Portraits

     There you are staring back at me from black and white and old faded colour. You are a mystery really; A figure not only relegated to the background but virtually forgotten over the years. No lingering scent of cologne or the sensation of a scratchy 5 o’clock shadow kiss as the blankets on the bed settle the sun and bring on the night. But there you are none-the-less staring back at me from white framed memories, moments caught in time. I’m there as well, suspended in some of those backgrounds. Not the “me” I am now, but the “me” I was then.

     That person still resides inside here but those roly-poly limbs and wisps of white blond fuzz are buried under the layers of experience, dirt and grime that time and life heaps on all of us. That must be where your memory is as well, stuck under there with the old me somewhere in the foundation. I don’t think that there’s enough of you to constitute a load bearing wall. If I “guesstimate” correctly you had less then three years in and then you were gone like an errant wind never seen and only heard about once in a decade or so.

     I wonder if I loved you. I wonder if you loved me. Did you even ever want me? I suppose that must sound bitter and hurtful but really I’m just curious. I can’t hate you. I don’t know you. The idea of hating someone I don’t know, even a little, seems like a waste of time. What could I hate you for? I don’t remember if there were arguments before you left. I don’t even remember when I first knew you existed or the first time I saw a picture of you. You are so much not a part of my experience that you should be a total stranger to me except that I am there, with you, in those pictures. And there are the both of you. There’s my mother, auburn beautiful in a borrowed wedding dress against a pink painted wall in someone’s apartment and there is you.

     My mother says, “That was your father.” like you are dead or something. There’s big history there, I can tell by the tone of her voice. “I don’t know where he is now,” she continues, “still in Welland I suppose.” It really doesn’t tell me anything. I do have a memory about you. But you aren’t in it.

     Years before my brother was bloodied in a fist fight at a wedding. I don’t have to really say drunken fist fight but I will because it says a bit about my family. He must have been 17 at the time fighting with one of my uncles over a slight to the father he’d never met. His pride was stung as if it was a reference to him when they said his father spent all his time drinking in strip clubs. Now I think, well who cares if he did? Lots of men do. Nowadays it’s a big first date thing to do, take your date to a strip club. Supposedly it’s empowering to the women and well… what it always is to men. Though I’ve known a number of strippers and as odd as it sounds there is nothing less about sex to a stripper than stripping (the wallets who walk in the door don’t know it but that’s life really). Regardless, 17 saw a stain and tainted by the sins of the father he fought for a man he had no memory of. They did meet years later but it did not go well. Funny that, my brother spent much of his childhood blaming all his life’s ills on an absentee father and then turned around to walk away from two of his own.

     He left behind a beautiful brown eyed girl and a blue eyed fair haired boy who now walks in his father’s footsteps of blame and anger. He left behind the rest of us as well to lead a tidier life with a younger more pliant wife who spoke a new language and lived an old world culture behind a white picket fence along with two more girls that she would raise because that’s what is expected from the women in her world. Now his face too can only be found in the matte and shiny squares marked with the dates of days too far past to reclaim.

     Black and white photographs, old Kodak coloured edged with white frames and the month and year printed at the bottom are heaped and spread out on the table. Each are connected back to me by the threads of time, memories and the common occurrence of what passes for humanity beating in the cavernous expanse beneath our ribs. These could be pictures of anyone’s family.

     Many of the people in the photographs are nameless to me. Though these are my mother’s pictures some subjects are also unfamiliar to her as the pictures reach back through her childhood and beyond. Regardless each and every image is an intimate portrait in code, out of context. The faces of fathers, mothers, daughters and sons are all paintings that fade in meaning with the passing years becoming half remembered stories and vaguely familiar features. Just like your face and the face of my brother.

     Both are now a mystery to me, the images overlapping in my mind’s eye.  I know that someday the faces will be a mystery to someone else. It might be that another’s scrutiny will coat it all in a patina of nostalgia. Not knowing any better they will paint us all as one in a family; mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, joined together in black and white, matte or faded gloss, surrounded by the empty white frame of distance and time.

Shadow of the Shrew

  Fingers of rain rap against the window calling for my attention. The wind fusses around the western side of the house. I ignore the sound and continued to count the seconds. I’m making a chocolate cake and the batter has to be mixed for two more minutes. I miss our old microwave. The new one is shiny chrome and sleek but it doesn’t have a timer like the old one. Clunky and white, it graced my counter for 14 years. It was practically an antique when it gave up the ghost and was put out to pasture in the garage. The time is up and as I pour the batter into the pans I hear the thunder slip and tumble down the roof, shaking the eaves before falling hard to the ground.  The kitchen warms with the oven and as I place the pans on the rack I know that in half an hour the damp of the house will be chased away by the velvet of baked chocolate wafting on the heated air.

     I pour a second cup of tea and watch the trees sway in the wind. They’ll be no walk to the post office on this rainy day and the dog sighs. A profound sorrow overflows her dark liquid eyes as she settles in for a long day of watching the floor for errant food scraps.  The gentle hiss of the gas stove competes with the radio turned downed low to filter the manic morning deejays. It isn’t really a cheery radio morning anyway, all damp and overcast. What this day calls for is a gin soaked Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday heroin slurred to sing a chorus or two along with the wind and the rain.

     It’s a typical April day full of the showers that are so important to the May flowers. Nothing like yesterday with its new spring sun, wings stretched to warm the winter grass patched and field bare earth below. Though April has only begun it was warm enough to go coatless.  I had been just about dying to get out into the garden beds but the weather had not been co operative. Late snow had further complicated things and I was hesitant to remove the layer of leaves I’d left in the beds last fall to protect my bulbs over the winter. The sight of daffodil shoots yellow with frost damage kept me cautious but the weatherman had been optimistic and on his advice I had decided it was time to get my hands dirty.

     The afternoon passed quickly and I was soon joined by the willing hands of D. D works the nightshift and he’s looking to get back into some semblance of a daylight life. The yard is just an acre and I thought that a quarter acre clean up of winter leaves, pine cones and various twigs and branches was a good start.  It was after dinner and the moon was almost full in the clear sky when we’d finished moving the whole lot to the compost pile that hides behind the pine windbreak. The composting heap still showed vestiges of last fall’s apple windfall and the remains of black walnuts that squirrels had spent the winter feasting on. The leaves caught fire quickly and the white smoke began to roll across the fields in a widening column.

     Drawn by the sound of rustling I looked over at the wood frame that I’d constructed to brace the rotting vegetation against. In the fading light I could see the soft grey of a small body huddled beside the pine slats. The dog and D were otherwise occupied closer to the house with an old soccer ball that had blanched with the winter cold. The dog carried the half inflated ball like a basket with the depressed top conveniently clamped in her mouth while D pretended to wrestle it from her. The fire was far enough away from the frightened bit of fur so I moved some loose straw over top and let him be. When the fire died down I figured he would make his way out into the field in search of another bed and breakfast now that the compost pile was in sate of flux after the winter lull.

     Using the pitchfork I turned the heap, spreading the winter debris so that the fire could burn evenly. An open burn can smolder for hours. Even though the fields behind our house have only the barest cover of winter wheat you don’t want to take a chance on something spreading after you’d thought everything was done burning.

     As I reached the opposite end of the compost heap I saw a second ball of grey fuzz. It was trying to dig under 2 blackened walnuts resting at the edge of the fire. I banked a bit of dirt up to keep it from getting closer to the flames. The walnuts rolled aside and even in the receding daylight it was apparent that something was odd about the burrower. On closer inspection I could see that it wasn’t a mouse but a dark velvet shrew that had made a winter home in the pile.

     Just then D passed the tree line and I called to him to come and see the unexpected nature of the compost pile tenant. He headed over and admired the shrew. We talked for a minute about what to do with it and decide to move it away from the fire it seemed so eager to dig under. As D tried to pick it up the shrew squirmed and made a break for the field. Its funny little body was a round bullet flying through the grass and D called to the dog to come and see what he’d found.

     Shocked I called out a warning to him, to keep the dog away. A shrew isn’t a rodent. It’s a member of the order insectivora but to a dog it would look like a rodent and dogs kill rodents. I’d once seen a documentary about northern wolves that survived on a steady diet of field mice, raising whole families on them. I remember watching them hop up in the air to land with a pounce on their miniscule prey. Kera was on the shrew in the same way.

     D grabbed for her but it was too late. At his command she dropped it to the grass. The little grey body lay shaking, the smooth fur wet with spit and the blood pouring from its neck. Shamefaced D looked at me. “I’m sorry, he said. Maybe it will be alright”. Nonplussed I looked at him and then back at the broken body that was drawing out its last breath in the dry winter grass. D took the pitch fork and moved the dying shrew over to the slate that marks one of the three pet graves under the cherry tree. I could see how limp the body was, liquid in its last moments. “It might get better and crawl under the rock” D said. I looked at the smudge of grey lying on the ground and then back at him. Wordlessly he handed the pitchfork to me and headed inside with the dog.

     The yard was almost dark and the satisfaction of my first bit of yard work was gone like the fading light and the life under the soft grey velvet. Later that evening I went out to check the burn. The moon had misted over and the night had turned cold. I could still see the small mound of fur lying beside the stone.  

     This morning I woke to the sound of the wind and the traffic of rain on the rooftop. There was a break in the downpour when I took the dog out for her morning constitutional but the trees were still heavy with the wet. As we rounded the back of the yard I could see the shrew now a dark bedraggled shadow in the lee of the stone. The wind wound through the trees shaking the resting rain loose and as it fell a murmur like the mock echo of distant applause sounded. An inanimate shrew held no interest for the dog and instead she kept a close eye on the multitude of birds that wove their way in complicated patterns through the air  and hopped across the grass stabbed the lawn with the knives of their beaks looking for tasty tidbits in the soft wet earth. The same wind that had shook the trees swung up the yard carrying the smell of the compost pile, fetid with wet and char. The rain started up again before we made it to the back door. As I wiped Kera’s paws I could smell the yard on her.

    I put on the kettle and preheated the oven. The rain is still sleeting down hard against the windows but now the smell of chocolate is finally filling the air. The Billy Holiday CD is the perfect choice as I read the paper and finish my second cup of tea. The dog sighs again, eyeing the remains of my unfinished breakfast, half a bagel smeared with peanut butter and honey. I can hear the wind rise to join Lady Day. They sing together, sad and wild…“Keeps on raining, look how it’s raining…Daddy he can’t make no time…”

 

 

Layman’s Nave

     The Cathedral is glory pine bowered with staves of naked bark. The sheltered corridor lies soft underfoot flowing away into the parish press banked by early sharp ferns and moss covered logs. The beating heart warms the air calling restless spirits. The forgotten lives awakened are gargoyles that rise up to the belfried heights and sound the boughs like ancient bells in groans and creaks and snaps of supplication. That hymn of lamentation sinks only to the earth drowning in the embrace of the captured sky muted and choking on the mirrored pool shallows of mud and rotten leaves. The bowls of careless hollows house quiet buds that break the earth and strain towards the sun.

 

 

 

 

Snow in Spring

     Autumn is the time for ghosts as the green summer languishes having fed its youth to the dog days of summer. It is the job of winter, with its frozen winds and grey skies, to sweep away those ghosts and lose them in the blind swirls of chill blizzard and time. With tomorrow, and tomorrow’s tomorrow, mercy decrees that only the treacherous heart can find those ghosts in descending frequency under the soft white blanket of memory. Spring is a time of renewal on the plane of the planet and in the cycle of the life. If winter has done its job and buried the ghosts, hope can be sought in the signs of the earth’s perpetual and eternal motion.

     This past winter was an impotent soldier, a deserter of the faith, and now it lingers overlong. The first buds of spring, the snowdrops and blue scilla are covered in a late season snow. Within this final weak volley lurks lost moments freed by the faltering ministrations of the milquetoast pretender. Shorn of any power, it could not bury the spirits of last year and they call to the brethren vanished years ago. Melancholy waits for the sun to melt the ice and loose the new life impatiently waiting in the wings. It will come. There is no denying it but first the ghosts will have their way.

     A visual image, a trigger, even though we carry a dictionary of cultural symbols, for each person the trigger can be something different. In my mind’s eye I see that particular shade of purple, not the royal blue purple but a crimson tide of bloodied maroon on the dark side of red. At the time I wouldn’t have described it in that way. At ten I didn’t have those words and her raw voice screaming his name as she tore open the white door would have drowned them if I did.

     I don’t remember the colour of the door handle. The house I live in now is old and the doors are painted white but they aren’t hollow core like I know that door must have been in that house. The door knobs here are black and old, older than that house even though it was my home decades ago. I think the door knob must have been one of those cheap brass coloured ones. It would have matched the cheap hollow core door. In that moment, before she tore out into the hallway, I must have seen the door knob turn. It had to turn for the door to open but I don’t remember it. I only remember her pullover in blood red maroon velour and her voice, her panic.

     I see her white face. The image is frozen in my mind. Dark, above her porcelain features, a black chiffon scarf covered her curlers. They were the old kind with the really sharp bristles inside that make it hard to sleep because they stab into your head. The metal wire wrapped around the outside was to help keep the round shape of the curl but it didn’t stop the bristles from sticking out through the netting that covered it. She’d set her hair in curlers the night before and covered the whole thing with a black chiffon scarf. I didn’t know she’d been to the hospital with it up. I didn’t think about that either or why my grandmother was there to pull her back into the bedroom. But I heard her scream his name and I knew then that something was very wrong.

     I never saw her wear that pullover again. Actually I don’t remember her ever wearing it before that morning but I think that might be one of those tricks that the mind plays on us for reason or sanity’s sake. And then things were different for a long time. It was the last time I remember ever having to go to bed at a regular time. The house was filled with people, at first family and then friends and then finally new people that came in late at night and mostly left before we were awake in the morning.

     We weren’t allowed to go to the funeral. It probably would have been better. Maybe then we would have known what we were dealing with, this dying, this death. We could have seen it and then we might have understood what was happening and what would happen. Or maybe not, our childhood unknowingly behind us we were still only slightly broken adrift in a new grown up world.

     I asked her about him years later. She had created a shrine to him in her heart, in her mind and I wondered about the reality of the man. Was he deserving of her decades of devotion? I can tell you, with no slight certainty, that it is true that the dead can do no more wrong. They are dead after all. I thought that the years had lionized him for her. Lord knows that he was her great love or at least death had made him so. No man could stand against his memory and one by one they fell. The damage caused by his departure would last a number of years and all of us would carry it to some extent for the rest of our lives. She has a lover now who I think might make a go of staying the distance. He has set himself to live in a ménage a mort accepting the minor deity of a perfect memory enshrined in the pantheon of her life.

     I have very few memories of the man himself only the chaos that his leave taking set into motion. I knew there was a world that ran beneath the light of our every day but it still lurked in the corners of our youth. That death, his death was the death of our childhood.

     Years later I asked her how she knew that she loved him. Her answered surprised me as the memory of their love, bolstered by her grief and annealed by her suffering, was an absolute. She said that she hadn’t known the conviction of her heart until she saw him standing at the end of the church aisle waiting for her. Her, with her checkered past and a soul that felt battered and unworthy. There he was waiting for her and her three children (what kind of man would want a woman with three children she asked herself and answered- a good man). She thought she was marrying for security and then she saw him standing there in his baby blue tuxedo, waiting for her, for their life together and it was then that she knew that she loved him for sure, right then.

     I wondered, but I didn’t ask. I wondered, if she’d known then that 6 months later she would wake up in the middle of the night and feel the wet stain beneath her, if she’d known that she would wake up and realize in the slow spreading dampness that he was gone, if she would wish it away, never done? She had told me that was how she knew he was really gone because his body had let go of what it held. I wondered if she regretted anything. I wondered and I wanted to ask her but I didn’t.

     How could I when the winter lingers over long and ghosts come to call, walking old halls and opening up doors better left closed? In my mind I see myself in my white flannel night gown, the one with the small peaches printed on the material (I still love flannel, so soft and warm, so comforting), my hair bed head rumpled and my eyes gummy with sleep standing in the upstairs hallway outside my bedroom door right next to her bedroom door. I see myself watching my grandmother drag my mother back into her bedroom. My mother was screaming his name, clawing at the door frame. Where was she trying to go? Was she running away from him or to him? Her eyes were black in her white face, stark above the blood maroon of her velour sweater and crowned with the thorny bristles of her curlers.

     This ungraceful thrust of winter rapes the green of spring and brings old ghosts with it. The sharp thorns of the still naked branches are black against the ashen blanket of late, late snow. I can see the new maroon shoots bleeding up through the cold white. I don’t want to dream tonight. I hope that tomorrow the snow and its ghosts are gone.

Yawn…Early Riser Minutiae

     The sun was well on its way to risen, I was on my second breakfast (lemon tea and cinnamon toast) and I could smell wood smoke in my hair.

     After an unusually premature 7pm retirement, I had found myself awake at 3:30 am. My brain was totally convinced that dawn was at hand and not at all ready to let go of the perception of a waking world. I lay in bed until the leisurely hour of 4am and finally gave up the battle. There’s no convincing a mind when it doesn’t want to be convinced (even when it’s your own). It’s not like there wasn’t anything to do. There’s always something to do around here whether you will it or not.

     Friday is garbage day and as Friday had officially started for me, I though I might as well get up and take the trash out. The dog looked a little surprised to see me awake on the rising side of morning, being the night owl I am, but she took it in her stride. After all it meant an early breakfast for her and anything that means food is alright with Kera. The birds were already awake. I could hear them calling to each other outside even though it was still too dark to see them.

     As long as I was up I thought I might as well get the laundry started. I don’t know why I say “started” quite frankly the laundry never ends, but that’s just the way of it. The laundry is in the basement as is the kitty litter box. It’s not the best place for the laundry with septic as the sewage solution of necessity required by our rural location. The washing machine is below ground and has to drain “up” so to speak. A laundry pump and a short learning curve have led to several flooding “mishaps” and now I know why a main floor laundry is a huge selling point for rural properties.

     On the other hand, the basement is the best place for kitty litter as it prevents the dog from filling up on crunchy coated “kitty fritters” during the day and spoiling her supper. Garbage day is kitty litter day. A day made all that much more important with the approach of our feline room mate’s 17th birthday. If the litter box does not display the proper Feng Shui arrangement of a Japanese sand garden, each particle of litter balanced in a gloriously ordered harmony, he will stroll by and leave a “note” of his displeasure on the rug in front of the washing machine. This is a particularly distressing event after he’s spent a night indulging in his favourite snack of Zesty Cheese Doritos (talk about your junk food hangovers). A quick vacuum of the area rug in the basement (I love owning my own house. Where else can you vacuum at 4:30 in the morning?) and the rest of the trash is gathered up and out by the road all before 5am.  

     First breakfast followed because then I knew for sure I wasn’t going back to bed and there’s just enough time to catch the shirts at that special magical moment in the drying cycle when they are completely dry and wrinkle free. If caught in this fleeting state of grace and enshrined on hangers in their native closet habitats the act of ironing can be avoided indefinitely. This getting up early is for the birds. As a matter of fact they’re gossiping out in the yard like a rioting mob of old fishwives and the red headed woodpecker was jackhammering with such abandon that I had started to feel a little guilty about my feeble housekeeping efforts.

     The pile of winter windfall beside the shed needed a quick reduction before it was converted to a spring skunk condo love nest. If you live anywhere that isn’t completely covered in concrete you’ve more that likely got your own skunk story. Mine includes a dog, a shadowy fuzzy figure, tears, the loss of my favourite denim jacket and a 3am frantic phone call to my shift working hubby (not so hard to figure out I’m sure).

     The sky had finally started to lighten and the air was still, not a breath of wind. The day was on the cusp of heading toward a high of 18 degrees Celsius. Finally spring had arrived, actually here in Canada as far as most people are concerned anything close to 15 degrees Celsius is shorts weather but really it’s a personal thing. I celebrated by wearing flip flops and my favourite maroon stripped jammy bottoms (I love living in the country.)                     

     I could see the morning star above the pines that line the back of the apple orchard. There was a darker smudge of flat striated cloud limning the opposite bell curve of the horizon. As I lit the paper under the kindling it trembled just a bit in the light not light of early morning dark. Catching quickly the smoke curling up and the sweet smell of pine on the air, the blaze, gave the illusion of a small dawn. The birds hovered and hopped closer, drawn by the lesser star.

     Under the chorus of the birds I thought I could hear the sound of the waves on the beach past the fields and the trees. Sometimes the wind waits to play there before it heads up the cliffs and falls into the hollow that marks this small settlement. It might have been the crackle and steam of the winter dried apple and the ever green pine but I like to think it was the voice of the wind in the waves blending with the symphony of bird song and fire.

     The real dawn came soon enough and eclipsed its infant brother. The birds, caught shamefaced in their foolish idolatry, scattered to warm themselves under the light of their one true god. I headed inside to tea, toast, a little something for the dog (because she likes toast too) and the actual, factual start of my day.