I have the pleasure for the next four months of being a mentor in the Writers Guild of Alberta inaugural mentorship program. I met this morning with Ali, the talented writer with whom I have the privilege of working and we talked a bit about non-fiction, about the challenges of writing about real life. For me, fiction is always the way out; turn the story inside out, sideways, upside down, embellish, and change the details until the only recognizable truth is the quiet beating of the heart of the story. A few times, though, I have ventured into life writing, and one of those pieces of creative non-fiction was published in Room Magazine 33.1 in 2008. I’ve been thinking for some time that I wanted to post a story here just for reading, and this one is on my mind today because it’s the example I always pull out when I talk about the challenges of writing about personal issues. With thanks to my daughter for the grace with which she blessed this story before I sent it out in the world, here’s:
Dressed for the Occasion
When my daughter calls, I’m dressing to go out for dinner, looking for some way to perk up a plain black skirt and sweater. I find myself holding my mother-in-law’s pearls. Not because of an affinity for the necklace, but because she’s ailing, and has been on my mind.
Shortly after Robert and I were married, I asked his mother what she would like me to call her, and without hesitation she answered “Mom”. She would not like, she said, for me to address her as Helen even though that sort of informality seemed common these days. I stuck to “you”, or a clearing of the throat, an “ahem” when I wanted her attention and she wasn’t looking my way. “Mom” belonged to my mother.
When we had children, I could speak through them. Ask Grandma if she’d like tea, I would say, but never addressed her as “Grandma” myself. Now, with phone in hand, I tell Elisabeth, I am standing here looking at your Grandma’s pearls, wondering who on earth will ever wear them. Maybe they should have gone to St. Vincent de Paul with the clothes.
Are they real pearls? she asks. I squint at the necklace. Does it matter? The knick-knackery we salvaged from my mother-in-law’s life was chosen out of sentiment rather than material value. She was a woman who lived through years of hard-scrabble, no extravagance or luxury. A woman who could part with nothing, and whose hoarding we met full on when it was time to close down her house and help her move to a nursing home. By then, she was so far-gone in her dementia that my husband, his youngest brother and I made the decisions about her belongings. She shouted at us to throw it all away, because that was what we wanted, wasn’t it? To be rid of her?
We filled dozens of green bags with clothing none of us had ever seen her wear, and dumped dusty jars of home-canned peaches and grey pickled beans that had been on the basement shelf at least twenty years beyond their best-before date. At the end of that exhausting weekend, I showed her the pearls in their Birks box and a plastic baggie full of rhinestone costume jewelry. I would hold this in safe-keeping for her grandchildren, I promised. She nodded as though she understood and was pleased, but we knew she was likely to phone a week later and tell us that someone had crept into her room and stolen her jewels.
Elisabeth has called to talk about the wedding. She and her partner – I’ve settled on “partners” as the descriptor for these two young women even though I hate the business-like sound – are worried that Bill C-38, which became law eight months ago, might be short-lived. We have a new Conservative government rabidly opposed to civil marriage rights for same sex couples.
The partners have set a wedding date in August. They’ve been together for almost four years, three years since my daughter choked out the news that she was in love, and it was serious, and the object of her love was another woman.
Today, though, we’ve moved far beyond that tearful declaration and my own private weeping, my heart’s misalignment with my head, my embarrassment at discovering that all the intellectualizing in the world couldn’t change what I felt about having my child move out of the mainstream. I feared that the world would no longer treat her as gently as she deserved. Today we’re talking about wedding venues and menus: a late afternoon affair with hors d’oeuvres and some bubbly wine? But what about their friends with huge appetities? Maybe better to have a full dinner reception: AAA Alberta beef, or cedar planked salmon?
I tell her any of those options sounds fine. I hold up the necklace, frown at my reflection in the mirror, think the pearls probably looked better on the oysters.
There is a bubble of laughter in my girl’s voice when she says they can have a slightly more extravagant wedding because their Alberta Prosperity cheques have arrived. She says there’s pleasing poetic justice to funding her gay wedding with bonuses from the glut of oil and gas money in the provincial coffers. Our premier, Ralph Klein, strenuously opposed gay marriage. I suggest a thank you note to Mr. Klein, telling him he’s buying AAA Alberta beef for the celebration.
I coil the necklace back into the blue box. I came of age in the sixties, and went from mini-skirts to granny dresses, neither of which begged for a string of pearls as the finishing touch.
How is Grandma? Elisabeth asks.
The same, I tell her, or maybe worse.
She says she’s been wondering if the next time she’s in Edmonton she should visit, tell Grandma about the wedding. Or will her dad do that? Or will I? Or will we let it be?
I answer without hesitation. Her grandmother would forget the conversation within an hour, and if she did remember it would confuse and upset her. There is nothing to be gained, no coherent blessing to be given.
Our daughter was the first grandchild. Profoundly premature, she weighed just under 1200 grams, and I know that in her grandmother’s eyes she has always been a miracle. But my mother-in-law’s actions and opinions are based on what the rest of the world would “think,” with no dispensations for favourite children.
Six weeks later, my mother-in-law slips away in her sleep.
I expected to feel relief at her passing. Creeping infirmity had drained the joy from her life long ago. For five years, she was dependent on the care of strangers, and in the absence of a daughter, dependent on me to shop for clothing and personal items. I assumed the role of stand-in daughter grudgingly, bound more by duty than affection. I am stunned by the sadness I feel at her dying.
I was not on my Irish Catholic mother-in-law’s wish list. If her eldest son was not going to fulfill her dream and become a priest, then her number two longing was that he would marry a good Catholic girl. I never told her that my mother was as aghast at my marrying a Catholic, and that the priest who took our vows wryly told my husband that he was doing so only because I seemed to be a far better Lutheran than Robert was a Catholic, so perhaps there would be hope for him in this union. We moved to Calgary, in retrospect probably one of the best decisions we made in our marriage. My mother-in-law did not visit often, but each time her anxiety, fussing and oddly off-track conversation wore me down within hours. If I left the kitchen in the midst of preparing dinner I would come back to find that she had scurried to the sink and was frantically peeling potatoes. Because she noticed, she’d say, that I hadn’t done them and like all the Irish, her sons loved their potatoes with every meal. With spaghetti carbonara and Caesar salad?
By the time we had children, I thought she might take comfort in knowing that I was a good homemaker and mother. She was glad, she once told me, that I was not the sort of woman who left her children home alone and went out to the beer parlour. Well no, I wanted to reply, and I did not grind glass into her son’s meals, or hers which might be tempting, nor had I held up a convenience store recently. But there were other things I did do that might be noted. She told me as well, that she was glad that none of her sons had taken up with a girl of another colour. That would have been much too hard for the children. It was a waste of breath to tell her that it was never the children who made such things difficult.
My children were far more patient and cheerful than I. They never saw their grandmother as anyone but the frail, nervous woman who loved them fiercely. When she asked them to get on their knees and pray with her, they would glibly tell her, Maybe later, Grandma. I’m going to watch Inspector Gadget now. I kept my ear tuned to her conversations with them, because if I could not change her religious, racial and ethnic prejudices, I could at least do damage control when she spilled them over my children.
We never left our children alone with my mother-in-law. I, because I was only half-joking when I said I was sure she would call a cab and rush them to the nearest Catholic church for baptizing, and Robert because he remembered a mother who had nothing but a stout stick for dealing with her anger when the dithering patience failed. He had found the grace to acknowledge that like so many other parents who fall short of the ideal, she did the best she could with what she had. We hope, he and I, that our children will be able to say the same of us.
Funeral arrangements for someone whose life has been guided by the rules of church and society as she understood them are relatively easy. At the mortuary, the cemetery, and finally the church, we let “what she would have wanted” be our guide. As the only non-Catholic in the meeting with the priest, I try to keep my mouth shut. What do I know about the ritual of the Catholic funeral Mass?
The funeral will be at the church my brother-in-law and his family attend. The priest has never met the woman he will be burying. He refers to her as “Helen”. I have, I offer cautiously, written a few things about “Helen” if it would help him to know her better. Or perhaps someone in the family could read it? He answers quite sternly that there is no place in the Catholic funeral Mass for eulogies. When the question of music comes up, and I can’t help remembering the songs my mother-in-law sang while she peeled the wretched potatoes, he shakes his head again. No matter how much Helen loved Don Messer’s Jubilee and Marg and Charlie’s rendering of ”Abide With Me” it is a Protestant hymn, and it will not do for her funeral. It strikes me, as the plans are made, that it’s as difficult to die a traditional Catholic as it is to live as one.
At the beginning of the Mass, before the casket is brought to the front of the church, someone will drape it with a pure white cloth. I volunteer my daughter, holding my breath in case the priest asks, Is she Catholic? No, I will tell him. But in our family album there is a snapshot of a little girl, barely a year old, in a flower-sprigged dress. Alone in the photo, she is taking a wobbly first step, but the hand she is clutching belongs to the grandma just outside the frame.
On the drive from Calgary to Edmonton, we shared our relief at being done with the nursing home smells of adult diapers, steamed food, the choking overlay of cleaners used to mask the stink. One more visit required this evening, one last clean-up.
Unlike the emptying of the house five years ago, this job is easy. But wrenchingly sad. On the end of the bed, there is a faded afghan. One of dozens knit by my husband’s grandmother. The afghan, a few photos, and my mother-in-law’s rosary go into a small suitcase. Clothing goes to the Catholic charity, St. Vincent de Paul. The only garment I set aside is a silky, long-sleeved dress the colour of raspberry ice cream that she saved for special occasions. A closed casket, we told the funeral director, but still, she would have wanted to look her best.
The handful of fabric I’m holding feels as cold and lonely as this room with the stripped bed, barren bulletin board, and mound of green garbage bags at the door. My mother-in-law was always huddled into herself for warmth. Even in mid-summer, she kept the windows shut tight, the rest of us rolling our eyes, fanning ourselves with magazines. At our house, she begged an extra sweater, a pair of warm socks as soon as she arrived. The thought of her thin body in nothing but this icy breath of a dress is too much.
I grab Robert’s arm. What time is it?
We need to go shopping.
I dance the dress in front of him. A warm sweater, I say. With only a breath of a pause, he nods, grabs the little suitcase, and we race to the car.
We reach Wal-Mart fifteen minutes before closing time, dress in hand. Pick our way through racks of sweaters, me muttering: too flimsy, too slithery, too tacky, too pink. I sound like Dr. Seuss. Robert takes my arm finally. This isn’t working. He glances at his watch. What about the afghan?
I let go of the sleeve of a hot pink cardigan. Imagine a satin-lined casket, a silk dress. A shabby blanket? No. She’d be mortified at what the people at the funeral home would think.
And what about undergarments, stockings? How could I have imagined her laid to rest in nothing but a dress? I wish we had asked the undertaker what clothes they need, but surely that choice should be ours. Hers. I scoop up a slip, cotton, slightly more substantial than the dress, panty hose, cotton briefs. There were none of these in the dresser drawers at the nursing home. Nothing in her wardrobe but pyjamas, boxes of Depends, and the fleece pants and sweatshirts I bought at Cotton Ginny as endlessly as the harsh laundering at the facility wore them down.
A cheery voice announces that the store is closing.
Robert points across the aisle at another rack of sweaters. He takes the dress from me, strides away, randomly pulls out a hanger. Does this match?
Perfectly. A shade darker than the dress, a delicate lacy pattern and soft as a kitten. I hold the sweater to my cheek, and then to his. She’d love it.
In the car, I put my head back and close my eyes. Now I can envision Helen in her gleaming mahogany casket. Mom, Grandma, Sister, Aunty, Sister-in-law. She was none of those to me, and yet we were intimately connected for thirty-five years. Therein lies the seed of my grief, and therein this small gift of grace. In strict adherence to “what she would have wanted,” we have dressed her up. In exchange, I will tell Elisabeth that Grandma is wearing the dress she would have chosen to wear to the wedding. For the wedding, she would have worn the pearls.