through two. One told me her own tales of the blitz in London and how her father, one of the volunteer Home Guard, had been blown to smithereens one night in a bombing on Downing street and the fact of it was announced at her door by a police man the next day. Another had told of her experiences in the Dutch East Indies army during the Second World War. That was hairy! Mrs. C had been a reporter for the Vancouver Sun and the Province her whole life, and Mrs. M had been a politician both in the provincial government and in the federal. Molly had been in the flooded parts of the province in 1948 when the Fraser had spilled over the dykes stranding thousands. Peter the architect had travelled world wide with his professional duties. There were several doctors and university professors. You wouldn’t know it to look at them, all crippled and wrinkled as they were, doddering on unstable legs, shuffling along in their walkers and being pushed in their wheelchairs, unable to hear, to see and impaired in their speaking. Everyone had a story to tell, but few had someone to tell it to, so they became anonymous bodies to be cared for, like sacks of potatoes.

And so, sacks of potatoes and cognizant alike, were lined up along the full length of the long hall to the dining room and adjoining television/lounge area wrapped as best as possible in blankets from the store room. They looked like they were on a ship cruise sunning themselves, waiting for the activity director to propose the next diversion, only it was dark inside. Most of them recognized the power outage for what it was, stoically ready to wait in the darkness until the power could be restored. Some pioneering spirits were trying to comfort some less coherent inmates; others, telling stories to cheer their compatriots in adventure, some trying to get the attention of the nurses and aides who could barely cope with the magnitude of needs that were all massed together making concurrent demands on their skills. This was one time when economies of scale were not working. Having everyone together requesting attention at the same time was not conducive to a calming outcome!

However, this night was one where the staff shone. No one went home, even though it was long after their usual quitting time. The manager phoned to other staff, off duty, and asked those who could to come back. It was going to be quite a task keeping these hundred elderly patients calm in the dining room and hallways of the main floor. I can tell you now that the event lasted eight and a half hours. There were pills to give, people to take to the bathroom, people who needed to lie down.  I challenge you to imagine how hard it would be for you, yourself, to sit in the same place for eight hours –  to sit upright, unable to lie down, nor relax, nor amuse yourself, nor get up and stretch your legs, or do something constructive about your own situation. It was something like a trip to Australia without the leg break in Hawaii.

We’d be going crazy, I’d say. I was amazed, too, at the calm that the residents themselves brought to the occasion.

In the murky dark, a few emergency lights shone. The main entrance, in fire alarm mode, had switched to fail safe – the outer automatic door was permanently open letting in a howling wind to the first lobby, blocked by a poorly insulated second set of manual doors. It was decidedly cool and the heat was no longer circulating in the building since the air handling units were shut down.

Two employees guarded the door. There were a number of escape artists amongst the residents. How could one even think of abandoning the other patients on a night like this to go looking for a foolhardy escapist who would brave the storm without any thought to their comfort or safety. It must not happen!

By the time Otto and I had arrived, not knowing the power failures had affected the residence, the staff had calmed the few wailers and assisted half of the residents to sofas in the television corner. Those with walkers or wheel chairs were lined up against the walls waiting for the elevator to come back on. A few more hardy souls were trying to play cards by candlelight at one of the dinner tables, hindered cruelly in their failing eyesight by the pitched gloom.

From our opposing perspectives, our emergency mode kicked in. Otto could see that people needed entertaining. He is wonderful at this. He loves gathering, parties, telling stories. He has an amazing ability to remember people’s names and a little fact about them. It is his one quality that makes him shine at his business net-working. He moved from one resident to another, greeting them by name, asking them how they were bearing up, telling them a little tale of the world outside, and moving on to the next one. They were happy for the diversion and it cheered the company immensely.

Mother, we both agreed, could wait. She had Heather in attendance and Otto’s ex-wife keeping her company. In any case, Mother was too absorbed in her process of dying to be cognizant of the world past her own bed. She was completely internalized now.

I, too, was greeting the residents, but mostly the ones I had gotten to know in a deeper way. I ran emergency commissions for those who were fretting to a point of sub-panic.

Maria, for instance, was upset about her pills. If not taken on time, she would go into convulsions. She had been sitting in the same place for over two hours already and could not capture a nurse’s attention to tell of her plight. I found the fourth floor nurse and explained Maria’s concern. Someone would have to run up the emergency fire escape stairs to the fourth floor and obtain the pills. It was arranged, and I went on to the next one. Another resident was unusually cold and I found someone on staff to give me an extra blanket for her. Dr. John who lived across the hall from Mother had Parkinsons disease. It had advanced to the stage where he could only sit up so long. I hailed a passing employee and requested some place where he might lie down. The need to lie down turned out to be a problem for others as well and something was arranged, though now I can’t remember what, to accommodate them.

At the front desk, the reception was lit with a few candles and one good flashlight. Though the candles worried us for the risk of fire, there was not much option. The emergency lights were faltering. One by one, they were extinguishing, depending on the remaining power in the battery packs. They were meant to keep the place lit for an evacuation, not for maintaining light during an extended power outage. Now we were really in the dark.

Otto and I revised our plans. This was, after all, an adventure! We could be an extra two useful bodies! But first of all, we needed to see Heather and Mom. We were given one flashlight to navigate up the emergency escape stairs. It was all that could be spared. The magnetic safety lock on the stairwell was released. We opened the fire door and began to climb. Now, I’ve some pretty arthritic knees that complain loudly about stairs, but it had to be done. Pulling myself along by the metal tube railing, step by step, we climbed the four floors.

“Are you coming?” impatient Otto called. He was faster, and his wavering light was hardly helpful to me. I was feeling the next stair with my toe before setting upon it. It would be horrible to fall now in this stairwell, on concrete, and add to the confusion and turmoil below. Gratefully, I saw that Otto was opening the fourth floor stairwell door, waiting for me. I stood, breathing deeply on the top stair, catching my breath. I was out of shape. I’d need to do this daily to not tremble with the effort. Positively thinking, it was great exercise!

We passed by the nursing station where Gina, the only employee on the fourth floor, was standing by seemingly unable to do anything but wait until circumstances changed.

“Are you managing?” we asked, as we fished for details on what help was available. Who, for instance, was going to bring Mother’s hourly morphine? What if additional services were needed. How was she going to phone the ambulance, if necessary? All the phone lines were out. All the intercom was disabled by the power failure. Who would help her if two people were needed for a nursing task?

Gina looked puzzled and concerned. “There’s only me,” she answered. “What else can I do? I’m the only one here.”

“Well, how many people are there on the floor?” we asked.
“Well, your mom, to begin with, but she has company. And Mrs. Cooper. And Doris across the hall. She never leaves her room. And Mr. Howe. And Ethel who won’t stay in her room and is down with your family.Is that five?”

I thought, How horrible! Those residents were lying in the pitch dark, unable to call for help if they needed it; with no one to up date them on progress. There was not even any ambient light from the city street lights. Everything was out and black.

In Mother’s room, a one dollar Canadian tire flashlight was illuminating Heather’s face, Otto’s ex and little Ethel, like a modernized candle lit tableau of George de la Tour. They had been unable to leave Mom and so were eager to hear our description of the situation below. We promised to come back for a slightly later night shift but in the interim, we were going back home for all the flashlights we could spare and all our home’s overstock of candles and batteries. No one had counted on a full night power outage. No one could have foreseen that it would occur on a Sunday night when not a single store would be open selling flashlights or batteries. Scout’s honour, they were not prepared.

“How did you get here, Ethel?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s not any fun in my room.” she answered with a pixie smile, hoping she could stay. “There’s company here.”

“Yes, but how did you get back up here from dinner?” I insisted. “Or didn’t you have your dinner?” She was so slight she hardly ate her dinner. It would not have bothered her to miss it.

“Oh yes, she confirmed. I was downstairs when the lights went off, but I walked up the stairs when I was finished, and here I am.”

I was amazed and horrified at the same time. The staff had release the lock on the fire stairwell to let her walk up. She was a sweet little bundle of determination, but she was unstable on her legs and frail. How could they have let her come up four flights on her own? It was unconscionable! And yet her grit and perseverence had brought her here unscathed. Truly, to have succeeded at this task, she was either an angel or under an angel’s wing.

As we were talking, I heard a weak sounding, “Hello? Hello?” from somewhere in the hall way. While the others were chatting and planning, I took one light and went out to see whence came the tiny voice. On the floor across the hall, I could see Doris’ head extending outside her doorway, calling weakly.

“Oh my poor dear!” I cried. Otto came running as he heard me speak.

“What has happened to you!?”

Doris recounted her need for the bathroom, how she had gotten up, since no one came (that dreadful fear of wetting one’s bed drives people to do unsafe things!) and tried to feel her way to the bathroom. Something, she could not say what, had gone wrong and here she was.

Now what? I thought rapidly. This was not my responsibility and anyway, I couldn’t lift her. My first aid training said never to lift a fallen patient until they had been checked for bruises, cuts and bone breaks.

I said to Otto, ” We can’t touch her. We’ll have to get help. It’s too risky. I can’t lift her and neither can you. We don’t know what her medical condition is.”

“Just don’t touch her, we don’t know if anything is broken,” I added more forcefully. In his generosity and helpfulness, he could do more harm than good. “I’ll go get help,” I offered. “You stay with her.”

I reported the fall to Gina who shrugged her shoulders a little in a gesture that repeated her earlier despair of What can I do?

She’s always falling” she drawled somewhat defensively. I’m all alone up here,” she answered in a frustrating non sequitor. “I can’t leave my station.” It wasn’t a refusal to do anything, but it seemed obstructive. My years of authority kicked in. This nurse was going to take responsibility or my name wasn’t Kay!

“Gina, I will stay at your station. I can’t do the stairs again. My knees are injured. You go and get some aides to help you. You can’t leave Doris like that. Besides just looking after a helpless woman, the liability is too great. There’s nothing going on here right now. You go!”

The tone of my voice must have stirred her. She did not answer. Her eyes searched mine in the dim light to see how serious I was and what trouble I could make afterwards. She broke the stare, lowered her eyes, said nothing more and went.

Five minutes later, two aides came and Gina was back at her post.

“Oh, she always falls”, confirmed one of the girls. Without ceremony, without checking Doris’ condition, one locked a wheelchair to prevent it from slipping and each took one side of Doris under her shoulder and heaved the hundredweight sack of potatoes into the wheelchair. With one more adjustment for comfort, Doris was settled into the chair.

Before we left on our treasure hunt for batteries and candles, I spent a few minutes getting to know this lovely sack of potatoes, now restored to her bed. She hadn’t known why the lights were out, but she was glad to be back in her own bed and dry. On her side of the residence, there was a faint glow from a distant part of the city still operating on electricity. She assured me she would be fine and she had suffered no great hurts and so I left her.

Otto and I returned an hour later. We gave our safety gear to the reception desk. They, in turn, offered us pizza that they had ordered in for the staff who had stayed much after their normal times. Otto and I had been thinking en route, that there were many things about a prolonged emergency that this facility did not seem to think about. We had suggestions and were not shy in giving them, as diplomatically as possible.

We chatted casually, but inserted questions that we thought bore merit as we went.

“Have you called 911 to have them on alert, so that they know about your situation?At least the Fire Department should know in case of a fire. All your regular safety alarms are down!”

“What would you do if a fire broke out? How would you evacuate them.What would you do about the people upstairs?”

” Don’t you have a supply of flashlights and batteries for an emergency?”

“I heard that you’d given candles to some residents who are still in their rooms. Don’t you think there’s too great a risk in that? What if the candle got knocked over? Would an elderly person be able to react fast enough to extinguish any flame that might result? Can’t you give them some of these flashlights instead?”

“Don’t you have an emergency generator that could be used to back up the emergency lighting? or to provide elevator operation? You know. You figure out what are the most important functions you need to get going and you put them on one circuit that automatically switches over to the generator when there’s a problem?”

“Have you alerted your on- call doctor? What if someone has a heart attack tonight. Or a panic attack? Or falls and breaks a bone”

There were many more things, like the emergency stairwells now entirely in the dark, no highlighting on the nosing of each riser; the handrailing hard to grasp and not continuous down the stairwell so that the landings were difficult for mobility impaired to negotiate.

I’d been in the property management business too long for these things to go unnoticed. How had this residence gotten past these safety requirements? Surely they had to comply. Or was the the thirty year old building “grandfathered”, not requiring upgrades until a major renovation was undertaken.

Noreen, still wearing her  visored cap even though a ray of sunshine was impossible, interrupted us. Noreen, you may remember, greets me daily with “Do I know you from somewhere?” with her quizzical eyebrows lifting and her perfectly mannered way, looking as if she had just jauntily left the tennis court at the Club. She was worrying about getting to the bathroom. On the main floor, there were only two – a man’s and a woman’s. They were in the centre of this vast room, just facing the rows of residents whose only occupation now was to watch what the other stranded residents were doing and to comment.

“I’ll help you,” I said. “Here, take my flashlight. Leave it on. There are no lights right now. This will give you enough light.”

“What will I do with this? ” she asked as she took the flashlight reluctantly from my hand and eyed it as if it were a foreign object with alien germs on it.

“It’s a flash light. You will need it in there,” I explained patiently. “There’s no electricity.”

“When will it come back on.”

“Not soon enough for you to wait. Go on,” I commanded, “take the flashlight and go in there.” And so she did.

Within seconds, she was back out again. “There’s no light in there.” She was both puzzled and a bit imperious, as if someone had failed her.

I explained again that the power was off and we would have to wait for the power company to restore power. I directed her back into the washroom and instructed her again on the flashlight.

She came back out minutes later saying with a puzzled look, “Someone must have left this behind in in the bathroom. Do you know who it could belong to?” as she held out her right hand dangling the flashlight aloft.

“It’s mine. I lent it to you,” I said with a touch of amusement. She just couldn’t remember.

“Oh!” she said and she handed it to me.

“She doesn’t need to go in there,” grumbled a lucid resident who had no patience for Noreen. Noreen looked as if she were a very healthy sixty, someone who had exercised effectively all her life. An aerobics instructor, one might guess, from her looks. Looking so young, she had no right to be confused or repetitive. But Noreen had Alzheimer’s and could not remember anything from minute to minute.

“She’s already been in there about seven times” continued the grumbler, loudly.
“It doesn’t really matter,” I soothed. “If she thinks she needs to, then that’s all that matters. She can’t remember what she does. She can’t remember anything. That’s why she’s here.” I said.

The grumbler was not getting any sympathy from my corner and she went back to her neighbour to continue on her discontent.

How did all this end, you might ask?
We went back up to mother’s room. It was about two thirty in the morning when the lights suddenly came back on. We all lifted our heads and looked about us. Tired as we were, we had adreniline from the night’s activity. I heard the elevators humming. They were operating again. I knew they would be full and I braved the stairwell again, going down to help bring back the sleepy, stranded residents.

When I got there to offer my services, there were only two residents in wheelchairs still to be sent aloft. In an inhabitual of spurt of efficiency, the staff had returned nearly a hundred residents to their rooms to resume their normal night within fifteen minutes.

I went back up to a dozy vigil in Mother’s room. We shooed little Ethel back to her room to get some sleep; and Otto took Heather home for a well deserved rest.

The first night of the storm

June 18, 2007

Did I tell you about the night of the storm?

We had eight major wind storms on the West Coast this winter starting in late October. One of them devastated Stanley Park, that truly wonderful piece of nature that some forward looking pioneer set aside in what became the centre of Vancouver.

On the first of these stormy nights, power was shut off to a great part of the Lower Mainland including our house. Nephew Hugh was working from home when all of a sudden, his connection to the Internet was cut.Both telephone and electricity were out!

Some slackards might have said, “Well, I can’t work anymore” but Hugh has a fine work ethic and so he began to phone around to his network of friends looking for an unaffected part of the city where he could go and continue on with his work. He’s a web programmer.

One of his university friends lives just six blocks away on the other side of the street. It was outside of our power grid and so he put his laptop in his backpack, put on a good wind and rain breaker and trod down to the other house to finish off his work day. It was just noon time.

Otto was also working from home. He phone in to his head office and went there, but not before ransacking the cupboard where the candles are kept for Christmas and for emergencies. He set them, at least one for every room in the upstairs and several along the mantle piece where there is a large mirror to help double up the light once the candles were lit.

I was at work and oblivious to all this bouleversement of everyone’s day until, at three o’clock, there was an announcement that those who lived out in the suburbs could go home early given the severity of the weather. That clued me in to the fact that the rain drumming on my plate glass office wall was no ordinary rain. I had much to do, but I gathered up and finished off the task I was doing, closed up my desk and put on my coat, scarf and boots.

When I got out the front door, I could see that my umbrella was going to do me no good. An umbrella in this weather was just going to whip me up into the heavens or pull me along the direction it wanted, not mine. I left it furled and stood huddled as far in as I could at the bus stop to prevent the whipping wind from driving rain onto me. When the bus arrived I dashed for the door and found I would need to stand the whole way home. Everyone had been dismissed early. The buses were full.

Halfway home, the power lines for the buses were out. We were unceremoniously ejected from the trolley bus, a wet and sodden mass of humanity, waiting for a gas powered bus to replace it. About a half dozen of us impatient people fumbled for our cell phones and called taxis. They too were overloaded and there were no promises when a taxi might come. By the time two more buses were parked behind ours, we were rescued by a replacement bus which was crowded to the ceiling with our damp woolen-covered bodies and it lumbered up the hill, far too heavy for its normal operation, slithering ponderously through the dark like an earthworm in its tunnel. All the street lights were out along this line and the way was only lit by the cars driving, snaking along this major artery. It was very eerie.

Finally, after an hour’s venture, I descended from the bus at my stop just a block away from home. There were lights on the other side of the street at the shopping centre, an area whose power grid was not yet down, which dimly lit our side of the street. I came home to a lifeless looking house with a weak wavering candlelight in the window. I fumbled my key into the lock by feel and entered, so thankfully home.

The mantle mirror was bravely doubling the light of motley candles upon it, but the room was still in gloom. Hugh had arrived just lately and greeted me, very relieved to see that I had made it home. He has a good heart, has our Hugh. He worries about me and though I pooh pooh it on the surface, I really love it that he has an honest concern for me.

We recounted our days and our travels home, then turned to what we might do for dinner. A flashlight in the fridge announced a number of things we could eat cold, but it was such a night that eating cold was not very attractive. The lights across the street encouraged us. Perhaps there was a restaurant that could provide us with some hearty fare and warm our spirits. We agreed to drive to a district with power to get ourselves a modest dinner. Later we could find a coffee shop to provide us with the biggest coffee one can take out so that we might have a hot coffee when we finally got home. Surely by morning the power would be restored.

Of course, I was worrying about Mother, Hugh’s Gran. Hugh had not seen her except when we were moving her to her nursing home several months ago. He had taken the brunt of her craziness when we came to the point of her needing long term hospitalized care. He had been staying home with her, trying to work from home, being driven crazy himself trying to meet her ever increasing needs while working – and it didn’t work. When it came to a crisis, Hugh was anguished, torn between his loving, nurturing nature and his rejecting reaction to her impossible demands. After all was resolved, the upshot was that he hadn’t wanted to see her.

Now, I could tell that Mother was deteriorating. She would not be around much longer. For Hugh’s peace of mind, he needed to see her and reconcile or he would always live with the anguish of his conflicting emotions about his grandmother who had been so wonderfully loving and supportive of him as well as the bane of his day to day at one particular moment of his life.

He agreed readily to come with me to see her, to bring her a flashlight in case she needed it, and for us to stay, if need be, if she were frightened by the dark.

After our cheery dinner at a not so distant Greek place which was thriving on the company generated by the storm, we went to Grandma’s residence. It was lit up like a Christmas tree, insouciant of the storm blowing around it. This section of the city had not been affected whatsoever by the power outages.

We found Mother dozing lightly on her hospital bed, slightly raised on the head end, pillows propping up her head and also at her feet, to improve her circulation, surprised and happy to see us.

“Hugh!” she exclaimed, her face lit with a spontaneous smile. She held out her two hand to clasp his face between them and he bent down to give her a kiss.

“Grandma!” he said, his fears about his reception by her forgotten, the love streaming from his Grandma dispelling them instantaneously. They stayed like that, he hovering just slightly above her face, she holding his in her two hands like a prayer fulfilled, for long few seconds while they drunk each other in.

“We were worried about you Grandma,” he said finally.”We came to see if you were alright.”

“Why wouldn’t I be alright?” she said puzzled.

“There’s a wicked storm out tonight. The electricity is out in most parts of the city. There’s no power at home. We’re working on candle power and flashlights.We would stay with you all night if you didn’t have any electricity. We wouldn’t want you to be afraid.”

“Oh?” she said. “I haven’t heard anything.” There was a quizzical upturn in her voice. “What kind of a storm.”

So we told her what our day was like and how Hugh had needed to find somewhere else to work and how I had come home in the storm.

“Oh dear!” she exclaimed, but it seemed to affect her as if we were telling a fairy tale.

We didn’t stay long after that. She had heard nothing, one of the few benefits of deafness, and was not worried. Everything seemed normal to her. She was tired and we suggested that we best should be guarding the home front where the alarm would no longer be working if the power were off.

“Oh, yes. You go now, ” she said, dismissing us in her fully confident matriarchal manner. “You get home safely and I’ll see you tomorrow. Everything’s fine here.”

So we left after just a short visit. Hugh was light hearted. It had made a pivotal difference in how he remembered his Gran. He was solicitous and concerned again for her. Truly he loved her deeply and this had gone a long way to reconcile his disaffection. Gran, on the other hand, was so forgetful of recent things that she had not noticed he had been away for such a long time from her. Any disagreements they might have had in their day-to-day when Hugh had stayed home for her had been lost to view. She just knew him and loved him as she always had, all the years of his life.

Hugh and I went home, lit many candles and sat in the living room together, our coffees lukewarm but comforting. We shared a crossword puzzle together, me reading the clues and filling in the blanks, Hugh supplying answers until my eyes gave out. Then we traded roles. It was soon time for bed so we went our separate ways in the profound darkness of the house. Profound silence, I should also say, with the computers off, the refrigerator too, and other various things that hum in the night as they operate.

For a woman with short memory problems, this was a night to remember. Almost daily, Mother would remind me that she had been thrilled that we would spend the entire night with her to make sure she would not be afraid. She told the tale at the dinner table. When visitors came, it was her latest news. It bore repeating and repeating.

“I lost all my worries when I knew they would stay all night with me,” she said, and she beamed proudly.

“Do you remember the night of the storm?”

Where’s Waldo

May 31, 2007

The dressing table is a dark reddish Ewardian mahagony, lovingly polished weekly, always dustless. A small crocheted lace doily in a octaganal pattern keeps her crystal dresser set from scratching the delicate varnish. The sterling brush and mirror set from Birks has lost its shine, is tarnishing slowly and exorably from the next generation of neglect. The tilting mirror gazes back at Kay as if to say, “Aren’t you new here?”

Kay is looking for Mother’s birth certificate. Where in blazes could she have put it? Kay has gone through each of the files expecting it to be there, but it isn’t. Kay is beginning to feel that she is getting useless, forgetful, stupid. She can’t even remember if there was a birth certificate.

She remembered a stack of cards that Mother kept in her purse, held together by an elastic that went one way, then twisted once and held the cards in a springy cross shape. The purse was empty. Completely empty. No wallet, no cards, nor make up; no blush-on, no lace handkerchief, no comb, no money. Where could all of that have gone? The purse was still perching up above the center bracket in Mother’s closet.

Kay vaguely remembered the day the clothing was sorted and packed away. She had looked into the purse and, yes, it was empty even then.

“What did you do with the contents of Mom’s purse?” Kay said a bit querulously.

“I emptied it out, ” replied Lizbet a bit defensively. We were all pretty sensitive at that stage. “There wasn’t much in it, anyway. Just a comb and a lace handkerchief and her wallet. I didn’t even think about it. Why? Do you want it? ”

“Well, I need her papers. I need her personal documents, her social insurance card, her health card, and whatever else she uses for identification. I don’t know exactly what I need, but I need it. I’m supposed to be taking care of it. It can’t just go into the garbage.”

“It hasn’t gone into the garbage. It’s around somewhere. It’s okay. Everything is still here”

But that was two months ago. And what had Kay done with it? For someone who was supposed to be looking after everything, there were too many things going missing. There was this, now, the birth certificate, that she was looking for. And the ring. Kay explored her faulty memory, searching for a hiding place, a safe place. Had she really put them away, or just thought she had.

The ring was important. It would belong to Heather, if Kay could find it. It was Mother’s pride and joy, designed for her by Willie Van Ypren, the jeweller on Tenth Avenue, fashioned from her wedding engagement rings that had become somehow problematic for her in their original state. There were diamonds in it. Kay supposed that if she could not find it and it was under her care, she would have to reimburse Heather for the loss from her own money. That didn’t really matter to Kay. She could do it, but it bothered her immensely that she was losing things and couldn’t find them afterwards. Rather, she was putting things in safe places and then not being able to remember where she had put them. It smacked too much of Alzheimerish activity.

It’s too early for me” Kay said to herself as she searched. “I don’t want to go yet, and I don’t want to go, so forgetful that I can’t look after myself.
In the bottom drawer of Mother’s dressing table on the left hand side are belts. A slew of them. One drawer up, there are gloves. The drawer is full. The top drawer has scarves of all patterns and colours. There is no packet of identity cards.

On the right hand side, the top drawer has handkerchiefs. When they became difficult to find in the regular stores, or when she found them, they were enormously expensive for a handkerchief, Kay started to look for them at church sales. The elderly were dying off, leaving behind messages on dainty cloth handkerchiefs, laced with tatting or crochet, patterned with cut work or embroidery. At ten cents a handkerchief, Kay bought them all, washed them, gave them to mother. It wasn’t a big gift – a stocking stuffer at Christmas, a token at Easter, Mother’s day or a little extra on her birthday. Now the drawer was full of lace, embroidery, tatting and cutwork. But the little Japanese cloth envelope, or was it a wallet that usually contained Mother’s set of going-out jewellry, was not there. The ring was still missing and the identity cards elusively hiding elsewhere.

There were curlers in the next drawer down and stockings down below.

“Oh dear, what can the matter be,

Oh dear, what can the matter be,

Oh dear, what can the matter by,

My memory’s no longer there.”

In the bottom of the stocking drawer, Kay pulls out a slip of tissue thin paper. It’s an invoice, a bill for dresses from La Belle Rose. It appears as if two dresses have been purchased. One of them has a charge for alterations. May 17, 1974. Mother was sixty three, still teaching one last year so that she could get a pension; she needed ten years. Father had just retired. The first dress was one hundred thirty six dollars and eight dollars more for alterations. The second for one hundred twenty six, was on sale. That was a lot of money then.

I bought my brand new Datsun for two thousand five. You couldn’t get the same car for twenty five thousand now. My house was fifteen thousand, but that was out in the country and inflation hadn’t hit. How could you compare? You were supposed to remember the price of bread and compare then to now for a common multiplication factor. But that was too difficult especially when you took in the China factor which made all manufactured goods thirty percent less expensive than Canadians could make for the same object.

Were these the two dresses that she took with her to a conference? Were they still hanging in the closet, waiting for probate approval so that we could give them to the Historical Costume Society?

Kay laid the bill aside, thinking to come back to the thorny question of value; she must not get distracted from her task. The Birth Certificate had to be be found.

After a day of searching, Kay had packed up three more boxes of stuff for her move; written two more business letters; reviewed and checked the probate information; revised the spreadsheet format; thrown out a waste basket full of unnecessary papers; air fluffed two pillows with a softener tissue in the dryer to make them smell fresh; done a white load and a coloured load of laundry; printed labels for moving boxes and searched.

And searched. And searched. And searched.

Still no ring. Still no Birth Certificate. It wasn’t funny!

Heather’s Garden

May 27, 2007

Heather offered to take care of Mother when I went to Malaysia for a well deserved, two week holiday. That was nine years ago and Mother at eighty-six, still got around well, could take a long trip in a car, navigated around a house easily, was just beginning to use a walker to take her from A to Z.

Independently, she went for walks down to the park six long blocks away, getting her sunshine and exercise in one determined fix, and coming back. She got around on Transit’s Handy Dart service for mobility impaired seniors as long as she planned well enough in advance. She did the arranging herself. She was fiercely independent.

Friends came and took her to bridge games, teas and retirement group luncheons; or to the Seniors’ Centre, to Faculty Women’s, University Women’s and Engineer’s Wives groups or to tea. She was well and independent with her bustling personality going at the speed of her walker. Certainly, she was determined not to be a burden on anyone, especially not Heather who, at times, was struggling with her own health.

Certainly these things are unplanned, but you have to wonder at God’s timing of it all. Just after she arrived at Heather’s in Sechelt, Mother had a recurrence of her troublesome TIAs (mini heart attacks) and in additon, some virus, the doctors thought, that caused her to feel dizzy. With all our careful planning, Heather was now looking after an invalid, driving her to doctor appointments, hospital testing, picking up medicine from the pharmacy and coddling Mother while trying to keep her own equilibrium and health. As it turned out, Mother could not travel until she was well again, and the two week penance for Heather turned into six weeks..

Now, Mother could be demanding whilst feeling ill, and she insisted that Heather keep her company during the long hours of her convalescence. Heather who had learned patience and forbearance under Mother’s guidance and who had been taught to obey her parents at all times, did her best to comply with all her grace, kindness and infinite skill at care taking.

She rubbed Mother’s legs; she helped her in and out of the bathroom; spent a difficult session to bathe her in a makeshift arrangement in the bathtub. Mother was without her bath bench, so a plastic garden chair was set into the tub for her to sit on. Heather read to her, brought her music to listen to, she told tales and encouraged Mom to tell some of hers from the past. She clipped an polished Mother’s nails. She sat in silence just for company, crocheting at her latest project or preparing her lessons in Japanese, while Mother dozed.

Much as she would reason with Mother about how she could not stay with her absolutely constantly and still keep the household running, Mother was insistent that she be kept company and be amused. God help Heather if Mother should fall asleep, have Heather go somewhere in the house where Heather could not hear Mother call, and Heather not arrive instantaneously at her bedside. I can just hear her saying, “What kept you so long!” after a two minute response time.

The possibility of Heather getting out to her beloved garden, the meditative healing source of Heather’s ill health, was proscribed until Mother was well again. Now, you might say, Heather was a grown adult, and so was Mother. You would think they could reason this out and come to a compromise. But Mother was unreasonable with her fears and needed, really needed strongly, the assurance that someone would be there by her side if something happened, or she would mire herself in “what if” worries to the extent of making herself sicker, just from the worry. Mother, if you remember, has a Masters of Worry, as diplomas go. She could write the definitive text on it.

Heather, on the other hand was the eldest child. She had taken the brunt of Mother’s neophyte child rearing experiments, this same Mother who had written her final disertation for her Batchelor’s degree on Discipline in the Classroom. Heather had learned her lessons well and knew that any effort to rebel would not be brooked. And if she did not conform to Mother’s wishes, Mother had very subtle and effective ways of Discipline in the Classroom that made life miserable for a long time thereafter. Mostly, it just wasn’t worth it to go against the grain.

In Heather’s adult years, she had learned assertiveness. It worked well with others. She had learned to reason with Mother and sometimes won. But Mother also had a lifetime of practice and it weighed in the balance in her favour many times.

Heather had to find a solution. It was enough to drive one crazy. Her housekeeper who came in once a week, not knowing of these tensions, agreed to sit with Mother to allow Heather to go grocery shopping. (“Mother, if I don’t go shopping there will be nothing left to eat. It’s been a week“)

In addition, Heather who rose early each day, found that Mother didn’t waken until nine. If she was  efficient with her time, Heather could potentially get a good half hour in her garden before Mother expected her to appear bearing breakfast on a tray. It was early September and there were food crops to bring in and care for; there were weeds to pull; there was early tasks in preparation of winterization. There was work to do. Best of all, the healing power of growing things, of tending and nurturing them, the meditative power of gardening, was a salve to Heather’s soul. She needed her gardening like we all need fresh air and water. It was an essential of her being.

And so it went. I wasn’t there. I just heard about it afterwards. There must have been some other arrangements. I think as Mother was getting better, she was given a bell to ring that Heather was to respond to immediately, to come when needed, because I know Heather got out into the garden a bit more, in the end.
What I found amusing in a black humor kind of way, was this:

After Mother came back to Burnaby, I got to hear all the stories about the doctors and their care; about her visit to Heather. In a nutshell, after all the medical stuff which isn’t interesting, Mother said, “I had a good time, but I barely saw Heather. I was in bed the whole time. And you couldn’t tear her away from her garden. She was out there way after dark and first thing before she even made breakfast. You could barely get her to come in for meals. She spends all her time in the garden. I don’t know what she does out there. What do you have to do, this time of the year? Everything is already growing. It’s not like you have to plant anything. I hardly saw her.”

Mother was settling into a forgetfulness that we hadn’t yet recognized as the beginning of medically defined “Confusion” which is accompanied by short-term memory loss, general forgetfulness and some paranoia. It’s a common effect of dehydration and is not from the eating away of the brain as Alzheimer’s disease is.

I keep in touch with Heather and Lizbet by phone every two or three days. That is one of the miracles of today’s technology – long distance calling is so low cost it might as well be free. It keeps us strong in our network of sisters, supporting and caring for each other as we orchestrate life’s little ups and downs in sequential patterns.

So, a bit sneakily, in a leading way I ask Heather how was her garden coming along. I dared not suggest an answer. If I wanted to know what really happened, I couldn’t tell her of Mother’s comments in advance. It might taint the answer. In fact, I wouldn’t even tell her about Mother’s comments. It would oly upset her and she didn’t deserve that.
“Gardening?” she answered, an air of bewilderment as if I’d asked a puzzling question. “Gardening?” she repeats, as if remembering an old acquaintance she hadn’t seen in a long time and couldn’t quite remember the face or the context.

“I don’t think I got more than twenty minutes in the garden from the time Mother came and the time Mother left. After all the medical appointments and running around for medication, Mother wanted me to be beside her bed all the time. I tended her needs. I read to her, worked on things that I could do beside her as she slept. I was rather worried about getting behind in my work out there. All the vegetables need to be brought in. I need to turn over and get out the potatoes. The deer got all the carrot tops. I’m hoping there will be something left of the roots underneath. ”
“It’s a mess. I haven’t weeded in six weeks. The bind weed is taking over. My housekeeper comes in on Fridays and I was able to get out there for about twenty minutes straight, but she called me back in because Mother was insisting that I look after taking her to the bathroom, not a non-family member, so even that didn’t pan out. By the time I’d gloved up and got my tools out, by the time I put them away and came in, I didn’t spend more that tweny minutes. After that, I didn’t even try. ”

“The only other time I was in the garden was to pick some late raspberries for dinner and to bring in some fresh parsley to cook with. ”
“Garden?!” she almost snorted in derision. As it it was a rejected lover who hadn’t come back beggin, she exclaimed, ” My garden doesn’t even know who I am anymore!”

In these last five years, I have been unable to move Mother to travel, for a change of pace, to either Lizbet’s place, a ten hour gruelling drive, or to Heather’s a three hour drive with a ferry trip as part of the package. I could barely leave her, myself. When I did, I had to make arrangements well in advance to have someone care for her. It was often Heather who was retired and lived the closest, of my two sisters, who came to care for Mother in her own home.

Now here I was, with Mother gone and me freed of that loving obligation, at Heather’s. Lord knows, she’d asked me to come up often enought.

Hardly settled in the front door, I went round to the back balcony overlooking the Georgia Straight, out to Vancouver Island, down the morain made slope of Heather’s garden.

It is May and the garden is at it’s most furious growth. The recent rains and following sun has given spurts of glorious green to the foliage. At the lane end, as I sit on one of terrace, brilliant double-scarlet poppies punctuate the blue sea and the sky beyond it. Buttercups and scilla, the Spanish bluebell of spring, have filled all unplanted areas of the six terrace rows going half the length of property. It provides a joyous speckled tapestry of greens, yellow and clear Dutch blue.

There is a small lilac in bloom sending wafts of fresh perfume through the air. White flowered jasmine borders a string fence that is meant to keep the raspberry plants upright and contained within the top row’s confines. As I weed, I find two baby trees, a May tree, junior to that one on the property border that is showing a mass of white blooms, and an oak, junior to the one by the dining room window where the warblers come to sing. There is a mass of lemon green verbena and two rather big clumps of a darker green winter savory.

Her herbs are tucked between the flowers – sweet cicely, garlic, lovage, rue, borage, bergamotte, silvery posy thyme, oregano, parsley, salad burnet, comfrey, feverfew and chives. There is a sage with beautiful rose coloured flowers. Strawberries with little white flowers promising summer fruit connect by rhizomes from terrace to terrace.

Her flowers are a like a compendium of an English garden. There is jasmine, a blue and white columbine, bearded, Japanese and Siberian irises, calendula in profusion, peonies, Canterbeury bells, London Pride and Hellaborus, the Easter rose variety. She has cranes bill and lavender, and tall yellow tansy. There are shasta daisies and delphiniums that were a favourite of our horticulurist Grandfather on father’s side of the family.

There are thimble berries, black current bushes, and rhubarb. There is a tall, winter ornamental cabbage that has been allowed to go to flower, that should have not flowered this year, being a biennial and it being the third year. It has a frilly white cabbage three feet up in the air with a lacing of a pale green edges, and sprouting out of this tutu of cabbage leaves is a feathery crown of bright yellow flowers like sequins dancing in the wind.

There is more! Peonies, chrysanthemums, alstromeria, camelia, flowering almond, ladies mantle, gladioli, swordfern, montbretia, several kinds of roses and fuschias. There are fruit trees – a green coloured plum, apple and pear.

Heather and I have had wonderful days, rooting out evil weeds from the lovely soil she has built up on this rather desertic and rocky morain, from thirty years of compostings and constant working. We talk as we work, both sharing the belief that we find peace in a garden, that the task is a meditation, that the few things we say are a conversation far deeper and more connecting than the ones we have sitting around a kitchen table, although those are good too.

Heather and I have had wonderful afternoons, looking through this nursery or that for a special plant, a specimen not like the others, a variety of extraordinary delicacy or soothing beauty. I look for plants that are agressively capable of continuing their own lives without me, because I have this wonderful propensity for killing most of the plants that I bring home. Hardy, colourful, flowering weeds are for me – fox glove and lupine. I can lose plants in a garden easier than anyone I know. I like day lilies because you can’t kill them and it’s outrageously flamboyant.

Heather brings home special tender herbs and brings them into becoming big health vigours clumps . She brings home tender rock garden flowering succulents and has them year after year, flourishing on her rock wall and in her window planters by the kitchen sink. She has tiny specialty mosses. She has a true green thumb.

I spent as long as I could stay out in one day of our Victoria day holiday sunshine, helping to root out evil bindweed, so ironically named Morning Glory. It strangles the plants and covers them with their large arrow pointed leaves, robbing the host plant of light. The garden is getting to much for us as we come, ourselves, into the homestretch of our years. Heather has decided to cut back her wonderful garden to half its size, bringing back grass onto the slope. She no longer is trying to augment her family resources with garden vegetables and fruit. The boys are grown and gone, living their own lives “Away”.

She’s promised to save me some of her duplicates as she works on her new garden design meant for decoration, not dining. I’ve just bought my own house to live in, my first house since I sold up everything thirty years ago after my disasterous first marriage. I’m coming home. I’ll have my own garden. It’s a nice established garden to start with. But bet your bottom button, I’m going to have some of the heritage plants from Mother’s garden and some of Heather’s lovely garden as a tradition to maintain.