Authors: Barbara Gowdy
Tags: #General Fiction
and in memory of M. L.
The past isn’t fixed if it isn’t dead. How are we supposed to preserve it? If it lives—lives on in our memories, as we’re always saying—then it can spoil.
Right after Abel died, every memory of him was so fresh that it seemed part of an ongoing story, like the smell of somebody’s cigarette smoke or perfume lingering in an empty room. I kept expecting to hear his voice. Whenever the phone rang, my heart would race, as if it might be him.
But within a few days, these kinds of feelings were already fading, and then the older memories started to arrive. You hear about a flood; mine washed up at odd moments and in pieces, like debris from a plane crash. I’d be brushing my teeth and see his hands on the piano keys twenty years ago, his boy’s hands with their blunt fingers and chipped nails, and for a moment I’d know, as purely as such a thing
be known, what his mother had meant when she’d phoned and said,“He’s gone.”
By Christmas, everything I thought about him seemed, in hindsight, to be a warning. I remembered how he had found desolate landscapes inviting and how reluctant he’d always been to defend himself. His soft voice, his sympathies, his damaged friends, his bursts of extravagant generosity all struck me as proof of his self-destructiveness.
He’d had a death wish, maybe he’d had it from birth. Perversely, it was why he could be so optimistic.
And then came months of memories connected to nothing and telling me nothing, and in this ambiguous atmosphere I stopped thinking of him as doomed. The memories themselves were generally pleasant. For at least a week I kept reliving the time he removed a splinter from my foot using surgical tweezers. Strangely, during this same week, a black Labrador retriever was accompanying me around town, appearing out of nowhere and trotting alongside me to the subway or the grocery store. As with the splinter memory, I had a sense of information being conveyed but through a medium too opaque to be grasped.
Now, three years since he died, I’ve gone over my memories so many times I hardly trust them. I can’t imagine that every retrieval doesn’t make for an infinitesimal alteration, an effect similar to photocopying the copy, and then photocopying the copy of the copy, and so on. Either that or all the handling turns to stone what were only questionable impressions to begin with, just one person’s version of events. I hear myself talking about Abel, or about my mother, and I can’t believe how confident I sound. I think,“Is that what really happened?”
I’m sure that my mother, at least, would say I’d got it all wrong. Abel might think I’d got it all wrong, too, except he wouldn’t care. Looking back over his life never came easily to him, and for the sake of avoiding that ordeal—but also because, ultimately, he attached himself to nothing—he’d surrender to anyone’s memories of him.
Even mine, these pawed-over resurrections. Even though
he knew I loved him too desperately ever to be a reliable witness.
The Richters move into our neighbourhood on December eighth, 1960. The reason I remember the exact day is that it is also the anniversary of my conception. While my mother still lived in our house, no December eighth went by without her mentioning the province-wide power failure and the bottle of French wine that conspired in the making of me. Early on I formed the impression that this event, which I knew centred on my father giving her a seed—shaken from a paper packet, I imagined, placed on her tongue—involved government interference and my father’s lecherous French-speaking boss, Mr. LaPierre, and it is still true by the time the Richters show up, when I am ten, that I think of myself as having exotic origins and therefore something in common with these new, foreign neighbours.
I fall in love with Mrs. Richter immediately, Abel the following summer. I know how unlikely that sounds, a ten-year-old girl falling in love at all, let alone with a middle-aged woman. But to say I become infatuated doesn’t describe the gravity and voluptuousness of my feelings. I trail after her to the grocery store and touch the grapefruits she has fondled. I gaze at her flannel nightgown billowing on the clothesline and am uplifted, as if by music. Under the pretext of welcoming her to the subdivision or asking if she gives piano lessons, asking if she heard about the white-elephant sale at the church—any excuse—I write letters advertising my availability and qualifications as a daughter. “Lend a Helping Hand!” I write on the back of
the envelopes, as if this were my motto. Down the margins of the letters I draw pictures of a girl doing the dishes, scrubbing the floor, dusting. I draw the girl in bed, eyes closed under a quarter moon to illustrate that, unlike Abel, I would never leave the house in the middle of the night.
He goes out at least twice a week. We all know because she traipses around the neighbourhood calling his name in a wavering soprano that sounds unnaturally loud, as if she carried a microphone.
On the nights she wakes me, I sit at my bedroom window and wait for her to appear under our streetlight. I am always unprepared for how invincible she looks, so dramatic, wearing hardly anything against the cold, only a white lambswool wrap over her nightgown, boots but no hat, dark hair rolling to her waist, and when she calls “Abelard!” the Dingwalls’ dog starts howling.
There are never any shouts for her to be quiet. Abel is adopted, and the only other child—a baby girl Mrs. Richter gave birth to years ago—had a hole in its heart and didn’t live long. Among our neighbours it goes without saying that Abel’s wanderings and her pursuits are connected to these events, not to mention the murky war history it is presumed must congest their household and from which a boy his age would understandably feel the need to escape.
Still, what I wouldn’t give to hear my name called so indulgently, with such love. I attribute to her the highest qualities: kindness, wisdom, bravery. Somehow I’ve gotten it into my head that during the war she concealed Jewish children under her skirt and walked them to safety. Not true, although, as I will eventually learn, she did save a rabbi
from being crushed to death when his jack gave out while he was changing a tire. This happened after the war, on a highway outside of Halifax. She lifted the car’s entire front end. It isn’t hard to believe. She is a muscular woman, and tall, a head taller than Mr. Richter and some fifteen years younger, making her ten years older than any other mother in our neighbourhood. Her clothes are from another place, as are Mr. Richter’s, but whereas he comes across as dignified, she, in her laced-up boots and long, loud skirts, with her hair either hanging to her waist or roped around her head, could be a Spanish dancer. She has dark, heavy eyebrows and a big complicated nose flaring down to nostrils shaped like keyholes.
Obviously no beauty queen. But then beauty in mothers appeals to me not at all.
My former-beauty-queen mother left about a year before the Richters’ arrival. Think of Grace Kelly and you have her, at least in appearance. In name, too. Her birth certificate says Helen Grace, but she always went by Grace.
Why she left and whether or not she is coming back we don’t agree on, my father and I. He says,“She always loved and cherished you,” the emphasis suggesting that I have the power to lure her home. It is possible she loved and cherished me; she never said. She
me, I’m fairly sure of that. When she was doing the housecleaning, she wanted me there, not to help (her standards were such that they could be met only by herself) but for the company. “Louise knows when to keep her mouth shut,” I heard her tell my father once. Another time: “Louise is good for a laugh.”
She had a squawkish laugh I never got used to, and yet I courted it. For her amusement I committed to memory several hundred jokes taken from a book called
A Thousand and One Side-Splitters
that I’d found in my father’s study. Rather than tell the jokes at random, I blended them into the conversation and thus skirted the risk of blurting out what I really thought. If she wondered, as she often did, why our neighbour Mr. Dingwall had married Mrs. Dingwall, I’d say,“For Mr. Dingwall, marriage isn’t a word, it’s a life sentence.” Or,“Beauty is in the eye of the
holder.” Not that she and I talked much. As she pointed out, I knew when to keep my mouth shut. With me, she tended to go on about the world in general, and for some reason these pessimistic but dispassionate observations turned into rants if she happened to be washing the kitchen floor. She’d start wringing the cloth like a neck, slap it onto the linoleum and grind it around. What was she stewing about? It could be anything: women who sewed their own clothes, bottle blonds, slobs, the royal family. Babies.
Babies drove her mad. Well, not babies so much as other women’s craving for them. She’d say that any cow could get herself pregnant, that the world was overpopulated thanks to people like “the grim weeper” (Mrs. Dingwall, who, after bearing two sets of twins, suffered a miscarriage and years later still burst into tears whenever she talked about it). She’d pull on her cigarette and glare at me sitting on the kitchen counter. Her pale blue eyes, admired by everybody, struck me as dangerously drained and therefore incapable of apprehending certain things essential to my well-being.
“Did you hear the one about the dumb mother?” I’d say.
(To give an example; I had a dozen baby jokes at my disposal.)
She’d wait. It was at the very height of a harangue, when her indignation was so great she could hardly speak, that she was most willing to be entertained.
“This mother was so dumb,” I’d say,“she had to stop breastfeeding because it hurt too much when she boiled the nipples.”
And my mother would squawk and throw triumphant glances around the room as if I had slayed not only her but a whole company of cynics.
During my season of pining after Mrs. Richter, I am haunted by two related facts: that her baby girl died, leaving the position of daughter open, and that she
Abel, and not as a lumpen newborn, either, but, according to my father, as a fully formed three-year-old. “That one,” she must have said. “The tall one with the curly brown hair. He is perfect.”