Finding the Pony in the Pile

 

After four years during which my muse found the pen too heavy to lift,  in the past two months it seems she’s stretched and yawned and decided she was too young to retire.

So “we” opened my file labelled “edit new work” wherein rest stories that never made it to completion for one reason or another. Some of them, when I read them now, are not and clearly never will be worth the candle.

But I came upon one that I felt had “good legs” and so I found the flaws, asked a friend to read and offer her criticism and ended up with a story that pleased me.  I went to my list of past submissions and publications for some hint as to where this story might find a friendly editorial eye. To my surprise, “You Must Remember That” had already found such an eye. It was published in 2010 in the Antigonish Review.

Lessons learned: keep files up to date; and (I believe the essence of the quote is from Aritha van Herk) “We never really finish a story. We just abandon it.”

A second surprise on this sifting of stories—there were two (one fiction and a personal essay)  that I had no memory of writing. Only the memory of churning them in my mind years ago, and telling myself that one day, when the time was right, I’d find a way to put them on the page. Completion and editing now done, stories kicked on to magazine slush piles. Mission accomplished.

Rather than give “the muse” full credit for this return to story, partial credit is due to  Queen Elisabeth II. Netflix series “The Crown”, numerous newspaper and magazine articles on HRH’s long reign, and Theatre Calgary’s beautiful staging of “The Audience”  reminded me that I too have a QEII story and it has nothing to do with highways.

I wrote “The Queen is Coming” in response to a call for submissions from CBC’s Alberta Anthology, a program that was a gift to Alberta writers.

The theme was “Alberta’s Centennial.” I normally avoid writing to “themes” because most often the result is a heavy-handed story written without real inspiration or passion. But when several friends who are dyed-in-the-wool royalists began to go gaga over the upcoming royal visit, I decide to translate my eye-rolling into a story.

A helpful CPL librarian helped me dig through archived news of HRH’s visit in 1951for background, and in particular to find out what Her Majesty was wearing. It was the hat I was after. I even stood on the corner of 9th and Macleod and drank in the spectacle.

“The Queen is Coming” had the honour of a CBC broadcast, and was also included in a lovely collection titled The Best of Alberta Anthology for 2005.

Because it’s been gathering dust now for 12 years, it’s time for an airing:

 

The Queen is Coming

 

My mother phones at eight o’clock in the morning on March 27. “Charlie! The Queen is coming for the Centennial. I want to go to the party,” she says. “You sound sleepy, dear.”

I’ve given up reminding her that I work nights. I do data entry at a bank. Suits me well, and I’m free to ferry Ma to medical appointments and funerals – pretty much her only outings these days.

I’d cruelly hoped, when I heard about the pending royal visit on CBC radio this morning, that Ma would be having one of her bad days. That the news wouldn’t penetrate the fog.

“You know I hate crowds,” I tell her.

“You’re fifty-seven years old,” she says. “You should get over these little fears of yours.” She sighs. “This will be my last chance to see her.”

My mother’s obsession with the royal family began in 1948 when she and Princess Elizabeth were both pregnant. I was born two days after the little prince. If the royal had been a girl, I would have been named Ernest, for my father.

“The tickets are free,” she says. “All you have to do is get in line.” I imagine her head trembling as she speaks. “I hope I can find my hat.”

In Ma’s royal album, there is a picture from 1951. The two of us standing on Ninth Avenue, Ma in a dark wool coat, matching felt hat with a brim and feather. Me, buttoned into a heavy brown coat cut down from Ernest’s overcoat just a few months after he died in a streetcar accident. I’m clutching a small Union Jack in my chubby fist.

The Princess was wearing a mink coat that day, and a matching hat that hugged her head.  Ma had a milliner fashion a replica of that mink cloche hat out of a piece of fur no has ever identified. My sister, Annie, swears it’s cat. The hat has only ever been worn for royal viewings.  Four in all.

I grudgingly agree to get tickets to the Saddledome reception. But I oversleep on the morning they go up.

Ma is surprisingly cheerful. “Never mind. I’m not sure I could have endured the program. They say it will be hours long.”

“Right!” I say in jovial response.  I’ve had nightmares about chasing her runaway wheelchair down ramps. About the accidents to which this proud woman is now prone and the mortification of both of us.

“We’ll just go down to the public viewing,” Ma says. “Maybe she’ll do a walk-about.” She’s getting excited now. “Wouldn’t it wonderful if Charles was coming?”

“Don’t know why he isn’t,” I say. “He’s fifty-seven. He probably loves riding around with his mother.”

“He’s busy,” she snaps. “He’s getting married again, you know.”

Ma loved Diana, is sour on Camilla, but says at least Charlie Windsor isn’t going to remain an old bachelor for the rest of his life. And he has those two fine sons. I, on the other hand, allowed a childless marriage wash up on the rocks ten years ago.

The weather in the week leading up to the Queen’s arrival in Calgary was cold, grey, fiercely windy. Not the sort of climate to which a responsible man would expose his frail eighty-two year old mother.

But she insists.  My sister, Annie, insists. “For gawd sake, Chuck!” she snarls over the phone, “I offered to take her myself, but she wants you.”

I slump in my chair, thinking about the hat I retrieved from the top of the closet. . Even after my heroic attempts to fluff it up, the old relic looked like road kill. I winced when Ma settled it over her scant curls and peered into the mirror. “Oh, Charlie,” she whispered, “I look so old.”  But I, standing behind her chair, was staring at my own reflection. A fat, balding, man who would never be mistaken for a prince.

Even though it’s a morning in May, Ma is bundled into her black winter coat, feet encased in fur-lined boots, hat perched over her freshly-permed hair. A policeman stands in the middle of Ninth Avenue, diverting traffic. Despite his shouts, I creep forward, waving my “handicapped parking” sticker. He shakes his head, but points to a loading zone around the corner.

I push Ma’s wheelchair to a curbside spot in front of the Palliser Hotel. Huddled into my windbreaker, I wish I’d worn my own winter jacket. But then, just minutes before the entourage is due, the sun breaks through. Ma twists in the chair to look up at me, her face tiny beneath the fur. “They say she never wears a hat twice.”

Suddenly there’s a limo approaching, and as it glides by, a smattering of applause from the crowd. A blur of face, a wave. Finished in seconds. Ma doesn’t blink. “That’s not her,” she says. “It’s that Clarkson woman.”

The Governor General, Ma tells me, is going ahead to stage the receiving line for the Queen and Prince Philip. It’s the way things work.

I’m eyeing the corner of Ninth and Macleod a block away, thinking that this is where the cars will slow. This is why the crowd is thickest there. For the better view.  I hope my mother doesn’t notice that I haven’t chosen the best vantage point. Haven’t even tried.

She turns again, and motions for me to listen. I crouch beside the chair. “You look at her face, Charlie. She’s so… serene. How can that be possible with all the stress the poor woman has been through?”

I choke back a snort. “She has a bit of hired help, Ma.”

“Oh, not that,” she says. “It’s the children. The way they live their lives. What a disappointment that must be.”

I feel heavy, leaning there on my haunches, the weight of my own dull life hovering over Ma and me. “I guess that’s just something that comes with being a mother,” I say.

“No dear,” she tells me softly, without taking her eyes off the street. “Elizabeth has had bad luck with her Charles. Aren’t I a lucky old woman to have raised a decent man like you?” She turns now and the smile takes twenty years from her face.

I can see cars approaching, people waving and cheering in the next block.  Too fast. They’ll be past us in a flash. I crank Ma’s chair around, bounce it off the curb and race down the street, Ma gasping and waving her arms.

“Make way!” I shout. “The Queen is coming!”  At the corner, the crowd parts to let us pop up onto the sidewalk just before the second limo in the procession slows, and glides past.  Under a big-brimmed white hat, a smiling face turns to Ma, a gloved hand makes an elegant salute.

Ma grabs my arm. “She smiled right into my face!”

I bend, press my cheek to hers. “Of course,” I say. “She recognized the hat.”

END

An afterword from the anthology: ” The Queen is Coming” is about the relativity of the child-parent relationship and explores how grace inspires grace.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A story just for the short of it

I had a pleasant conversation with one of my Calgary writing colleagues, Rona Altrows, earlier this week about the epistolary form in fiction. To my amazement, she reminded me of one of my “postcard” stories from several years ago. Rona even remembered the title, but why would that surprise me?

I went back to reread “Poste Restante”, published in FreeFall in fall 2011.  The story takes me back to the light on the cobblestones in Salzburg, 1977.  It also makes me yearn for Viennesse coffee and strudel. I’ll make do with the memory, but give the story its moment back in the sunlight.

 

Poste Restante   

Salzburg Oct. 19, 1977

At a sidewalk café, butterscotch light spilling across cobblestones, me with coffee and strudel, you with pretzels and a mug of dark beer, we open mail from home. A whiff of my mother’s hand lotion rises from the page.

Hope you kids are having a grand time. Remember to look up those names I gave you, I’m sure my cousin Ilsa is still alive even though nobody’s heard from her in years. And that little restaurant Daddy and I found in Frieberg in 1963. The man’s name was Otto. He’ll remember us because his wife had a sister over here and living in Red Deer no less.

Now my news. Henry and I are buying a house. We’ll get married eventually, but for now I think it’s best if we just live together. Your sister’s not talking to me. When did you say you were coming home?

My nieces have decorated my sister’s letter with rainbows and hearts.

I wish we could afford to take three months like you, but with the kids, a week in the tent trailer at Sylvan Lake is all I can count on. Mom doesn’t have time to babysit these days. She’s living with Henry. Not even two years since Dad died.

The pages of the letters crackle as I fold them into the envelope.

“Anything new at home?” you ask.

“Nope.” I fork up a bite of strudel. “Where’s out next poste restante?”

“Venice.”

A month away.

 

 

 

On Short Stories; Randomly Pulling Thoughts From the Air

But no, short stories aren’t scooped out of the air in nets. More often, they’re a flash of an idea that flies by so quickly we grab at them and have to run to catch up. Sometimes we have to walk backwards over the same ground to find them again. And again. And again.

What’s random here are my thoughts.

I’m perplexed when readers—smart readers who love literature—tell me they don’t read short fiction because …. The reasons are too many and too weird to list. I will strive to be respectful and not criticize. This is part of my resolve to cease judging other people.

What I know for sure, is that telling stories is innate in human beings. From ancient to contemporary times our lives are made up of stories strung like beads on a string.

Some of us write those stories, and the ones we steal from other people’s lives, and the ones that start with life but with which we play fast and loose.  Some people prefer to listen, to read, to be reminded that no matter how far away the story’s world, stories are universal. The stories we remember are the ones that strike a chord, resonate, make us catch our breath – all those clichés.

Just a few of the stories that I can’t forget, a few that immediately fly out of the books on the shelves behind me: “Hills Like White Elephants,” –Hemingway; “Why I Live at the Post Office,”- Eudora Welty; “The Lady With the Dog,”- Chekhov; “Dance of the Happy Shades,”- Alice Munro. And so many more.

There are novels I can’t forget, but the memories are different in the way they cling to my brain. A short story isn’t simply a short novel, nor a novel a short story that got carried away with itself.

I know writers who sell their first books—that collection of stories it’s taken years to gather and polish to a high shine—but the contract is conditional on the author producing a novel within a particular period of time. The two book deal.

So do we graduate from poetry (my apologies poets!), to short story, and finally produce the novel? I’m reminded of a story from my husband’s early years in retail pharmacy. An elderly woman, whenever she came into the store would look at the pharmacist on duty, shake her head, and say, “It’s too bad you didn’t make it.” Finally someone gently asked for a translation. She believed that if one started out with the dream of being a physician but didn’t make it through, then they became a dentist, and if that too was beyond their capabilities, they sighed and went to work as pharmacists.

Where did all this begin? With my daughter’s freezer and a pot of borscht. With a friend remembering one of my short stories, “Leftovers,” that began with a freezer. Although, where it really began was with an anecdote a friend told me about a young mom who was terminally ill and spent the last months of her life cooking and freezing enough meals for her family to eat one of her dinners once a week for the entire year after her death. My immediate reaction: who could eat those meals?

I loved writing that story, as I’ve loved writing every other one that’s reached the finish line. Novels? If a story is like training a rambunctious puppy, a novel is like wrestling down a woolly mammoth. The satisfaction when it “works”, the sheer relief at reaching the end, the rewards that no matter how small are always greater than they were for the collection of stories, is affirmation that the six years of wrestling the beast were worth it.

When the drunken muse in my soul finally sobers up and gives me permission to write again, story is where I will go. The short form. The novel? Though I know brilliant authors who if they live to be 100 will take a pen along to the grave, I can’t help hearing the tick-tock. It helps that I think short fiction—thousands upon thousands of stories written every year—gives us a gift box overflowing with jewels.

So long to get to the promo? Not really. But it seems fitting to end with an excerpt from the beginning of “Leftovers.” Perhaps you’ll look for A Crack in the Wall (Oolichan Books 2008), the collection where this story, after a good life in magazines and on radio, finally came to rest. Perhaps, you’ll reach for the book of stories you have closest at hand and re-read a favourite. Christmas is coming. The wish list if anyone insists that you provide one, should dangle to the floor with the titles of collections of short fiction. Toss in a novel or two if you must.

 

 

a-crack-in-the-wall-small1

 

Leftovers

Before she died, Margaret Murray cooked, packaged, labelled, and froze enough food to nourish her husband for a whole year. She also planned her funeral and gave away her clothes, but it was the meals that astonished anyone who heard the story. “Who could eat that food?” they asked. Frank Murray just shrugged. To ignore or dispose of the frozen labour of love would be to turn his back on Margaret, and he had decided twenty years before that he would never do that again.
Margaret’s grandmother, mother, and sister all died of breast cancer, and she announced at her sister’s funeral that she too would die before her fifty-fifth birthday. Pessimism typical of a Capricorn, her friend Sandra had said. Margaret was fast approaching fifty-four
On the December day that Margaret heard the results of the critical mammogram, Frank was so sure all would be well that he stopped to buy chocolates on his way home from work. Four hand-dipped Belgian truffles in a gold foil box.
He expected as he came through the door, to hear Margaret call out as usual from the kitchen, “In here, Frank! Supper in half an hour.” She was sitting in the living room in her wicker rocking chair. When he took the cup from her slack fingers, cold tea sloshed over the rim and across his knuckles. He reached toward the lamp but Margaret grabbed his hand, her face a solemn white moon.
“There is a lump.” She stared down at the front of her sweater. “How can it be that we didn’t feel it? Neither of us. I was so sure I’d find the lump myself. I thought I’d worry over it and feel it there and then gone and then back again for at least a week before I made an appointment. That’s how I thought it would be.” She stood up, grabbed his hand and slid it under her sweater, peeling away the cup of her bra so that the weight of her breast rested in his palm. She pressed his middle finger into soft flesh. “There,” she said. “Right there about four o’clock from the nipple, is what the x-ray showed. Can you feel it?”
Her skin was reassuringly warm and pliant. Frank shook his head. “No,” he said. He wanted to pull his hand away, but to do so he would have to wrench free of Margaret. And now, even though he didn’t feel a lump, there was something. A needle of heat radiating from deep inside his wife’s breast.

Oh, for the love of …. short story!

 

In 2008, I graduated from UBC’s Optional Residency Creative Writing program in the company of wickedly talented writers, several of whom were published very soon after that walk across the convocation stage. In quick succession, Sarah Selecky, Amy Jones and Matthew Trafford’s collections of short fiction hit the ground running. As a group, they declared 2011 the year of the short story, YOSS which I can never say without adding YES! http://yoss2011.com/

Sarah Selecky: This Cake is for the Party
Amy Jones: What Boys Like
Matthew Trafford: The Divinity Gene

and notably as well, Zsuszi Gartner, instructor of Short Story and mentor extraordinaire to many: Better Living Through Plastic Explosives

I’m quite sure I’ve missed some of the brilliant graduates of 2008 and 2009 and their books, and I offer an apology to not only those with short fiction collections but those with novels (one of those being my own, Delivery), non-fiction and poetry born out of the UBC experience.

I believe that every year since 2010 has been a YOSS. Numerous of my Alberta and Saskatchewan writing friends and colleagues have kept that lamp lit, and I believe the love of short story will shine on.

I’ve been asked many times which of my books is my “favourite”, which is as impossible to answer as which of my children is my favourite. All of them, for who they are and the joy they bring to my life. And the books, all of them because of the memories and moments in my life through which they were conceived. If pressed, though, my default response is A Crack in the Wall because the stories were written (and endlessly rewritten) over the course of almost twenty years, and each one of them has a secret at its heart that is mine alone.

I am blushingly reluctant to promote my own work – and grateful to have had the never-flagging support and promotion of Susan Toy since she introduced herself to me at a reading just prior to the release of Delivery. Up waltzes a woman with a huge smile who extends a hand and says, “Hi, Betty Jane. I’m your sales rep.” I didn’t know I had one! “And our mutual friend Vicki Bell” (another gifted UBC classmate) “told me that I must hear you read.”

But. Recently, two books clubs have invited me to their discussion of A Crack in the Wall and a lovely review appeared out of the blue, long after I’d come to accept that the book had gone to grass. A phrase I steal frequently from the title of another writer/colleague, Jean McKay who I met at at Sage Hill.

So. I urge you seek out the work of the UBC authors I’ve mentioned as well as that of a number of my talented friends : Audrey Whitson, Astrid Blodgett, Lori Hahnel, Barb Howard, Lee Kvern, Dora Dueck, Leona Theis, Dave Margoshes. And I know, once again, that I’ve missed some names and I offer my apology.

Now. After this lengthy prologue, I am going to step over the wall of my self-promo handicap and offer an excerpt from one of the stories in A Crack in the Wall, because of course I want you to seek out my work as well.

 

 

Burned

Val had just picked her way through a gang of kids in the parking lot of the housing project and was fumbling for her key when the door in the adjoining unit
flew open. A young woman, thin as a pencil, with a long neck and a head of greenish blonde tufts more like feathers than hair, stepped out.

“Hey, you’re Josh’s mom, right?”

Just once Val wanted to come home and put her feet up without answering to the world for her son. She set the bags of groceries on the concrete step and folded her
arms across the front of her tired uniform. “That’s me.”

This little gal was wearing a uniform too. A frilly apron over a black skirt that just covered her ass, and a black and white polka dot blouse.  She looked almost as young as Josh. Not at all what Val had expected. She’d envisioned someone more like the poster on the inside of Josh’s closet door.

“There’s two little kids and a . . . a girl,” Josh had mumbled the day the new people moved in. His ears glowed red, and he frowned. He’d run out to snoop when he saw the U-haul backing up to the townhouse, and rattled his skateboard up and down the parking strip while they unloaded. Since then, Val had worked eight straight days and by the time she got home from a shift at the nursing home she wasn’t interested in jumping on the Welcome Wagon.

“Does he babysit?”    …

“Josh?” Val felt her eyebrows take flight. It was only a few months since she’d reluctantly given her son a key instead of sending him to her sister’s after school.
She had nightmares about coming home to a smoldering square of rubble. “Oh no. He’s never looked after a baby.”

“Well, does he want to?”

Val blew out a long breath and shook her head. “He hasn’t been around many little kids. And he has a lot of homework.” She could imagine the look on the math
teacher’s face if Josh told him he’d failed a test because he had a job.   …

“I’d pay him good, and I won’t be too late. I’m kinda desperate here.”

“You mean right now?” Val glanced at her own door.

She could hear the electronic racket of Nintendo. Josh battling his way past the Big Boss of some mythical empire.

“No, my mom looks after them when I’m at work.
I need him Saturday.”    …

 ***

Jerry was as predictable as ever. “Look, Val, I can’t have the kid this weekend. I got an out-of-town job. How about we skip this once and I’ll pick him up in
two weeks.”
She curled her tongue over her front teeth. The icy cold pop had set up a dull ache in that cavity she was trying to ignore. “Maybe it’s just as well. He’s got a
job for Saturday night. What do you think about Josh babysitting?”

“Why not? When I was fourteen I was helping my dad on a construction site.”

“This job doesn’t come with a hammer. We’ve got a new neighbour with two kids. You’d trust Josh with a baby?”

“How hard can it be to look after a baby for a couple of hours?”

Val raised the glass of ice cubes to her forehead.    …

She’d been prepared for a flat refusal when Josh heard Tonya’s offer, or an indifferent shrug and a quick return to Mortal Kombat, but not for the big-eyed whoop of
delight.

“Really? Oh man, that would be sweet! Devin babysits and he makes mega-bucks every weekend.”

“Devin? Oh, well then.” Why would she worry about Josh if someone, anyone had entrusted a child to Devin? He was Josh’s only friend, but Val wouldn’t have
given Devin responsibility for a turnip.

The next day after school, Val sent Josh to tell Tonya he could sit for her on Saturday night. When supper was ready and he still wasn’t back, she went out and rang
the bell. Josh answered, with the baby on his hip, the three-year-old, Travis, wrapped around his leg, and a grin that stretched from one blushing ear to the other.

“Tonya wanted me to stay and get to know the kids. We’re like hanging out in the living room, building stuff while she takes a break.”

“Two hours should be plenty. You look like a pro. Supper’s ready.”

“Yeah, but Tonya’s sleeping, and Travis says they’re hungry and he wants me to make grilled cheese. Only there’s no cheese and no bread. Do you think I should
open a can of soup?”

“I think their mom can make their supper.”

Same floor plan as her place. Val scooped up the kids, one on each arm, and stomped up the stairs to the master bedroom. She banged on the door with her
knee, then cracked it open just enough to herd the kids through.

“Josh is coming home for supper now, Tonya. Bye bye!”       …

“Did she say anything about paying you for today?” Val asked as she pulled him out Tonya’s door and back through their own. She’d been cleaning the bathroom when he left and
hadn’t noticed that he’d changed into his khakis and button-up shirt. His hair was different too. Instead of swooping low over his forehead, it was spiked into a
ridge from hairline to crown. He looked painfully like a rooster. …

continued on pg 126  A Crack in the Wall, Oolichan Books 2008

Head vs. Heart

When I was in the throes of writing The Boy, I told my sister that this was a challenging book to write, not just because of the subject but because I’d been convinced that in order to tie the fiction and non-fiction together, I needed a third thread — memoir.  And I was terribly uncomfortable writing about myself.  She looked at me wisely, as older sisters are prone to do, and said that she had always had the feeling that I was hiding in the heart of all of my fiction, and how was this different.

In its own difficult  way, adding the personal to that hybrid has helped me to get past the boundaries I’d  built into my writing.  Personal essay, or simply “spilling my guts” (as I’ve described it to my family) in posts like this seems to demand to be written.

When I saw the call for submissions for A Family by Any Other Name, edited by Bruce Gillespie and forthcoming from Touchwood Books in April  http://www.touchwoodeditions.com/book_details.php?isbn_upc=9781771510547  I didn’t hesitate to write about my reaction to our daughter’s coming out, or the way in which it challenged my faith.  I sent the essay to Elisabeth before I submitted it and asked if she and Barb would be comfortable having this story out in the world.  Of course, she answered, but you know, you made me cry.  I believe she said the same thing when I asked for her reaction to a very short piece of “fiction” that I was hoping to include  in my collection of short stories, A Crack in the Wall.  When I look at both pieces now, I see myself perhaps even more clearly in the fiction, which sprang from my surprise that my heart had a different reaction to Elisabeth’s coming out than my head. The essay, writing as myself, from the heart, helped me follow the path to the point of “Finding My Grace.”

Simply because the book and the story have been a long time relegated to “back list” status, I think “Stitches” needs to come into the light one more time.  So here, with my thanks to Oolichan Books for permission to reprint is “Stitches.”  http://www.oolichan.com/hegerat-a-crack-in-the-wall

Stitches

 

 

There is a knot in the thread. So close to the end of the hem, the woman pauses to tug each stitch through the fine cloth.

These are her mother’s hands, her grandmother’s hands. Always stitching.  Christening gown, plaid jumper for first day of school, red velvet Christmas frock, graduation dress, wedding gown, christening gown. Sewing the lives of daughters. 

          The girl on the floor squares her shoulders, braces palms on either side of blue-jeaned legs and drinks a deep breath. “I have to tell you something,” she says on the exhalation.

          The fabric puckers. “I wish I had a finer needle, and lighter thread,” the woman says. “I wish you’d asked me to do this when I got here yesterday instead of when I’m halfway out the door.”    

          “Mom! Will you just listen?”

           The daughter’s voice stumbles over words. The mother’s vision blurs. She crosses her knees to bring the work closer, head bent to the needle. Measures her stitches smaller, tighter.

 She wants to cover the soft lips with her palm, to say No telling is needed. While you were at your class this morning I did what visiting mothers do.  I tidied and snooped. But it seems she’s sewn her tongue to the roof of her mouth. 

 

A photo frame lay flat, folded, face down. It’s usual position, upright, drawn in clean lines on the dusty desk top. She’d picked it up and tilted the glass to the sweep of window in this twenty-second floor student apartment, sunlight turning the faces in the picture to spangles.

          A triptych of two girls. No. Two women. In the first frame both squint solemnly into the distance, in the second they smile their secret to the camera, and in the third unabashedly into one another’s eyes. Telling this mother what she already knew.

 

The girl is still again. So quiet the room, the sound of the last stitch piercing the cool skin of fabric is audible.

          How to keep the wrong words from exploding. Bouncing off the wall of light and ricocheting around the room.

How to say thank you for telling me.

          When she stands to gather her girl into her arms, the dress refuses to slide free, dances instead from where she’s stitched it to her lap.

          In a minute she will pick up the scissors. Snip her daughter free. Stitch by stitch.


 

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A story, just because

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.

Jewel

 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.

The Queen is Coming

In 2005, CBC radio’s Alberta Anthology ran its usual contest for poetry, fiction, non-fiction and dramatic monologue, and in celebration of Alberta’s centennial, asked for themed entries. Normally, I find it hard to write to themes, and usually end up scouring the work I have at hand, looking for some slim connection. But a true blue monarchist friend gave me the gift of a story when she invited me to come with her to catch a glimpse of HRH Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh on their visit to Calgary.

With this year’s celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, it seems good timing to share the story that resulted and that was ultimately broadcast on CBC’s Alberta Anthology and included in the book published that year by Red Deer Press.

The Queen is Coming

 My mother phones at eight o’clock in the morning on March 27. “Charlie! The Queen is coming for the Centennial. I want to go to the party,” she says. “You sound sleepy, dear.”

I’ve given up reminding her that I work nights. I do data entry at a bank. Suits me well, and I’m free to ferry Ma to medical appointments and funerals – pretty much her only outings these days.

I’d cruelly hoped, when I heard about the pending royal visit on CBC radio this morning, that Ma would be having one of her bad days. That the news wouldn’t penetrate the fog.

“You know I hate crowds,” I tell her.

“You’re fifty-seven years old,” she says. “You should get over these little fears of yours.” She sighs. “This will be my last chance to see her.”

My mother’s obsession with the royal family began in 1948 when she and Princess Elizabeth were both pregnant. I was born two days after the little prince. If the royal had been a girl, I would have been named Ernest, for my father.

“The tickets are free,” she says. “All you have to do is get in line.” I imagine her head trembling as she speaks. “I hope I can find my hat.”

In Ma’s royal album, there is a picture from 1951. The two of us standing on Ninth Avenue, Ma in a dark wool coat, matching felt hat with a brim and feather. Me, buttoned into a heavy brown coat cut down from Ernest’s overcoat just a few months after he died in a streetcar accident. I’m clutching a small Union Jack in my chubby fist.

The Princess was wearing a mink coat that day, and a matching hat that hugged her head.  Ma had a milliner fashion a replica of that mink cloche hat out of a piece of fur no has ever identified. My sister, Annie, swears it’s cat. The hat has only ever been worn for royal viewings.  Four in all.

I grudgingly agree to get tickets to the Saddledome reception. But I oversleep on the morning they go up.

Ma is surprisingly cheerful. “Never mind. I’m not sure I could have endured the program. They say it will be hours long.”

“Right!” I say in jovial response.  I’ve had nightmares about chasing her runaway wheelchair down ramps. About the accidents to which this proud woman is now prone and the mortification of both of us.

“We’ll just go down to the public viewing,”  Ma says. “Maybe she’ll do a walk-about.” She’s getting excited now. “Wouldn’t it wonderful if Charles was coming?”

“Don’t know why he isn’t,” I say. “He’s fifty-seven. He probably loves riding around with his mother.”

“He’s busy,” she snaps. “He’s getting married again, you know.”

Ma loved Diana, is sour on Camilla, but says at least Charlie Windsor isn’t going to remain an old bachelor for the rest of his life. And he has those two fine sons.  I, on the other hand, allowed a childless marriage wash up on the rocks ten years ago.

The weather in the week leading up to the Queen’s arrival in Calgary is cold, grey, fiercely windy. Not the sort of climate to which a responsible man would expose his frail eighty-two year old mother.

But she insists.  My sister, Annie, insists. “For gawd sake, Chuck!” she snarls over the phone, “I offered to take her myself, but she wants you.”

I slump in my chair, thinking about the hat I retrieved from the top of the closet. . Even after my heroic attempts to fluff it up, the old relic looked like road kill. I winced when Ma settled it over her scant curls and peered into the mirror. “Oh, Charlie,” she whispered, “I look so old.”  But I, standing behind her chair, was staring at my own reflection. A fat, balding, man who would never be mistaken for a prince.

Even though it’s a morning in May, Ma is bundled into her black winter coat, feet encased in fur-lined boots, hat perched covering her freshly-permed hair. A policeman stands in the middle of Ninth Avenue, diverting traffic. Despite his shouts, I creep forward, waving my “handicapped parking” sticker. He shakes his head, but points to a loading zone around the corner.

I push Ma’s wheelchair to a curbside spot in front of the Palliser Hotel. Huddled into my windbreaker, I wish I’d worn my own winter jacket. But then, just minutes before the entourage is due, the sun breaks through. Ma twists in the chair to look up at me, her face tiny beneath the fur. “They say she never wears a hat twice.”

Suddenly there’s a limo approaching, and as it glides by, a smattering of applause from the crowd. A blur of face, a wave. Finished in seconds. Ma doesn’t blink. “That’s not her,” she says. “It’s that Clarkson woman.”

The Governor General, Ma tells me, is going ahead to stage the receiving line for the Queen and Prince Philip. It’s the way things work.

I’m eyeing the corner of Ninth and Macleod a block away, thinking that this is where the cars will slow. This is why the crowd is thickest there. For the better view.  I hope my mother doesn’t notice that I haven’t chosen the best vantage point. Haven’t even tried.

She turns again, and motions for me to listen. I crouch beside the chair. “You look at her face, Charlie. She’s so… serene. How can that be possible with all the stress the poor woman has been through?”

I choke back a snort. “She has a bit of hired help, Ma.”

“Oh, not that,” she says. “It’s the children. The way they live their lives. What a disappointment that must be.”

I feel heavy, leaning there on my haunches, the weight of my own dull life hovering over Ma and me. “I guess that’s just something that comes with being a mother,” I say.

“No dear,” she tells me softly, without taking her eyes off the street. “Elizabeth has had bad luck with her Charles. Aren’t I a lucky old woman to have raised a decent man like you?” She turns now and the smile takes twenty years from her face.

I can see cars approaching, people waving and cheering in the next block.  Too fast. They’ll be past us in a flash. I crank Ma’s chair around, bounce it off the curb and race down the street, Ma gasping and waving her arms.

“Make way!” I shout. “The Queen is coming!”  At the corner, the crowd parts to let us pop up onto the sidewalk just before the second limo in the procession slows, and glides past.  Under a big-brimmed white hat, a smiling face turns to Ma, a gloved hand makes an elegant salute.

Ma grabs my arm. “She smiled right into my face!”

I bend, press my cheek to hers. “Of course,” I say. “She recognized the hat.”