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Authors: Plum Johnson

They Left Us Everything (23 page)

BOOK: They Left Us Everything
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I decide to make a photo album of the interior of the house. I want to record every detail before we lose it all. With my camera, I take a close-up of the dining-room wallpaper, the hole in the upstairs window screen, the white porcelain doorknob on the door to the basement, the latch on the back door, the wicker mail basket, the crack in the chimney plaster, the drawer pulls in the pantry. When I interrupt Robin in the playroom and get down on my hands and knees to photograph the scratchy paw marks at the base of the double doors, left there when Dad locked the dogs inside for barking too much, he looks at me quizzically.

“Don’t mind me—I’m just recording Sambo’s paw prints for posterity.”

“And Scrappy’s and Buffy’s and Jenny’s and Winnie’s,” he says, “… and if you look a little higher up, you might even find mine!”

Later in the day, even though it’s wintertime, I take all of Mum’s identical skirted bathing suits from the basket in the basement and hang them on the laundry line outside so that I can take a picture of them, too.

I get the feeling my brothers are worried about me. I sense they’ve been having telephone conversations behind my back because Victor’s been making pointed remarks about my state of mind a little too often. He’s all puffed up with confidence when he delivers them, as if he has the authority of a crowd behind him. Maybe I
am
going off the deep end, but how would I know? What I’m doing just feels right. I feel
responsible for our memories. I don’t want them to disappear into thin air.

Tonight I lie awake listening to all the familiar sounds of the wildlife settling down in the walls—the scrabbling of tiny feet above and below me—and the sound of the waves and the wind predicting what the weather will bring tomorrow. It sounds like it’s going to be a clear day for Robin’s drive south. He’s sound asleep in his old bedroom next to mine.

The next morning I come downstairs in the semi-darkness and pull back the curtains in the same manner as Dad once did—first the curtains on the long row of windows facing the lake in the living room, then the street side, then the dining room. I love the sound of the tiny wheels scraping along on their metal tracks. The sky is slate grey with fingers of apricot clawing across the horizon. Even in the time it takes me to open the curtains, the apricot is winning and the grey is brightening to white. The lake is dead calm, with shimmering patches of robin’s egg blue striped with bands of navy.

A lone bird is chirping. As the sun lifts its head other birds start chattering, and when it pops fully formed over the horizon there’s a cacophony of birdsong, pitching higher and louder, building to a crescendo as if in concert, applauding the sun. Now the horizon turns silver—so bright the reflected light hurts my eyes—and the sky is breaking into high clouds shaped like fish scales, picking up speed, swimming eastward. It’s a scene I have all to myself, much the way Dad must have had it before we all stumbled noisily downstairs.

I go to unlatch the verandah door and pass by the framed picture of the impudent girl. She’s like a phantom limb— something connected to me, but missing. I keep whispering, “Who are you?”

To my surprise, the door’s already unlatched and Robin is coming up the verandah steps swinging Dad’s old walking stick. He looks windswept and his cheeks are flushed pink.

“Where have you been so early?”

“Up the high street,” he says. “Nobody’s awake.”

As he passes the picture beside me, he takes his hands and forms a frame around the girl’s face, blocking out her hair.

“This looks so much like Carter that it has to be you!” We both laugh—the resemblance is uncanny—but it’s not me.

We share a fast cappuccino and toast in the kitchen before Robin gets in his car for his twelve-hour drive home. As he lugs his suitcase out the boathouse door, he tells me not to give away the garden bench—he’s made arrangements to donate it to the Oakville Museum. Then he spies Dad’s fire escape ladder—the fat coil of sisal rope I’ve put aside for the garbage—and he’s so viscerally affected that he heaves it onto the back seat of his Volvo.

“I think I’ll rescue this,” he says.

“Just a sec,” I say. “Let me take a picture of it first.”

PART III

Dispersal

Two Weddings and a Funeral

Virginia calls me in early May. She’s started to plan her wedding—four weeks hence.

“Is it really as simple as you say it is?” she asks.

I tell her I think so, but then I had Mum as my wedding planner who brought her relaxed nature to bear. My reception was at home and the whole affair was potluck. When I asked Mum how many people I could invite, she was generous.

“Invite as many people as you want!”

“No, no, I mean how many people will fit in the house?”

“Don’t be so silly,” she said. “There’s no limit … if guests arrive and it’s too crowded, they’ll walk home and come back later!”

“What if it rains?”

“They’ll bring umbrellas!” she said. “For goodness’ sake— trust people’s intelligence!” And sure enough, my photo album shows the lawn covered by a rent-free canopy of multicoloured umbrellas. Neighbours brought casseroles, a friend made my wedding cake, my bridesmaids and I picked flowers from a
neighbour’s garden, and everyone but the bride walked to the church … so no limousines were required. Dad proudly drove me in his newly waxed Volvo.

I remind Virginia that there’s another precedent she could consider. Her brother, Carter, and his bride, Diana, married a year ago using the postmodern idea of a “public elopement.” They flew from Turkmenistan to Las Vegas where they married in the Chapel of the Flowers. The whitewashed ceiling was studded with video cameras and we were all given a website to attend via a live-stream video link. There was no limit to the number of guests they could invite—the whole world could attend, uninvited.

Pelmo had trundled Mum and her oxygen tank to the back of the house to watch on her computer, and I’d stayed home in Toronto and watched in my pyjamas.

Diana wore a purple dress and Carter carried the bouquet. After their vows, Carter kissed his bride, waved at the camera, and said, “Hi, Mom!” I was transfixed ... sucked through the screen. It was better than watching
The Bachelor.

Later that night when I phoned Mum and asked how she liked it, she said, “Oh, it was wonderful! Especially the bride’s white dress … but who was that chubby man standing next to her?” It turns out Pelmo had clicked the wrong link and Mum had watched the wrong wedding, but that hadn’t dampened her enthusiasm. Las Vegas offered digital photographs of Carter and Diana, so we downloaded one for Mum. It slid out of the printer with the word
PROOF
smacked across their foreheads.

Virginia decides to use Mum’s relaxed model for her wedding to Louis, except I remind her that the guests who brought casseroles to mine in 1971 are probably not on her
guest list. Jessica steps in like a good sister and volunteers to bake the wedding cake. In Mum’s desk drawer we unearth a pile of leftover engraved invitations from my wedding and discover that the date is the same, so for a moment Virginia even considers crossing out her father’s name and mine and recycling them. Later in the week, she chooses a caterer in Oakville purely because of its name: Plum Catering. Luckily, it turns out to be an inspired choice. A week later, she calls me again.

“Hi, Mum,” she says. “Are you able to meet Jessica and me at a store next Tuesday night?”

“Sure … what for?”

“I think I should buy a wedding dress.”

Of course! How could I have forgotten this small item? I’d worn Granny’s, an antique silk-and-satin relic from the post– Civil War era. It had so many hooks and straps inside it that it took three of my brothers, with their combined high-schoolcadet-uniform experience, to buckle me in. The puffedsleeve bodice was delicately ruched in silk chiffon. The heavy satin skirt was the colour of candlelight, splashed down the front with the faint stain of hot chocolate accidentally spilled there on a beautiful spring day in 1898. None of the subsequent brides had had the heart to remove it; instead, they’d embroidered their names around the inside of the hem. Most of the females in the family had worn this dress except Mum, who couldn’t risk shipping to England on a troop ship during wartime. She’d worn a white Confirmation dress. Virginia would have happily worn either of these dresses, but they’d both disintegrated long ago.

I drive into the city and find the bridal store in downtown Toronto. Jessica is waiting inside the doors, but Virginia arrives
late. When she finally dashes in, the bridal consultant smiles broadly.

“When is your big day?” she asks Virginia.

“June 5th.”

“Next year?”

“No,” says Virginia, “this year.”

The consultant takes a step back and gasps. “In four weeks? Most people plan a year in advance!” She waves towards a small rack near the door. “Those are last year’s samples,” she says. “If you can find something there, we can help you; otherwise, I’m afraid …” Her voice trails off and she wanders away as if she’s got better things to do.

Virginia rifles quickly through the rack, chooses three, and we head upstairs to the dressing room. She dashes behind the curtain and comes out in the first one, ruffled top to bottom in white feathers that make her look like the lead ballerina in
Swan Lake.
When she sees herself in the mirror, she giggles and does a perfect death dive onto the floor, head down and arms outstretched. The second one is a one-shoulder pleated affair that looks like a Roman toga, and we all roll our eyes. But the third one is perfect. It’s a strapless, form-fitting sheath of heavily encrusted handmade lace that could easily last into future generations. The moment she steps out we all yell, “Yes!” We slap down several credit cards and run next door for a cosmopolitan. Saying yes to the dress has taken less than half an hour.

The house will be gussied up in time, too. Chris has been diligent about getting the painting quotes and now a team of
six energetic Ecuadorians swarm all over the exterior, laughing and singing and slapping their brushes against the clapboard. They’re careful to cover Dad’s bushes with plastic sheeting before they begin painting the verandah, and they tidy away everything before they leave each evening. I’m so impressed I spend many days tagging along with my video camera.

The south face of the house is a good forty feet high, and sometimes, when they’re up at the peak on the tall extension ladder, they jump it like a pogo stick to move it sideways a notch. It’s death defying, but I can’t wait to show the video to grandchildren. I feel like a war correspondent—not wanting the men to fall or come to harm, but knowing that if they did it would make really good footage. When the men finish, I buy a dozen hanging pots of red geraniums to hang from the hooks on the verandah columns.

We hire our friend Heather to weed and prepare Dad’s long perennial flowerbeds, but it’s hard to know what’s there so early in the season. When we were growing up, Dad lavished his plants with tenderness. As soon as he got home from the office, he’d change out of his business suit, put on what he called his “rough clothes”—brown corduroy trousers, long-sleeved green plaid shirt, heavy leather boots—and go outside to garden. Since he died, though, the plants have basically gone to wrack and ruin. Mum always said she could never understand the “urge to dig,” and for the past several summers she’d stuck plastic flowers into the drought-ravaged beds to give them splotches of colour.

BOOK: They Left Us Everything
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