I’m not writing these days, not even playing with old stories, haven’t sent anything out in ages. But suddenly today, it seems time to get something “out there”. And because this one has never been out anywhere, here’s Aunt Jewel just because.
Barbara knows that Gary will not be pleased when he finds out about her visit to his Aunt Jewel. He insists that everyone in his family is A-okay with their daughter’s gay wedding. What the hell are you trying to forge with Aunt Jewel? he’ll say.
But here’s Barbara, pulling open the first set of doors at the entrance to Woodcrest— wondering why so many nursing homes and seniors’ residences, even posh ones, pretend to be in the woods, and why there are always Adirondack chairs on the lawn—and there’s a woman clumping toward her in a walker. There’s no one behind the woman, no one in sight at all. Barbara hesitates. Should she help this patient out the door?
Relax, the woman tells her. I’m as compos mentis as you are. The woman presses a button on the wall and the exit whooshes open. Outside, she settles into one of the big wooden chairs and lights up a cigarette. Barbara wonders how the old woman will ever get out of that chair again, never mind back inside. Perhaps she should alert a staff member. On the other hand, the woman made it outside on her own, and hasn’t set off any alarms. And for the money people pay for this care, surely someone is watching.
Inside, Barbara hesitates. So many corridors and she only vaguely remembers the one she and Gary followed when they dropped in with a plate of shortbread last Christmas. Or maybe it was two Christmases ago. One thing that hasn’t changed is the smell. The cloying perfume from the vase of lilies at the reception desk almost more gag-inducing than the underlying fecal scent. Barbara wishes she’d taken a deeper breath before she stepped inside.
The woman behind the desk tells Barbara that Jewel has moved up to the second floor. She says it with a lilt, as though Jewel strode out of her room and punched that elevator button all on her own. Barbara has been in enough care facilities to know that upward mobility is about loss of mobility. Why hasn’t someone in the family told them Jewel is losing it?
Jewel, sitting in a chair at the window, might have seen Barbara park her car, walk up to the door. But it’s obvious she doesn’t recognize her.
Gary’s wife. Your nephew Gary?
Of course she knows Gary. No loss of voice precipitated the move upstairs. Jewel sounds as testy as ever, the spinster teacher, the family’s legendary lesbian. Nonsense, Gary always insisted. Gossip. Just because she never married. Maybe she wanted to be a history professor instead of a housewife. Some people, Barbara reminded him, do both. She herself has been a teacher and a mother. Not in Jewel’s day, he said. Gossip.
Choice pieces of Jewel’s furniture from home followed her to the care facility, followed her upstairs. Dark mahogany desk still waxed to a shine, pens in a brass cup, small stack of envelopes neatly squared on a leather-cornered blotter.
Jewel interrupts Barbara’s snoopy scan of the room to ask what brings her by on a day when anyone who’s able should be out in the sun. Would she like a cup of tea? The offer seems to use up all her energy and she melts back into her chair.
A bit of family news, Barbara says. She doesn’t know if anyone has told Jewel that their Kaitlyn is getting married next month. To her roommate at Ryerson. Kaitlyn and Diana.
She wants to say, like you and Henrietta, but Barbara never knew Henrietta. Henrietta (Jewel called her “Hank”, this Barbara gleaned from Gary’s sister who is Barbara’s source of all she knows of Jewel and Henrietta/Hank)) is part of the legend of Jewel the lesbian, how they roomed together at McGill. Stayed close after they graduated in spite of the miles between them, the teaching positions, Jewel in Edmonton, Henrietta in Montreal. Visits back and forth at Christmas, and every summer vacation together; a new picture of the two of them in London, Rome, Madrid in Jewel’s Christmas cards each year. Until suddenly no Henrietta, no more mention of Hank. None, and no one dared to ask. She’d bite your head off, Gary’s sister told Barbara. Briefly, rumours of another woman, another professor colleague, but only Jewel’s smart solo presence at family functions ever after.
The old woman in the chair was likely described as handsome in her youth, still is, hair cut Prince Valiant style across a broad forehead, tweed skirt and pale pink sweater, leather walking shoes solid on the floor. Only the deep-set hoods of her eyes droop, and only for a second until she peers out from under the lids to say she hadn’t heard this was now possible. For girls to marry girls.
The law just passed, Barbara tells Jewel, as breathless as though she hauled a tablet carved with Bill C-38 to the top of the mountain herself.
Is that so? Jewel closes her eyes. Her chin sags. Now Barbara sees the drip-drip stains on the sweater, the snag in the hem of the skirt, wonders who looks after Jewel’s clothes, the personal touch. There are no grown daughters, just gossipy nieces, slightly afraid of this aged aunt.
A woman in floral print uniform glides into the room, eyes flashing into every corner. This is the one who should be watching the smoker out front. You have company, she chirps, plants a hand on Jewel’s shoulder. Jewel’s eyes open. She knows she has company, she says. Just when Barbara has decided that now the news has been shared, she can leave, the nurse shifts a chair into position, beckons Barbara into it, facing Jewel, their knees touching. There you go.
You’ll be getting an invitation to the wedding, Gary will be happy to pick you up, Barbara tells Aunt Jewel.
Gary is going to be furious.
I do not go out these day, Jewel says, clear voice, clear eyes, clear as can be. But a minute later, she sighs and drifts away again.
Sounds of squeaky feet in the hallway, a rattling cart, whine of something hydraulic, a lift for someone else who’s up here because they’re down? Barbara leans back, waits. Fidgets, leans forward, elbows on her knees, chin in her hands. Now she sighs. It must be the air in this place.
Why did I come, you’re probably wondering? she asks out loud. Not a twitch from Jewel. Oh, I don’t know. Another sigh. I’m good with this wedding, and the relationship. Things are so different these days. So open. Not like it was for you and Henrietta, this she whispers to herself, oh she hopes it was a whisper.
Jewel’s head bobs up a notch, her mouth opens, a soft snore escapes. Barbara nods. It’s a good thing, that it’s all open now, don’t you think? I’m fine with it. Only… It’s like when I sing inside my head, you know? I’m Joan Baez, in my mind. But I’ve never been able to carry a tune. In real life, when the song pours out of my mouth I’m off-key. When I try to tell people about this wedding…and I see the way they smile, I can’t sing the song I want to sing. I sound warped. Why is that?
Jewel stirs, her tongue working against her teeth. Barbara reaches for a knotted hand, surprised by the softness of the skin. She strokes the map of veins with her fingertips. I’m sorry, she tells Jewel. I shouldn’t have come. I can’t seem to get any of this right. She gently releases the hand to rest in the folds of tweed across Jewel’s knees.
When Barbara has moved the chair she was sitting in back against the wall, and turns to say goodbye, Jewel’s eyes are open wide and clear. “Henrietta got married, you know. To a man.” Hands clenching the wooden arms of the chair, she pulls up straight, her head high. “Oh, don’t look so sad. It was long ago. It ran its course.”
There’s more clatter in the hall and Barbara knows that any minute there will be a tray with tea and biscuits.
Jewel thanks Barbara for stopping by.
Outside, the same woman is sitting in the smoking chair, but this time there is a woman in the chair beside her. She has a bouquet of flowers across her knees. Flowers. Barbara walks away thinking that she should have brought flowers.