November 29, 2009
40,915 ... 0,085 to go ...
I've just finished snacking on leftover, somewhat dark, pancakes spread with jam and drinking tea while I read email and looked at the past few blog entries containing this silly novel. Before that I moved some furniture around downstairs in an effort to fit too many things into too little space while still allowing me to watch my movies from a comfortable chair. And before that I finished washing the dishes from last night's chicken dinner with Tammy, Carlos and Mandara. I made the orange scented sponge cake for dessert but it looked a little more like an orange scented cookie than a cake this time ... still it tasted good and worked almost as well with the whipped cream and mandarin orange slices as it had with cream and raspberries. I also spent a few minutes trying to re-use a dish detergent bottle before discovering that its top was melded not screwed.
Maybe that's the difference between a good relationship and a bad one.
Except that the best bottles have caps that screw on (and off), and the worst cannot be re-used because they are so tightly glued together ... and the opposite is true of marriages.
Well, not exactly ... at least not for me ... the best relationship for me is neither of those ... it's one in which I am not joined at the hip or any other way but linked in all ways .. head, heart and the nether regions as Grandpa would say.
"I'd never say that," scoffed Grandpa. "I always called a spade a spade. Give me a woman with a sweet pussy and a nice tush any time."
I laughed out loud.
"What are you doing here? I thought I'd seen the last of you once you knew the story of the chain."
"I thought I'd go with you to my grandson's funeral."
"Did you know him?"
"No, but neither did you."
"I'm hoping to meet my cousins. It would be nice to have some family even this late."
"I'm hoping to catch a glimpse of Velvet ... and they always serve good whiskey at these things, especially the ones that are held in funeral homes, not churches." He smiled and then continued, "Although I must say the booze flowed pretty freely at some of the Catholic wakes I've been to."
"What do you miss most about life, Grandpa?" I asked.
"The women," he said. "The women. The scent of their perfume, the smoothness of their skin, the softness of their bodies. I always had a marvelous sense of peace with a woman. It was like sinking into a feather bed."
"I get that feeling every night," I laughed. "As soon as I snuggle in under my duvet and stretch out my muscles."
"You need to get out more," growled Grandpa. "You've become a cold cold woman in your old age. You didn't use to be."
"She needs to give Mark a chance," said Eva.
"That great marshmallow of a man?" snorted Grandpa.
"Don't listen to him," Eva said to me, and then directed a question to Grandpa. "I thought you'd given up on funerals. What's changed your mind?"
"Thought she ..." He jerked a thumb in my general direction, "...might need some help finding her cousins."
"Bull roar, old man. You smelled Crowne Royal."
"Well, I also wanted to see you, old woman," grinned Grandpa. And he gave Eva an amorphous hug, one that revealed just how much he still cared about her. It was a little like watching the smoke from two wood fires weave together in the air.
"So ... do ghosts get it on in heaven?" I asked innocently. "Or do marriage vows still count if you're dead?"
"Don't be fresh," said Eva.
"There are other ways to connect once you've lost your parts," said Grandpa. He turned to Eva. "My god, I never thought I'd live to see the day I could say that and mean it."
"You didn't," Eva and I said in unison.
"So do you have your ticket?" Grandpa asked once the laughter faded away.
"Not yet. I'll get it at the station tomorrow morning."
"Well, I'll see you on the train then," Grandpa said.
"I will too," said Eva.
"Wait. Why did you come this morning?"
""Just wanted to be sure you were going tomorrow. I think you need to do this."
"Why?" I asked, but Eva was silent ... and then she was gone ... perhaps to follow Grandpa for some of that Smoke Gets in Your Eyes intermingling ...
I hated the thought of packing for a trip. In fact I hated the thought of traveling again. It was less than a week since I'd returned from that grueling trip to London. Does a promise count if you've made it to someone who died years ago?
"Yes," said a disembodied voice. "At least yours do because you're still alive." I wasn't sure if I was hearing Grandpa or Eva. But I guess it didn't really matter.
I pulled out the red suitcase and started throwing in underwear ... Marks and Spencer's ... and then I got side tracked again. I had to do a laundry before I left. Gathering dirty clothing led me to my plants. They needed loving care. They looked as if I had abandoned them, especially the one that Lucas pulled down, the one I had hurriedly crammed back into its pot before I left for England. They needed some watering here, some snipping there.
I thought of Pat's rainforest of plants that created a green dimness in her flat. Every window downstairs was filled with plants. I wished I'd snipped a few pieces to start offspring over here ... just in case I never had the chance again. Illegal of course ... I remembered the movie about the vines and the sexy Frenchman. French Kiss it was called. I saw it in Namibia of all places. Sitting on a folding metal chair beside the woman who was the NANTU accountant, one of the few competent people working for the union after the war of independence.
Because the teachers' union had supported the guerilla war against South African domination of Namibia, they were bound by honour to hire the former freedom fighters. These people had fought for all Namibians, well, for all right thinking Namibians anyway, and had been too busy fighting apartheid to get training or education in their youth. As a result we had a secretary who couldn't type and a driver who couldn't drive. I listened to a news broadcast one day and laughed out loud as the journalist said something about the former combatants now employed all over the country. His accent was strongly British and what I heard was something about the incompetents working for organizations like the Teachers' Union. It was not a politically correct thing to think, I'm afraid ... but every time I cringed beside Festus as he ran stop signs, sped up in tight situations, and failed utterly to recognize the importance of any of the rules of the road or the rights of other drivers, I thought about it. On the highways he was a far better driver than he was in the cities. He should have been a guide. He could distinguish all the deer species from distances so far away that I couldn't even spot their basic shapes. Our mutual love of animals was what eventually allowed us to bond as friends. That and my colour blindness. But that was a whole other story and I needed to prepare for this funeral trip.
One of the things I've noticed about getting to an age when my brain needs oiling is that my mind meanders in the oddest ways. I feel at times as if I am in a great jungle with thousands and thousands of vines to make my way through. Quite often the vines are far more interesting than the path and I find myself taking detours all the time. And every scramble up a vine leads to another vine entangled with that one and so it is very easy to remain in the tree tops of memories rather than staying on the ground with my eyes following the pathways of the here and now and actually getting to my destination. Whole days can disappear this way.
It's a little like the experience of going upstairs to get something and finding yourself wondering what you came up to do, but it's far more interesting. I once had a friend who said she slept around because she wanted to be able to sit in her rocking chair when she was old and have lots of memories to enjoy.
She never became an old woman. But I did ... and I find myself remembering all kinds of things, but few of them have anything to do with sex.
""Maybe that's because you don't need memories to keep you warm because you have the real thing." It was Eva again.
"Don't you ever sleep?" I asked.
"One of the nice things about being dead is that you don't need food or rest because there is no body to look after."
Before I had a chance to respond, she said with a giggle, "And no brassieres or girdles either."
"Sort of like the relief you feel initially when you no longer have to worry about pads and tampons ... at least until your brain tissues start needing lube jobs," I said, and then added, "What are you doing here?"
"I just got tangled in your vines of memory."
Death was beginning to have some appeal.
Peter arrived to start another day's work and I returned to my keyboard. Peter must be getting used to seeing me in my pyjamas and housecoat ... I get more writing done if I forget about such amenities as washing and dressing, something Grandpa and Eva would understand. I doubted, however, if Nana would. She still had not abandoned girdles and nylons, or lipstick and face powder. She must think I am a complete slob. I stopped wearing all of those things years ago.
"It might be a good thing to at least do your hair for tomorrow," Eva remarked.
"Do you think my cousins will care?" I asked in surprise.
"Just do it," said Eva.
Okay I thought. Respect for the family and all that.
But how? I didn't have the time, money or inclination to go to a stylist before I left, and I am a total incompetent when it comes to dealing with dryers and curlers.
"Wash it and scrunch it while it dries," Eva advised.
"Good heavens," I said. "The only time I ever do that is when I'm expecting Mark. Most of the time I just pull it off my face into pigtails."
"Just do it," said Eva.
I headed off to the shower.
"In the morning," Eva called, "So it's fresh and bouncy."
How does she know these things?
"I had three daughters," Eva said.
BETWEEN SUNDAY AFTERNOON AND THE FUNERAL to be written later.
As soon as I stepped down from the maroon and black vehicle and made my way to the curb, I realized I had been here before. I was on Mimico Avenue heading north to the funeral home. I passed a red brick house that looked familiar, and then I saw the garden. This fall had been kind to gardens, especially in Southern Ontario, and pansies still bloomed in the long narrow plot separating Hogle's Funeral home from the house next door ... 59 Mimico Avenue.
I was back on the street where I'd been taken when my father first placed me in foster care. I'd been five. I lived there for two years, and the Hogle boys, Glencoe, Morley and Harvey, had been our neighbours. I wondered which of them had carried on the family business, and whether the funeral parlour had stayed in the family all these years or whether some big business just thought it was good business to keep a name that was trusted.
I was early so I went and knocked on the door to #59. A pleasant middle aged woman answered and invited me in. You can tell when you are getting old. People open their homes and hearts to you more easily. Old women are perceived to be safe. Old men too, I suppose. It began happening to me when I was sixty and I got my first pair of glasses. That was also when I endured hot flashes and my periods stopped for good. And, I presume that was also when the brain lubrication became less reliable. No more regular as clockwork ovulation to squirt lubricant all over the brain's bits and pieces. I was beginning to imagine it, not as a piece of grey dead coral, but as the workings of a grandfather clock. But I digress. The woman invited me in and offered me tea.
I asked if I could visit the pantry. She looked a little surprised, and asked why. "That's the place I remember best," I said. "That's where my foster mother administered our Scott's Emulsion every morning. "Do you know it?" I asked. "It was thick and viscous and pink and it made me gag. Mom Hall became angry when I vomited it out."
"It sounds dreadful," she said leading me through the dining room into the kitchen and the adjacent pantry.
As we squeezed past the dining room table, I said, "Oh ... this is where I got into trouble with my father for dumping my canned peas on the floor." She didn't say anything. Just waited for this strange old woman to finish her journey into the past so that she could get back to her own life. "Clare put hers under her potato shell. She didn't get a spanking."
The woman walked on wordlessly. And then we were there in that dark little room where all medical procedures occurred ... vitamins ... Scott's Emulsion ... cod liver oil ... and urine testing. Mom Hall was a nurse who worked at 999 Queen Street, the infamous hospital for the insane . It had been built before the turn of the century, the turn of the 20th century that is. Grandpa probably remembered it ... and Eva. It's still there but it now has politically correct appellations.
I must have been speaking aloud because I realized with a start that the woman was glancing around as if she were frightened by my presence. Thinking to put her at ease, I told her about Hallowe'ens when I was a child, when the Hogle boys snuck Clare and me into the basement of the funeral home. That was where they washed the dead bodies, pumped in formaldehyde, and prepared them for their last showing. We sang songs about hearses going by and how we might be the next to die ... songs that ended with pus pouring out like whipping cream and other lurid details. The woman's hands began to flutter as she stammered something about having to get her laundry out of the dryer before it got too wrinkled.
"Oh, go ahead," I said. "I'll be fine here with my tea." We were once again in the livingroom. "I'm on my way to a funeral for a man called Joseph. I don't know his last name but he's my cousin. I have plenty of time."
By now the woman looked like a rabbit caught in the high beams of a car. And then there was a gush of words. "I'm sorry but you can't wait here," she said. "My children will be home from school any minute."
"Oh," I said pleasantly. "Do they go to Mimico Avenue School? That's where I attended school from kindergarten till part way through grade two." The woman was now ushering me through the hallway now, one hand on my shoulder, the other frantically turning the knob to let me out onto the front verandah. So that's what the bum's rush is like, I thought, once I was outside again.
The street was filled with children and I stood and watched them ashet dashed home to television sets and computer screens. So different from my school days. I heard the woman's voice behind me. "They have a waiting room at Hogles. They'll let you stay there." And then she pushed past me, quite rudely I might add, to clasp each of her children by the hand and drag them indoors with a hissed, "I'll tell you why later."
They were more courteous and welcoming at Hogle's. It had undergone considerable renovation since I'd last been there. All funeral homes now aim for light and bright. It's as if they want to put the living at ease rather than putting the dead to rest. I sat down in a pleasant room with couches lining the walls, a room lit by many small stained glass lamps, and pulled my journal from my bag. A young woman wearing a blazer and skirt brought me a cup of tea. "I'm going to feel like a sieve if I drink much more tea this afternoon," I said. She smiled and asked if I would prefer something else. "No, this is fine," I said. As she turned to leave, I asked if Glencoe, Morley and Harvey were her brothers.
She smiled and said, "Harvey was my grandfather."
"So he's dead then. What about the others?, I asked.
"Uncle Glencoe's still alive. He's had a stroke and finds it hard to get around now, and Morley died in a car accident many years ago."
"Was his father driving? Mr. Hogle was a terrible driver," I said. "Once he nearly ran right off a cliff edge when he picked us up in Long Branch."
She smiled again. "No, Morley was the driver." Then, as if she wanted to be kind, she asked me to tell her about the time I rode in the hearse. We'd just moved to Long Branch and still felt that 59 Mimico Avenue was home and that the Hogles were neighbours. Mr. Hogle arrived just before dark on July 1 in the hearse and ferried us to and from the fireworks display he and the boys put on every year.
She waited till I finished the story and then she excused herself and I was left alone. I still had half an hour till people would begin to arrive.
"Good God, woman. You'll be lucky if they don't commit you to 999 if you don't stop spouting off like you're half daft."
"Was I that bad, Grandpa?" I asked. "I just keep remembering. And I forget that other people aren't interested."
"That's obvious," he said. "But, as a matter of fact, I found it interesting. I didn't know what happened to you back then."
"Not many people did," I said. "When I met my half brother he had no idea. He'd lived with our mother for twenty some years and she never told him anything about me."
"She was probably ashamed,"said Grandpa. "Why is it so important for you to meet these half cousins of yours?"
"I'm not entirely sure," I said. "But when I met Grant when we were already past middle age, I felt such a sense of security knowing I had a brother. I didn't know him at all, but I loved him ... and I felt accepted by him. It was the first time I've felt quite that way."
"You have children," said Grandpa.
"Your children love you in a different way. They have bones to pick with you. You've made mistakes with them that they find hard to forgive."
"You feel judged ?"
"I guess you could put it that way. Or maybe I just feel guilty that I didn't do a better job."
"Are they such bad people?" asked Grandpa.
I looked at him surprised. "No," I said. "As a matter of fact they're great people."
"Well then you couldn't have done everything wrong," said Eva who had just come into the room.
"Is it time to face the cousins?" I asked.
"Another fifteen minutes," Eva said.
"Do you think you could be a little more invisible?" asked Grandpa. He looked at Eva. "She keeps drawing attention to herself. People think she's dotty."
Eva smiled. "There must be a lot of your grandfather in you," she said.
Grandpa snorted. "I've never talked the ear off a total stranger telling her my life story in disconnected scrambled shreds and pieces."
"That's because you never lived long enough, Paul."
"Well, thank god for that," he said. "It was embarrassing to watch her make a fool of herself."
"Thanks, Grandpa," I said. "I guess if you didn't love me you wouldn't care."
"Hmmmph" was his only comment.
"Will they be able to see you?" I asked Eva.
"Only if they want to," she said. "Some people are so sensitive they can see all kinds of spirits. others are so imperceptive, they never know we are around, even when we are closely related and have important truths to impart."
"I know why Grandpa is here. These are his grandchildren. But why are you here?"
"I'm here because you are. If your grandfather and I had married and had children, I think you are likely the grandchild we'd have felt the most affinity for."
"Hmmph," said Grandpa. "Speak for yourself. She has no respect at all."
Eva did that viney twisty thing and said, "She's just like you, and you know damned well that's probably why you love her as much as you do."
"What are the others like? Mary Jane and Sarah?"
"A little more sedate than you are, but bright and friendly and funny."
"Funny?" snorted Grandpa. "Hardly."
"Don't listen to him," said Eva. "Just be yourself and you'll see. They'll warm right up to you."
"Should I tell them who I am?"
Before she could answer me the door opened and Grandpa hissed in my ear, "Now stop talking to thin air or they'll have you dragged out of here in a strait jacket."
I smiled at the doorway. I couldn't tell who or what was standing there. It was as if the light were all wrong. Then two women about my age walked into the room and extended their hands. "Were you a friend of our brother's?" the taller one asked.
I fumbled for the right words. "My mother and yours were half sisters," I said. "I'm your cousin. When I learned that Joseph had died and that the funeral was in Toronto, I decided to come. I wanted to meet you."
"While we were still around," said the rounder woman with a smile. "Hi. I'm Mary Jane. We'll have to have a really good chin wag after this formal bit is over. Can you come to the house after the service?"
"I'd like that," I said., "You must be Sarah," I said to the woman beside her.
"The same. I think my youngest daughter looks a lot like you must have at her age. Same eyes."
"Are they here, your children?" I asked.
"No, mine are all over the lot ... I hardly ever get to see them any more. One's in Nova Scotia, another's in B.C. and the third emigrated to Australia a few years ago. I never get to see them or my grandchildren."
Our conversation petered out as people began to trickle in. I heard some comments about closed coffins not providing real closure, and I thought about the difference for me between being with my dad until he was cremated and coming to a funeral service and seeing just a closed coffin for my mother. I had always thought open coffins were morbid but I now think it's important for those closest to the person who has died to see the dead, to stare into those empty faces ... to say good bye ... and to know that the spirit has really and truly gone out of the husk.
I wouldn't need to do that with Pat. We'd said our goodbyes in that hospital room in London. And when my friend Claire died I'd already told her I loved her and said my farewell. And I'd sat beside my father's bedside as the life seeped out of him. But it was different with my mother and my brother ... and with Peter. They just died without my knowing it was happening. One day I just got a call telling me they'd gone. I hadn't had a chance to say goodbye. So maybe that's what the open coffin allows us to do ... say goodbye.
The only open coffins I've ever seen were those housing relative strangers ... John's mother ... Lyall's wife ... people whose funerals I'd attended because I cared about the survivors, not people I knew and loved.
My reverie was interrupted by what I was sure was a figment of my imagination. There is no way I could know the man coming through the door. He was tall and attractive. Grey haired. He headed straight over to Mary Jane and gathered her into his arms. "I didn't think you'd be able to make it," I heard her say.
His reply was muffled because he was now talking into Sarah's hair.
The two women had their arms around him. What the hell was he doing here? No, it couldn't be.
I thought about the likelihood of both of us being connected to this funeral and realized it had to be someone else. Someone I didn't know.
"Close your mouth." It was Wilhemina. "He's a handsome guy, isn't he?"
"Yes," I managed to get out. "Who is he?"
I breathed a sigh of relief. So it wasn't him. Just a coincidental likeness. I must have been thinking about him subconsciously. Wishing he were here. Wishing I didn't have to spend the night alone in a Toronto hotel room.