Authors: Plum Johnson
Before going out to Mum’s house for my six-week “holiday,” I close up my own home in Toronto. I adjust light timers, empty my fridge, and pack lightly. I take only my computer, my paints, and a small overnight bag with me. It seems counterproductive to bring too many things into a house I’m trying to empty. My body feels invisible anyway, subjugated to my energy, hardly worth clothing. I can haul garbage bags for weeks in this same black T-shirt and jeans.
When I come through the boathouse door, I can’t tell if Sambo is happy to see me or not. He’s curled into a depressed ball in his wicker basket and only lifts his head, opening one sad cataract eye. When I reach down to pat him, he licks my hand. It’s all he can muster.
Pelmo and Tashi greet me like lost relatives, but after they show me the mail and Sambo’s new pills and how to put ointment in his eyes every night, we stand awkwardly in the kitchen, unsure how to share this space now that Mum has
died. They offer me dinner, but I decline, and they retire to their apartment up the back stairs. They need to finish packing. They’re leaving for Tibet tomorrow.
It takes me a while to adjust, as if I’m feeling my way in the dark after a light’s been switched off, but I don’t feel sad. There’s too much to do.
Rummaging in the fridge, I look for food that’s still edible. Sambo gets up and stumbles slowly around the kitchen. He noses the bits of dry kibble in his dish but then turns away, so I decide to make us both some scrambled eggs. I hide Sambo’s pills in his portion, hoping I don’t get ours mixed up.
After dinner I get his leash and take him for a short walk, even though he’s reluctant. It’s not a particularly cold night, but it’s dark and damp and I can tell Sambo’s arthritis is acting up. He hobbles like an old man. I open the garden gate with its old iron latch shaped like a fox head, its ears flopping back down behind us with a familiar
, but we get only as far as Sandy’s memorial tree at the bottom of the road.
I decide to sleep in Mum’s bedroom for the first few nights. I don’t know why I feel the need to do this—whether it’s to feel embraced by Mum or to graduate into her place—but a cousin slept in her bed after the funeral, so I feel her ghost is gone. I carry Sambo upstairs with me, and he finds his usual place under her four-poster bed. The gathered bedskirt parts like a curtain as his long feathered tail disappears beneath.
As a child, when Dad was away, I sometimes slept with Mum, but never before on her side, near the window. I never knew until tonight that from her side you can see the lake and the stars and the lights of Niagara Falls without even lifting your head.
I hear the faint tinkling of Sambo’s dog tags as he struggles to find a comfortable position, but eventually the gentle lapping of the waves lulls us both to sleep.
Mum’s bedroom is directly over the verandah, and in the middle of the night something wakes me. I sit bolt upright in the dark. Below me, I hear the soft thud of the screen door against its hook-and-eye latch. Is it the wind? Or an animal maybe? Sambo hasn’t stirred so it couldn’t be an intruder … or could it? I remind myself that Sambo is deaf. Without turning on any lights, I pad down the carpeted staircase to the living room and peer out the verandah door. I see nothing but a dark, moody night. I go into the kitchen, where the stove clock illuminates 4:48.
The waves lap incessantly now—a faster, urgent beat—and I hear the patter of rain; dark drops glisten on the windowpanes. I pull open one of the kitchen windows. It’s almost as tall as I am, and a cold wind rushes through the screen, making paper on the kitchen table flap and lift. A fat grey lake stone is nestled on the ledge, so I grab it to use as a paperweight, but something about its shape gives me pause. I flip on the light so I can see. A heart is in my palm. Someone has written on it in indelible red ink.
I am reaching for your hand. Please reach back.
I turn it over.
is written on the back.
I turn it over and over. Where did this heart-shaped stone come from? Pelmo’s always bringing flotsam up from the lakefront—did she find it washed up on shore? I’m sure that whoever tossed it into the waves didn’t have me in mind as the final recipient, but it’s found its way to me nevertheless.
I’m taking it as a sign.
I feel comforted—connected to the lake and the rain and the universe—and fully awake. Lightning slices the sky in the distance. A rainstorm is unusual in February, but it matches my mood.
At daybreak I can hear Pelmo and Tashi stirring above the kitchen. Soon, Tashi is thumping their big black suitcases down the back stairs and piling them in the mudroom, ready for their departure. They’ll be gone for two months. She and Tashi will be in a remote village in the Himalayas, so we’ll be unable to communicate.
I ask Pelmo about the lake stone.
“Yes,” she tells me. “Other day I find … on lake with Sambo!”
“Did you write this message on it?”
“No, no,” she laughs, “from me is not … comes from gods, I think.” Her smiling eyes twinkle. “Maybe is your mum?”
, I think to myself,
I need to find you. Please reach back.
Pelmo gives me a big hug and tells me to take good care of Sambo. I can tell she’s worried. She bends down to stroke him behind his ears.
“I come back … you be here?” she asks him. “Yes?”
On the kitchen table there’s a pile of Mum’s mail for me to sort through. The largest stack is from charities. Mum contributed to over thirty of them on a regular basis. She and Dad both followed the disciplined rule of donating ten percent of their income, and Mum had many favourites in addition to her church—usually having to do with teenagers in distress or homeless children around the world.
I can picture Mum sitting here each year before Christmas, trying to decide how best to apportion her money. I sit down
with more coffee and begin to write “Deceased” across all the envelopes, then “Return to sender.”
Dad listed all his charitable giving in his account ledgers; it came off the top of his income, before anything else. Even when Dad was in his thirties and struggling to support five children, he regularly sent monthly cheques to both his widowed sister in England and his widowed sister-in-law in Portugal—five pounds each. Later, when he could afford it, he raised this to twenty-five pounds. Dad was frugal, but he was generous with what he had.
I look at a photograph of Mum and Dad, taken just before we moved into this house. They’d been born during the Great War, lived through the Great Depression, served in World War II, carved a life for themselves in the Far East, given birth to three of their five children, and were relocating to Canada. They look impossibly young to have done all this by their mid-thirties, the same age my children are now.
It’s incredible to think that with only one income they could have afforded this house. Dad paid $12,000 for it—close to his annual salary. Today it’s worth $2.5 million. This puts it out of reach for most young families and certainly out of my reach or that of any of my brothers. Gone are the days when the price of your home equalled one year’s salary. How many of us have a salary of $2.5 million?
When Dad retired in 1978, after more than forty years as an insurance executive with the same company, his salary was only $37,000. He gave modest raises to those under him but rarely took a raise himself. Still, he’d managed to pay off the mortgage and save enough for him and Mum to live comfortably here during his thirty-year retirement until they eventually died in their beds.
But the land taxes were the real killer. In 1953, they were $500. Over the years they steadily increased until, in 1977, they were more than Dad had paid for the house. He was a pensioner now, on a fixed income, and he accused the town of forcing him out of his home. Carrying a banner with his rallying cry of “Expropriation Through Taxation!” and armed with a long wooden pointer and more than twenty years of accounting ledgers, Dad staged a town-council filibuster. Nobody on council had ever seen account ledgers like Dad’s. In his elegant cursive script he’d kept a record of every penny he’d ever spent; even ice cream cones were listed.
Day after day, Dad trotted up to town council and interrupted their proceedings. Victor went with him as his “adviser.” Eventually, council got so fed up that they granted him a minor adjustment. When the house sells now, the land taxes will likely double.
There’s a note from St. Jude’s church about their upcoming spring rummage sale. They’re looking for stuff.
I think. This gives me a deadline. This house is so big I realize I’ll need a master plan for clearing it out. I can’t afford to get emotional. There are twenty-three rooms, so if I get caught up in the rigging, I’ll go down with the ship.
I go into the library and open Dad’s desk. All his stationery is there, in tidy piles. I take a few sheets of his paper, embossed with the family crest and its motto,
HONOR ET VERITAS
. I think about all the times Dad drummed “Honour and Truth” into us—it might as well have been carved into a permanent stone arch above our heads. Mum has a jar near the phone crammed full of pens, but none of them work. My first act of liberating the clutter is to dump the whole jar into the trash. I find a pencil and go out on the verandah to start my list.
The rain has stopped and the sun is out. The skies are clear and the tree branches are bare, the ground frozen with puddles of water on top. The lake shimmers in pastel shades of lilac and pink. The weather is unseasonably warm for southern Ontario at this time of year—warm enough to sit outside in the winter sun with only my jacket on. I start writing:
1. Lock up valuables.
2. Empty closets and dressers upstairs.
3. Empty cupboards and drawers downstairs.
4. Sort documents.
I’m beginning to feel optimistic. Maybe it won’t even take six weeks.
There’s a small closet upstairs where we can add a padlock. We’ll use it to store all the obvious things—the silver flatware from the dining room, silver trays that Mum has scattered all over the pantry and kitchen, Dad’s war medals, Mum’s jewellery. It’s not the greatest solution but it’s only temporary. And since it’s mostly metal we won’t have to worry about it catching fire, if there is a fire. This house is made entirely of wood. Fire is a big concern of mine and it was always a concern of Mum’s, too.
Upstairs in their bathroom Dad kept a mammoth coil of fat sisal rope, which sat thickly at the ready for decades. In the event of fire when Dad was away, Mum was to drag the monster pile to her bedroom window, tie one end to the leg of her four-poster, heave the other end outside to the ground—a distance of almost thirty feet—and shimmy down … presumably, in the
early days, carrying a baby. Her bedroom window has a heavy aluminum storm window, bolted on from the outside, but I assume Dad never considered this minor obstacle. I make a note to check all the batteries in the fire alarms.
My plan is to keep the framed photographs and books on the shelves to give the illusion that the house is still occupied when it’s shown to prospective buyers, even though all the cupboards and drawers will be empty. By the end of the day I have a long list of items to buy, mainly garbage bags and storage bins.
By the time I have dinner ready and wine poured, my younger daughter, Jessica, has arrived. She’s offered to spend the first week with me, commuting by train from work each day. All three of my children seem concerned about me staying alone in Mum’s house. My older daughter, Virginia, is planning to bring her infant son out on the weekends and I’m receiving constant supportive emails from my son, Carter, in Turkmenistan. When I tell him I fall asleep apologizing to Mum, he writes,
Why are you apologizing to her?! Shouldn’t she be apologizing to you? You have a very weird and complicated guilt relationship with your mother. You need to take a step back and look at both of you from a fresh angle. You’ll see that she had everything to be grateful for, having a daughter like you!
Jessica is supportive too, but she defends her grandmother. Whenever I discuss my tattered relationship with Mum, Jessica says, “She just felt misunderstood by you.” I feel a twinge of recognition and regret. Jessica’s right—and the truth hurts.
I warn Jessica that she and I might be headed down the same wrong track, as in a Greek tragedy, the Fates paying me back.
“Don’t wait until you’re sixty-three and lying on a
therapist’s couch,” I tell her. “Tell me what I’m doing wrong now … Have the conversation with me while we still have time to fix it!” But tonight it happens all over again. In the dining room our conversation slides sideways and Jessica is exasperated with me.
“Why do you always colour outside the lines?” she says. “We start talking about one thing and then you go off on these tangents that have nothing to do with what I’ve just said!” Then she stops. She sighs sympathetically. “It’s just the way your mind works, I guess.”
I used to be sweet and empathetic like Jessica—where did it go? Why couldn’t I have been so accepting of my own mother?
After dinner, Jessica and I go upstairs. She puts on one of Mum’s old flannelette nightgowns, I fill the hot water bottles, and we climb into Mum’s four-poster canopy bed together. The house feels so cavernous and the rooms so lonely, it’s as though we need to camp together on the same island tonight. The lake is quiet, but I sleep fitfully.
My sense of Mum feels as cluttered as this house, and I can’t seem to get to the bottom of it. There were layers of misunderstandings on both sides, but I can only try to scrape away my own now. The ones that make me want to turn away are the very ones I know are the most important. I’d been horrified by Mum’s growing infirmities—afraid of the road map she was showing me. I knew it wasn’t easy for her to relinquish this life and slide into the next. For years she’d been hanging on like a forager vine, entangling her shoots around a grove of host trees. It took all her strength to let go. Now I wonder if I’ll be as strong when my turn comes.
As if reading my thoughts, Jessica lifts her head from her
pillow and says quietly, “You know, there’s one thing everybody’s born knowing how to do.”