Archive for the ‘mother’ Category

Hanky panky

February 2, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

with tatted edges or ones with crochet

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

there are ones with crocheted edges in variegated colour;

There are ones made especially for Christmas,

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

and some have curious, modern calligraphy upon them.

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

Father passed away in 1983.

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

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

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

I struggled with the chicken scratchings that marked the page.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


To the gods of adjustable water temperature

August 2, 2009

Kristin at 3982W36As I knelt before the gods of adjustable water temperature and let the ablutions of cool water run over my head, I reflected on the skill at which I had managed to keep water out of my ears and soap out of my eyes and how this skill had been acquired over a number of years. I wondered upon this simple act of washing my hair.

As a child, my mother washed my hair, her hands in moving blessing upon my head, being so careful to keep the stinging soap from running in rivulets to my eyes; and how, if that were not successful, I would wail and let her know of my distress. Patting with a soft towel came next, to stop the stinging, and then to wrap my child’s head in a turban of towel.

Later, I was consigned to undertake the ablutions of my tresses by myself. The most vivid recollection of this is standing by the upstairs sink and putting my head under the flowing tap, sudsing up and then letting the water runnel about my head until all the soap was gone. There was a lovely, deep blue towel that Mother had had forever, with a carved pattern of same coloured diamond in it. With time, it had become, it seemed to me, far more absorbent than newer towels. I struggled with the act of making my own turban. It had a tendency to loosen and fall about my face and shoulders. My hair was long. I wore it in two braids; and when I washed it, it took a long time to dry. I was ten.

As an aside, I kept the last of those midnight blue towels until last year when it finally could go on no longer. It was almost threadbare and had a hole or two in it, but the selvedge was still strong and unfrayed. It had survived hand washing and wringer washing then automatic washing for sixty yeats. It had been dried out in the sunshine on the line for twenty years or so and later in a dryer, for another forty,  and still it had it’s deep midnight blue colour. It had served remarkably well.

We envied the Swiss girl down the end of the block who had blond braids right down to her waist. We marvelled at the length and breadth of them and how she could wear them, crossing right over the top of her head in a crown or looped around her nape and pinned with curl of them around her ears. But she was different. Foreign. And we never really made friends with her.

She was, perhaps, like my freckled friend Susan who also had long braids down to her waist, but hers were copper coloured. She boasted that when she washed her hair, she had to put her head near the open oven door to dry it.

Then I wore my hair in an upturned bouffant of the ‘Sixties in adulation of Jacqueline Kennedy. It took quite a bit of coaxing and wrapping in uncomfortable curlers to achieve this so-desired look; only to be defeated by the mists and fogs of Vancouver that could ruin it in a trice.

In between then and now, I have searched for an acceptable look with the minimum in care. I had high hopes for a permanent wave but it didn’t suit – and didn’t work either. The curls went their way, not mine. The smell of it was gagging. How could I possibly have thought it would make me beautiful?

I reverted to the long hair and even braids when I turned hippie, and only gave that up when I had to go back into the corporate world, the world of work and conformity. I went, silently kicking and screaming, as a hippie in disguise.

Now I have a bob. It starts out short and is well enough cut to last a few months, going through stages as it lengthens. As I allowed the tap to bless my head with flowing water this morning, I was thankful.

I am thankful for the blessing of adequate water. I am thankful that I live in a corner of the world where I can keep clean by means of a good soak in a tub full of water. I’m thankful for the electricity that heats it; and the mixing valve that can adjust the water’s temperature to my seasonal desire for it. I am thankful for small things and small rituals and find miracles in them.

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.

Sugar cookies

December 21, 2008


It was nearly midnight when Kay pulled out the mixing bowl and carefully cut a quarter pound off a block of butter.

Efficiency“, she thought, as she measured the sugar to cover the butter, then placed it in the microwave for fifteen seconds. The butter melted to perfection, not yet clear, still an opaque buttery yellow but soft enough to save a quarter hour of creaming it with the sugar.  She added the milk, the egg, the teaspoon of vanilla and blended it all into a frothier state.

Next she measured the flour and the baking powder and mixed those in. In no time, she was rolling the dough and placing the cut shapes on to parchment paper on her baking pans.

Now there’s an invention,” she gloated to herself.  Parchment paper saved all the elbow grease of cleaning the pans.There was no one around to listen.

It had been two years since she had done any serious baking, but with a large number of people coming on Boxing Day, she would have to have things for them to nibble on. Store bought stuff was so….  so un-homey, so commercial, so not Christmassy.

Kay settled into a artisanal rhythm  of rolling dough, cutting shapes, arranging them, baking them, pulling them from the oven, cooling them, placing them on a plate to harden, then starting over. It was much like Paschabel’s  Canon. While the baking was going on in the oven, she was already starting on the rolling of dough and cutting of shapes for the next batch. When she pulled them from the oven and that cycle was ending, the next tray was ready for the oven and she started again.

Nonetheless, she could do many of the tasks by rote, and she reflected back to the last time she had spent with her mother baking for Christmas time. Besides the shortbread, they had made plum puddings. Mother’s hands, gnarled with her ninety years of kitchen duty were ugly in some ways – spotted, blue veins popping out above the bones, the white tendons shifting as she manipulated the dough, but in other ways they were so beautiful. There was an elegance to her hands, the way she held things carefully, preciously, as she worked, absorbed in one of the few helpful tasks she could still participate in.

Her mother had been anxious to pass along the tradition of making Christmas pudding. The recipe was only words. It couldn’t demonstrate the necessary techniques, the curious necessity of drying the bread until it was completely hard  and then soaking the bread again in water. It didn’t make sense, but according to her, it was  essential to the process.

The timer rang irritatingly. She ignored it since her hands were sticky with dough and she needed just a few more seconds to complete her task. The timer continued to chime insistently and though it could only have been another ten seconds, by the time Kay opened the oven, the edges of the cookies were browning too rapidly. Two of them were burnt on the bottom. An adjustment would have to be made. Kay would have to answer the annoying signal. It had to be obeyed!

Now Kay had a plateful of two inch rounds. With fondness, she remembered her first Christmas in Europe. She had been living just outside of Paris, studying at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. At Christmas break, an English student from the International Business School invited her to join three other students driving back to London for a two week school break.  Kay leapt at the chance.

For three days in London, she shared a two-bedroom flat with six other people, some who worked on shift; others who were at school; and with the holidays, there was a daybed in the living room for Kay to sleep on.

On the fourth day, she took the train for Holyhead and then the boat to Dublin to stay with some acquaintances at SeaPoint in Monkstown.

She had met this Irish couple at a side-walk cafe in France; the woman was an artist, as was Kay; they’d given her an invitation to visit at any time.  When Kay called from London, Ellen had sounded enthusiastic. “Yes, please come!”

But Kay was not confident; she was arriving just before Christmas. Studying herself in the mirror, she realized how tenuous her invitaion was. Christmas was for families. She’d have to get a move on to  somewhere else before Christmas arrived. It was one thing to be invited to stay; but to intrude on Christmas day itself without an invitation was some nervy kind of gall!

It was bitterly cold. The air was damp and the cold penetrated. On an early walk out to see the village of Monkstown, Kay had seen a hardy localresident go down to the sea and swim.

“Brrrrr,” Kay shivered. That was just too bizarre, wanting that kind of hardiness; deliberately forcing oneself to suffer so.

Late in the afternoon, preparations were underway for the big day. Kay offered to lend a hand and was assigned decoration of the cookies with some white, green and red icing.

There are moments in life that seem to be suspended in time. Time out of time, Kay liked to explain it.  There were no other demands. The only thing in the world that she had to do that afternoon was this baking. If it took an hour or if it took three, there was no difference.

And so it was that Kay took up her paint brush and began to paint the cookies with pictures.  She carefully covered the cookies with a hard and smooth white icing. When it dried, she took a portion of leftover icing and dyed it in green, another portion in red, another portion in blue, another in yellow, according to the food dyes at her disposal.

With a new paintbrush, she drew a green fir tree on the first cookie. It was simple. A child’s drawing, really. On the next, she drew two fir trees. One after another she decorated the rounds with Christmas images – of snowmen, of baubles in their many variations, of wreathes, of snow covered houses with smoke coming from the chimney, of holly and mistletoe, of Santa Claus.

One of the children came and helped, making her own designs. Another came to inspect them and to pile them up carefully in tins readied for the baking crop.

While other memories of that stay faded away, always, crystal clear, was that time-out-of-time that Kay had spent baking decorated cookies. And twenty years after, Ellen, her Irish hostess, also only remembered the cookies

Kay lifted her last batch of naked cookies out of the oven. Where, she wondered, could she find a recipe for icing? A simple thing like icing, and the formula had escaped her!

It was after one in the morning when Kay finally turned off the oven and stopped for a cup of vanilla hot milk. She selected a burnt offering and tasted it. Aside from the edges done in brown, it was perfect. The vanilla disappeared as a distinct taste, which was as it should be. Then Kay looked at the bare, cookie-cutter trees.

Tomorrow, she thought. Tomorrow is another day. And she wrapped things up and went to bed. Tomorrow, she would see if she could make some coloured icings for her cookie treasures.

She turned off the oven; checked that the coffee pot was off; left the baking dishes in the sink for the morrow and went to bed.


O, Christmas Tree

December 13, 2008

Oh, Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree,

Thou tree most fair and lovely…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The shoe box

September 20, 2008

My childhood drawing – looks like flowers and butterflies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

White Rock

April 14, 2008

“This is so built up! I don’t remember this!” Kay complained feeling somewhat disoriented by the massive growth that had developed in the little forested community that she had visited so often in her youth and then not so often afterwards. She was looking for a gallery that Mrs. Stepford had recommended to her. It was Ron’s gallery and Deveraux’s; that is, they both showed there regularly and with good success.

Driving down 152nd, there were new developments both sides of the road. There were massive housing complexes and Senior’s residential complexes and those thirty to fifty store shopping centers. All of this progress had wiped out the fields and the forests and it went on for a couple of miles.

Her tender thoughts of a cottage town with small one-storey houses, many of them beach cottages, were being ripped off memory page. Only a few of these small cottages remained, dwarfed by the pink stucco palaces and monster homes of the ‘Nineties and of the Twenty-first century.

As 152nd approached Boundary Bay, there was a three block shopping district of one-storey stores more reminiscent of Kay’s vacation days. The street curved into another street. It had one more block of three storey commercial buildings with shops on the ground floor and then Kay and Marcel were once again driving through a district of single family residential homes. It was a confusing mix of styles representing a century of habitation – beach cottages, pioneer homes, ranchers, monsters, all higgledy-piggledy as if their order had been arranged by a throw of dice.

The street sloped steeply down to the frontage road that paralleled the train tracks and the beach. At street level, Kay’s heart leapt. The stores were all touristy, most of them were eating establishments. There were at least six fish and chips establishments, several coffee purveyors, a few ice-cream specialists and a dabbling of Real Estate agencies. There were gift shops filled with tasteless tourist gizmos and hand made jewelry stands. It was just the kind of summer resort town beach trade she had remembered from twenty years ago. It felt right. It was human scale and promised good times, a day off, a lunch out, sunshine and soft breezes.

There were only two blocks of this and then the road climbed back up into waterfront homes – no longer the beach cabins of the ‘Thirties but still home-like with well-wooded lots, mature landscaping, bespeaking the aisance, the comfort of their owners.

Kay and Marcel crossed the train tracks and descended the seawall. It was a sanitized affair with a path paved in red interlocking bricks and protected from the sand and surf by a tubular iron rail fence painted in turquoise. Kay reflected that the colour had probably been chosen to disappear from view on a sunny day of summer where the sea just might have approximated the colour. This choice was somewhat hopeful, given that eight winterish months of the year, grey cloud prevailed and grey interspersed the summer months as well.

There was a breakwater layer of large sharply broken rocks that edged the descent from seawall to the beach and a smattering of people. A few with their canine companions had crossed into the nature zone. These hardy souls were strolling in amongst the low tide sand-flats rippled with that curious pattern of sand ridges. The tide was a kilometer or more out to sea. A lone sailboat with three sails hovered midway to the horizon. The view was idyllic.

Kay and Marcel chose a place where the rocks were less cumbersome to cross . Marcel leapt from one rock to another and was down in a trice. Kay picked her way cautiously, carefully testing each foothold for balance; with a delay, she too reached the sandy shore. They walked quietly. The deceptive April day had turned cold at the water’s edge. Kay shivered but did not complain. Being out, doing “nothing” was a treat to be savored.

With her ubiquitous camera, she selected a group of people and their tidal reflection for a shot; and then a seagull doubled in importance by its mirror image. It seemed as if time had been suspended. As they looked back on the shoreline, they could see that the storefronts had been preserved to look like they had long ago, but back of these were massive four-storied apartment complexes built into the steep hill that had replaced the beach cottages of yore. They all had balconies overlooking the sea and some were glassed in to protect their inhabitants from the discomfort of the sea winds.

But the cold reasserted itself. After fifteen minutes, Kay and Marcel turned back, renavigated the rocky pile back up onto the seawall.

Over a coffee at an ice cream shop, Kay and Marcel sat silently, each deep within their own thoughts. Kay was lingering in Autrefois, the Land of Time-gone-by. After a long time, she spoke.

“Father had some work in White Rock one summer. He was off surveying all day long. Mother had us three kids with her. I don’t think Lizbet was born yet. Maybe it was the year she was born because I can remember the motel we stayed in quite well. ”
“It was high on the hill, a very steep hill. Father went down it in first gear it was so steep, and we hated climbing back up it when we went home after a day at the beach. Mother would pack us a lunch and we would spend hours looking for sand dollars and digging moats for the castles we shaped out of our small bucket-filled shapes that were overturned.”

“There were crabs under rocks. There were tiny little pink shells that we collected and blue mussel ones. We took sticks and drew pictures in the sand. When the tide came in, the pictures were blurred at first and then erased altogether. The water came in warm and comfortable over the long hot sand. It was perfect for dipping, for wading, for splashing each other as we shrieked, laughed and cried as children do whilst playing at the beach.”

Kay went silent. Marcel nodded. It was a memory. There was nothing to be said.

The bottom of the coffee cup was showing when she spoke again.

“Aunt Rose lived nearby on a small side street in the forest, the second one-acre lot away from Zero Avenue. It was an adventure to go there in the summer, to stay there without our parents, to go down to Peace Portal Park and count the cars clearing the American Customs and heading for the Canadian ones. That was Otto’s idea of fun. He had us categorize them by make and he knew how to distinguish them, even then, before he worked for a car dealership. Rose’s farm house is gone now.”

“I liked the swings and the simple roundabout that you pushed until it was circling; then you hopped on and kept up the momentum with one foot still pushing on the ground until it was circling by itself without help from anyone. When it slowed, one of us would get back off and push.”
“I remember straining to go higher and higher on the swing, flying through the air until I got dizzy with it all and pleaded to stop, to come back down.”
“And there were teeter totters. Otto was heavier than anyone and he would keep me screeching in the air as his fat bottom controlled the totter and I felt teeter.”

“Rose had a glassed in sun porch with a bed in it for summer time and for guests. I was too little, ever, to be allowed to sleep there alone, but Otto did. Rose taught me to paint. She let me pick a photograph of someone else’s painting, a sailboat with reddish sails on a cerulean sea and sky and I copied it using her oils. She did large sun-filled landscapes of wooded paths that were quite good and quite popular in the ‘Forties. I wish I had one of them now. Who knows what happened to them all.”

Their cups were empty. Marcel had listened with half an ear. His mind was traveling away in other directions and they weren’t his memories. He really didn’t care but he took pains to not let it show.

They went home then, traveling back up the steep hill, stopping by the galleries Kay wanted to see, and back up through the ever-expanding commercial districts of the wealthy middle class with their corporate giants of designer clothing, mega-grocery outlets, world-franchised coffee houses and Realty offices. White Rock had become big business.

It was no use complaining. It was the way of the world to constantly develop; to tear down the small and build up and out and dig parking underground. But Kay mused about how it had been. She had enjoyed the memories and she had had a grand day. She wouldn’t likely be back again.


January 7, 2008

Kay pulled the duvet closer to her chin, turned restlessly onto her side and kept her eyes shut. It was warm, comfortable and dark but it was no good. She turned on her left side, her right leg drawn up towards her chin. She adjusted the pillow to support her head, pulled the duvet back up under the chin and thought of Mother. She could see the photo of her on the mantle above the gas chimney with that Mona Lisa expression that you could not decipher. Perhaps it was a smile, but just as easily it was a tight, forbearing grimace of someone not willing to accept what just might be about to occur; or a very polite boredom.

Now what did that mean?, thought Kay. It was no time of night to let one’s mind go wandering. It was too hot under the duvet and she tossed it off, felt about for her glasses on the headboard. She hooked the side wings on her ears and peered at the large red letters of the digital alarm clock that she had bought for her mother. It had a built in night light that glowed just enough to define the objects in the room – the single bed, the simple dresser topped with a Japanese vase, the little screen behind it, the lamp which would be too bright to turn on in this otherwise pitch black. The clock flickered and the numbers changed to 5:00.

Kay rose and went to the bathroom guided by the night lights and returned. Maybe that would settle her. It was far too early to be getting up. She put her night sweater around her shoulders, carefully repositioned herself on her side, drew up the duvet and readjusted the pillow. She closed her eyes firmly against the night light which now seemed too bright. Try and get another hour or two of sleep, she counselled herself. God knows, you need it.

As she pulled the edge of the duvet cover under her chin, Franc came to visit her thoughts. He must be in Cambodia by now. His flight would have taken him twenty four hours, and then there was his travel out of the city by bus up to the beach resort. What would he do there? How lonely was he? Would the newness of the travelling occupy him for a while? Make him happy?

He had looked altogether too thin at the airport; the conversation was altogether too brittle.

He had leapt out of the car, extracted his brand new backpack on wheels, and returned to give Kay a peck on the cheek.

“I’m getting out for a hug,” she said and didn’t allow him to complete his gesture. She came around and held him, her hand on his waist, and she looked up searchingly into his rigid eyes. There was silence for a dreadful moment, then, “Well, have a good trip. Take good care of yourself.” It sounded hollow.

He was stiff and brittle, hardly daring to feel. Perhaps he didn’t know what he was going off towards either. “Iis there anything else to be said?” he asked. He was waiting for a word that did not come.

Kay was still caught in that dreadful silence with Franc that had overcome her since July. She didn’t dare speak. What could she say? Nothing had been resolved; nor would it be, perhaps. Something had broken badly and perhaps it couldn’t be fixed. Worst of all, she couldn’t say what she felt to him. It was too dangerous.

“No. I don’t think so, ” she said. She could not tell him she still loved him, despite everything. It was fraught with emotional danger for them both.

“Well, then,” he replied, bent so slightly forward to touch Kay’s lips with a dry, perfunctory kiss. He shook out the handle on his pack and wheeled it into the terminal.

What was it, Kay thought, that made her care so much? Why had she cared about so much about Mother, lonely and huddled in her big house with four other people, family, passing like tankers in a commercial shipping lane, tooting a horn, waving, never communicating. Kay remembered her sunk into the large floral arm chair. looking smaller and smaller, waiting. Waiting for Kay to come home. Waiting for someone to make her a cup of tea. Worried about the light bill going up. Not willing to put on the lights for a few cents of electricity while she waited. Not just for the tea, but for someone to ask her what her day was like. Someone to ask about the outside world where one worked, played, shopped; anything but this sitting and waiting.

What was it that made her care so much? For the baby robin that had fallen from it’s nest, which she had found at the bottom of the garden when she was six or so.

Why was she worrying about Franc? Franc, who in his fury in July, had left her without a word for five months until his cat died, and then he called, frantically grieving, not just for his cat but for the loss of their relationship. Franc, who was now heading off into a world that she did not know. Would he be safe? Who would he call if he ran into difficulty? Those countries could be volatile, harsh, unforgiving. Tourists were not always welcome.

Kay restlessly turned onto her back and readjusted the pillows . She was wide awake now. She listened Where there had been dead silence, now there was the swishing of a car approaching from a distance, clarifying into a rumble then moving back off into the other distance. A crescendo and diminuendo of car noise on asphalt. It seemed precise and specific then it disappeared into nothingness. Silence.

Kay listened intently. It was a few moments before another car went by. It was funny, she reflected, that at midnight when she went to bed, this house could have been out in the wilderness. There was not a sound to be heard. It was that delicious, safe dark silence that you could sink into and sleep well with. Another car went by. Kay, still listening and alert, could hear a truck approach, pass and go away. Different vehicles had different sounds. It was mostly cars, but there were vans, motorcycles, light trucks and heavier ones. There was a different sound when two cars went by one after the other. People were heading off to work. There were fewer and fewer silences between them, like the exposition and development of a fugue, the same tunes built up and combined together, each with it’s distinct melody, reaching a pitch of cacophony.

Kay turned on her right side, felt for her glasses, put them on. It was only 5:33.

This is pointless, she thought. I’m not sleeping. I’m not fixing anything by all this. Might as well get up, get a coffee and spend the time writing.

And she did.

The rag tag choir or The road to Hell

November 27, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, is little Ethel around?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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