A Story For the Season

This story was originally published in Storyteller Magazine in 1998. It was inspired by my Mom’s stories of growing up in 40s era Ottawa.  Happy Holidays to everyone!

Breaking Tradition

by Deb Loughead

           Blythe Coleman had a Christmas orange.  She leaned over the upstairs banister and dropped a thick piece of peel.  It landed near my feet and I gazed up at her pale round face fringed with a halo of frilly curls.  She smiled down at me then slipped quickly into the shadows.  I could hear the tap of her heels on the hardwood floor upstairs, but the fragrance of her Christmas orange lingered in the air. I picked up the peel and carried it into the kitchen.

The last few years we had oranges, too.  They were always nestled like six eggs in a delicate China fruit bowl that was hand-painted around the rim with bright sprigs of holly.  It had once belonged to my great-grandmother and I knew my mother cherished it.  That fruit bowl meant Christmas.  Every December 1st, amidst great ceremony, she climbed on the footstool, lifted it gingerly from a high shelf in the cupboard and placed it on a doily in the centre of the kitchen table, sacred as the communion chalice at church.  The week before Christmas the oranges would appear, one for each of the four children, Mama and Papa.  We saved them until Christmas Eve, but often gathered around the table to peer at them, touch them reverently, smell them, a circle of eager faces anticipating that sweet burst of flavour in our mouths.

This year the China fruit bowl was empty and I sat in the rocking chair by the stove, dangling my legs and wondering why.  Mama was baking the mincemeat pies that we would be eating after Midnight Mass.  There was a smudge of flour on her forehead where she had pushed back a loose strand of hair.  Her face was carved like a jack-o-lantern with blunt lines of grimness as she silently squeezed the lump of dough.  I handed her the orange peel.  She stopped kneading for an instant and her dark eyes searched my face.  Then she dropped the peel in the garbage can.  Her gaze strayed beyond the hall door, towards the stairway that led to the upstairs apartment.

The tenants had arrived in September.  We needed some extra money was why, Mama told us.  Mr. and Mrs. Coleman and their daughter Blythe had sailed over fromEngland.  Mr. Coleman had a position with the government and they were staying two years.  Upstairs they had a furnished apartment, equipped with a tiny kitchen, a bathroom, two bedrooms and a cozy parlour.  Adequate, they said, for a two year stay in Ottawa.

We lived within walking distance of Parliament Hill.  Each morning, for the first few weeks after they’d arrived, Mr. Coleman set out in his flapping black raincoat, carrying an umbrella, even if the sun was beaming and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  Blythe wore a raincoat too, whenever she walked the few blocks to the public school.  It was as if they could never trust our fair fall weather, as if a dark rain cloud was lurking somewhere on the horizon waiting to drench them by surprise.

The first time Mr. Coleman felt confident enough to leave in the morning without rain gear, two inches of wet snow fell through the day.  He sloshed his way home along the slushy sidewalks after work, the icy wet stuff creeping up his trouser legs.  I had watched him hobbling up the street, bending over now and then to dig the snow out of his shoes.  We’d heard him coughing and sneezing for a week after his encounter with an early Ottawa winter.  Now he and his daughter never left the house without their galoshes, even if the sidewalks were clear, along with the sky.

We weren’t sure what Mrs. Coleman did all day.  Not her laundry, that was for certain.  My mother had been shocked the day a Chinese man knocked on the front door to deliver a freshly laundered load of clothes.  Sometimes we heard her singing up there along with the tunes on the radio.  Sometimes the thin reedy sound of a flute would drift down the stairs.   But she never baked, because the bread man always delivered their bread and their desserts.  We had never tasted store bread, but Mama said it was like a fat white sponge and had no taste.

It had taken a while to adjust to the sound of footsteps crossing the floor above our heads, in the rooms that had been our bedrooms just a few months back.  We children had trouble, the first week, remembering not to race upstairs to play after school, or to slide down the polished banister when Mama wasn’t looking.  But by December we were accustomed to speaking in hushed voices, to stopping our silly little arguments before they got out of hand and leaked raucously into the upstairs apartment.  Now the four of us slept in the living room on the main floor and the dining room had been converted to a bedroom for our parents.  Now we spent all of our time in the spacious kitchen, gathered in the soothing circle of warmth from the wood stove, sitting stiffly on pine chairs and envying whoever had gotten to the padded rocker first.

As I sat rocking by the stove, watching my mother roll out her pastry, the clang of Papa’s blacksmith hammer echoed in the crisp winter air.  He was unemployed, so now he had to work in his shed in the yard, making and fixing things for people.  Lately he’d been spending most of his time out there and all day long the smoke from his fire curled in a wispy plume above our yard.

When he trudged indoors for the evening meal, he’d smell of smoke and sweat and his sooty face would be creased with bleak lines of fatigue.  He’d stamp the snow from his boots, leaving them in a sodden puddle on the mat then hang his jacket on the hook by the door.  He’d grunt his way through supper, his eyes focused on his food, then sink with a slow sigh into the rocker by the stove, to sit and stare at the wall until bedtime.  Every evening, like a sacred ritual.

There were no signs of Christmas in our house, this year.  The garlands of accordion tissue bells that usually festooned the kitchen in December were missing.  And it was no use draping the mantle in the living room with the traditional pine boughs, or setting up a Christmas tree, because that was our bedroom now and there was barely room to turn around.  Even the crèche was glaringly absent; it was usually tucked under the Christmas tree in its place of honour.

Our hopes for a visit from St. Nick this year were beginning to dwindle.  We children only risked uttering the word “presents”  under the muffled tents of our bedspreads at night, savouring it like a peppermint candy on our tongues, and wishing that we would hear our parents utter it too,  that most exciting of all Christmas words.

But Blythe Coleman had a Christmas orange.  It didn’t seem fair.  As I rocked and watched my mother at work, a sudden boldness born of envy welled up inside of me and I took a chance.

“Will we have oranges this year?” I whispered so quietly that I could scarcely hear myself.

“What’s that?” Mama asked.  She looked at me with preoccupied eyes that weren’t even focused on my face.  “Did you say something?”

I was afraid to repeat the question, afraid of those strange distracted eyes that silently spoke of deep, troubling thoughts.

“Nothing,” I said, and sat there, rocking and staring at the wall.  Just like Papa.

*   *   *

The Sunday three days before Christmas, we had a visitor after Mass.  We had to sit stiffly around the table on the kitchen chairs and listen to the boring drone of his slow, deep voice.  Old Mr. Webster from down the street, with his bulging belly, tight suspenders and wrinkled church clothes.  We were always afraid that his stubby sausage fingers would get trapped in the dainty handle of the tea cup.  I nudged my sister Annie to remind her, and Papa shot us a somber glare when we both giggled.

Mr. Webster gobbled Mama’s mince tarts and chewed so that his food was showing, all mushy and wet.  And he spoke of the hard winter and the hard times and how hard it was, even, just to keep himself fed.  Annie nudged me and we both silently marvelled at his protruding belly.

Before long my legs felt like they were frozen in a sitting position, that I’d never be able to walk again.  Then I spotted her.  Blythe Coleman, squatting on the steps, peering at our family through the banisters.  I asked to be excused, and wandered from the stuffy kitchen into the airy hallway.

I could smell meat cooking.  A roast of beef.  The aroma floated enticingly down the stairway and I tried not to inhale.  A Christmas song wafted down with the smell of the beef, a merry rendition of “Jingle Bells” sung by Bing Crosby, playing on their radio in the parlour.

Blythe’s face was as smooth and fragile as the inside of the China fruit bowl.  There wasn’t a mark on it.  No freckles, no beauty spots, the face of a porcelain doll.  It was the closest I’d been to her since they’d arrived.  She was dressed in a frilly green velvet frock, white socks, patent leather shoes.  I felt drab in my faded calico, a hand-me-down from a cousin.

She was eating another orange and the juice dripped through her fingers.  I stared at it.  I couldn’t help it.  Two oranges!  My head reeled with the wonder of it.  I blinked.  Blythe blinked.  Then she plucked a plump wedge off the orange and slipped her bird-wrist through the banister bars, coaxing me to take it.  My hand darted out eagerly and I popped the slice into my mouth, crushed it with my teeth, sucked the juice slowly, swallowed the pulp.  Blythe Coleman smiled at me.

“Lizzie!”  My mother called from the kitchen.  “Come here, please.”

Blythe flicked her hand at me then clattered up the stairs to her apartment.  I ambled reluctantly back to the kitchen and the dull company of Mr. Webster, still tasting the sweet slice of orange and trying to forget the dragging afternoon.

After supper that night, the four of us retreated to our bedroom to play.  Ever since we’d lost access to the upper floor, it was the only spot left in the house where we could be free from the watchful eyes of our parents.  The cellar was out of the question.  It was little more than a dank cave, with a dirt floor, a low ceiling and a bulging octopus of a furnace that always made strange clanking sounds.  Papa had killed a rat down there once, and we didn’t even like scurrying down those shadowy steps on an errand to fetch the potatoes.  In our bedroom we could let our imaginations meander, and that night they were meandering in the festive direction of Christmas.

Papa had built a cozy fire for us and in the dim room the shadows of dancing flames flickered on the walls.  And that was when we decided to play at Christmas.  We couldn’t resist, even though our house was devoid of all the trappings this year.  The game had become a pre-Christmas tradition for the four of us.  We would wrap up pieces of firewood in newspaper or butcher paper and place them under the tree.  Then we would curl up around the hearth and pretend we were awakening on Christmas morning,  opening our imaginary gifts with all the glee of real ones.

This year, because we didn’t have a Christmas tree, we had to create one by draping a coat rack with the scratchy green wool blanket from my bed.  We used scraps of old fabric from the rag bag as decorations and long strips of newspapers as the garlands.  We cut out a paper star and balanced it precariously at the top, then laid our meagre presents under the tree’s woolly boughs.

It was when we were all pretending to wake up on “Christmas morning”, discovering our “presents” and oohing and ahhing over them, that I spied Mama and Papa standing in the doorway.  Mama’s face looked white and sick like she wanted to throw up.  She was clutching a handful of her apron in a tight fist.  Papa’s arms hung limply at his sides and his face seemed to sag like a deflating balloon.

Without a word he stamped into the room and wrenched the blanket from the coat rack, scattering our makeshift decorations, and sending the rack reeling across the room to topple over Paul’s bed like a dead tree.  He lunged for the pretend presents and pitched them into the fire.

“Go to bed now,” he said, and shambled from the room with his fingers entangled in his mass of thick wavy hair.

“Do as he says,” Mama told us, and hurried out behind him.

*   *   *

            Sunday night the wind blew in a blizzard, spreading a deep, heavy blanket that hung like a neat shock of hair from our rooftop and buried the backyard in shimmering dunes.  The four of us spilled out into the yard right after breakfast and instantly started a snowball fight.  Annie and I were no match for our brothers, Stephen and Paul, and soon the two of us were coated in sparkling snow and looked like a pair of sugar-frosted gingerbread men.  We licked the snow off our sleeves, pretending it was icing sugar until our tongues burned with icy numbness.  Then we helped our brothers sculpt an enormous fort.

I heard a faint tap on a window and looked up.  Blythe Coleman was in her bedroom gazing down at us in the yard.  She had melted away the frost with the palm of her hand and she was waving at me in that flickering bird way of hers.  I could see her in a blur behind the glass, her golden curls entwined with bright red ribbon.  She held up a doll for me to see.  It had a lacy gown and delicate features much like her own.  It  looked like one of the angel babies in the bible pictures, with golden hair and a soft round face.  Blythe and her doll could have been sisters, I thought.  The curtain she had lifted fell suddenly and the spot where her face had appeared quickly filled in with mist.

*   *   *

            At noon the kitchen was hot and steamy.  It was laundry day and Mama stood by the stove, stirring her sheets in the enormous pot of bluing water.  There were brown sugar sandwiches on the table for our lunch.  Mama hadn’t been generous with the butter and they were dry and hard to choke down.  Papa had a slab of salt pork and a few boiled potatoes on his plate.  He worked harder than us.  He needed meat, Mama told us.

When he came stomping inside to eat, Mama sidled up to him, then reached into her apron pocket and pressed something into his hand.  They exchanged a few brief, hushed words and I saw Papa’s thick eyebrows jouncing up and down like a pair of bushy caterpillars.

It wasn’t until the table was cleared that I noticed the China fruit bowl was missing.  Through the frosty kitchen window I saw Papa heave himself up into his sleigh and give the harness a quick shake.  Bells began to jingle merrily as the enormous work horses trudged across the yard.  The sleigh slipped through the backyard gate and out into the snow-filled street.

I was alone in the kitchen with Mama.  She had her back turned.  She was concentrating on her work, wringing out the white sheets and dropping them in the wicker basket so she could haul them outdoors and hang them on the line.  Later when she brought them back inside they would be frozen rigidly as if they had too much starch, but they would smell as crisp and fresh as a winter day.

“Mama,” I whispered.  “What happened to the fruit bowl?”

“I broke it,” she said, without turning around.  “I accidentally knocked it off the table with one of the wet sheets while you were playing outside.”

“I loved that bowl,” I told her back.  Then I went over and looked at her face.  It was blank, expressionless.  “I loved that bowl,” I said softly.

“I know,” she said.  “It’s too bad.  I don’t want to talk about it any more.”

I shuffled out of the kitchen with a lump in my throat the size of a Christmas orange.

*   *   *

            Christmas Eve.  We had to stay awake until eleven thirty when we would leave for Midnight Mass.  We sat drowsing in our uncomfortable chairs by the stove after our pea soup supper, envying Paul, who had gotten to the cozy rocker first and was fast asleep.  Papa was napping in his room.  A hush had settled on our household like I’d never experienced before.  It was a stilted silence, thick with a yearning for things that would never be, and the three of us who were still awake wore masks of grim disappointment.

There was a sudden racket on the front porch and a pounding at the door.  Paul snored right through it, but the three of us leaped from our chairs and dashed down the front hall, giddy with anticipation.  Our mother followed slowly.

I threw open the front door and we were met with a blast of icy air and swirling snowflakes.  A bushy Christmas tree stood alone on our front porch.  The branches rustled mysteriously and all of our faces split with smiles.  Then Mr. Coleman poked his head around the corner with a toothy grin, his crop of bushy brown hair veiled with snow.

“Would one of you be so kind as to summon my wife and daughter?” he asked.  “I’ll need their help dragging this blasted thing up the stairs.”

“I’ll help!” I sang out before Annie and Stephen could open their mouths.

“Oh would you?” he exclaimed.  “It would be an enormous help.  Let me just stamp the snow off my galoshes and I’ll be right with you.”

“Don’t stay up there long,” Mama warned me before she turned abruptly on her heel and strode back into the kitchen.

*   *   *

            We dropped the tree in the upstairs hall, and Mr. Coleman began nailing two slats to the trunk.  The woodsy fragrance of pine had already spread throughout their apartment.  It was a festive scent that I didn’t want to be reminded about.

Mrs. Coleman invited me to have a seat in the parlour, where Blythe was already perched on the edge of a plump armchair that used to be in our living room, clutching that porcelain doll of hers.  They were both dressed in matching red velvet outfits.  Blythe and her doll.  Christmas music was playing on their radio, the one they’d hurried out to buy when they realized that it wasn’t included with their furnished rooms.

I sat down on our maroon sofa and admired the sparkling red and green Christmas balls that were dangling from the chandelier, the garlands of fresh evergreens that draped the mantle, the dessert plate on the coffee table that was heaped with rich cherry-mottled fruitcake and the whitest shortbread I’d ever seen, the music stand with sheet music and a shiny silver flute displayed upon it.  And the merry stack of presents in a corner, that was waiting to be placed under the tree.  I couldn’t tear my eyes from them.

“Some of them are from my Grandparents and Aunties inEngland,” Blythe said, following my gaze.

It was strange to watch Mrs. Coleman, slim in her tailored gray suit, with her blond hair draped on her shoulders in soft, loose waves, setting our dining room table for their evening meal, taking their good China out of our  buffet.  She slipped into the kitchen for an instant and returned bearing an enormous crystal bowl overflowing with fruit.  Bananas, grapes, apples, pears.  And oranges.  My mouth watered when I spotted them and I noticed that Blythe was staring at me.

“Help yourself, dear,” Mrs. Coleman invited in her lilting British voice.  “We’re just about to eat ourselves.  You like oranges, don’t you?”   She was watching me curiously.  “Blythe told me so.  Have one, why not.”

“That’s okay,” I mumbled. She smiled then went back into the kitchen.  I glanced uncomfortably at Blythe, tried to think of something to say.  “Mama broke our Christmas fruit bowl on Monday while we were outside playing.  I loved that bowl.”

Blythe’s face was solemn and she frowned, pursed her perfect pink lips.

“The creamy one with holly on it?” she asked.  I stared at her incredulously.

“How did you know?”  She’d never been past the front hallway in our house.

“Because she didn’t break it, silly goose. She sold it to the bread man when he was delivering our bread.  I saw her.”

“That’s not true,” I said.  “It’s just not.  My mother doesn’t tell us lies.”

“Maybe it was another bowl then,” Blythe said, shrugging.  “Who cares anyway.  It’s just a bowl.  Why don’t you take an orange?”

“No thanks,”  I said.  “I’d better go now.  Thanks for having me.”

I hurried down the stairs to our warm kitchen and plopped back into my chair.  Paul was still sleeping.  Everyone else was still staring at the stove.  It was as if time had stopped in my brief absence and waited for me to return, before carrying on its slow sweep around the face of the clock on our kitchen wall.  As if I might miss something.

“Isn’t it almost time to get ready for Mass?” I asked nobody in particular.

*   *   *

            The organ thundered out “Joy to the World” accompanied by a chorus of clamorous voices.  Then St. Matthew’s Church emptied into the snowy streets and parishioners meandered homeward, calling out cheerful Christmas greetings to their neighbours and friends.

The six of us linked arms on the street, Mama and Papa on either end, and we walked slowly home through a cascade of plump, lazy snowflakes.  Mama was humming now.  She was humming “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and her cheeks were tinted a rosy pink.  I was sure I could detect a trace of a smile on her fair face that had been set in such a rigid frown all week.  And then I heard it.  A distinct rumbling from my father’s chest, deep and sonorous.  He was humming along with my mother in that out-of-tune way of his that meant he was in a good mood.   Annie nudged me, winked and smiled, but all I could think of was what Mama had done and my own face was frozen in a frown.  When we reached home, I gazed up at Blythe’s windows.  The lights were out.  They were all asleep.

We gathered around the table and Papa solemnly lit a Christmas candle.   We said a prayer of thanks, then plunged our forks into the steaming mincemeat pies; everyone praised the flakiness of the pastry and Mama blushed into her plate.  Tonight we were allowed to eat as much as we liked, and to drink glass after glass of cold, frothy eggnog sprinkled generously with nutmeg.  But I was having trouble swallowing my first bite.  That vacant spot in the middle of the table glared at me like an evil eye.  Mama had tried her best to fill in the emptiness with the jug of eggnog and a small plate of molasses cookies.  I kept glancing secretly at her, trying to catch a glimpse of regret in her face.  But all she did was smile.

“Bedtime, children,” Mama called out when every last crumb had been gobbled up.  “Don’t forget to hang your stockings!”

Stockings?  There would be stockings after all?  She handed them out to us with a gentle smile and I hugged my red felt stocking against my chest.  We all did, and Papa slipped his arm affectionately around Mama’s waist and whispered something in her ear.  She grinned impishly and winked at us, one of those secretive Christmas winks that held so much promise for a child.

“Hang your stockings on the mantle in your room and hurry to bed now,” she said.

And we did, clambering between our cool sheets and writhing with excitement until sleepiness finally overwhelmed us and we drifted off.  I only woke up once and lay there a few minutes in the snow-bright hush of our room, grieving for my Mama’s China bowl.

Paul’s feet were the first to hit the icy floor Christmas morning and he awoke the rest of us with a happy hoot.  Our stockings were bulging!  We stroked them, squeezed them, fingered them, trying to guess what was inside, to prolong the sweet anticipation.  But Paul was only seven and he plunged his hand in first, pulling everything out unceremoniously, showing us what he’d gotten and ruining our surprise.

A pair of bright new mittens each, green for the girls and red for the boys, with thick woolen toques to match.  A peppermint stick that looked like a tiny barber shop pole.  A pair of scissors.  And deep in the toe of each stocking, a Christmas orange!

“Mama forgot to put them in the bowl this year, so I guess St. Nick had to bring them,” Annie said, sniffing her orange, caressing it like an infant’s head.

“How could she forget about the bowl?” Stephen asked.

“Hey!  Let’s go put our oranges in it!” Paul shouted, and they all made a dash for the kitchen.

The China fruit bowl was missing and they hadn’t even noticed.  Maybe I had been more aware of it because I was the oldest.  Maybe that was why.  Who cares anyway.  It’s just a bowl.  But Mama cared.  I knew it.  She had made a very difficult sacrifice to give us a very meagre Christmas.  I followed them into the kitchen, dragging my feet on the cold floor.  Silvery flute notes floated over our heads in a merry Christmas melody that didn’t match my mood.

“It’s gone,” I heard my sister whisper and they all peered, perplexed, at the empty spot on the table.  “Where’s the Christmas fruit bowl, Mama?”

Mama was stirring porridge at the stove.  She spun around when she heard them.

“Merry Christmas, darlings,” she said cheerfully, but her quavering voice betrayed her and she couldn’t disguise the uneasiness in her eyes.

“Mama broke the bowl,” I told them all.  “It was an accident, wasn’t it, Mama?”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Mama said as she came over and enveloped us all in a hug.   “I know you all loved that bowl.  I know it meant Christmas for you.  But it was an accident, like Lizzie said.”

“”Who cares,” Paul said, squirming out of her grasp.  “It’s just a bowl.  And we still have our oranges!”

Mama hugged us all a little harder.

“I’ll save you a piece of my orange,” I whispered into her neck.

 

           

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Some stuff I’ve been thinking about…

I’ve been trying to figure out why it is that I’ve been feeling so jaded and indifferent about some stuff, lately.  And, true enough, life does have a nasty habit of sneaking up behind you and kicking you in the butt (really hard) when you’re least expecting it. But this happens to pretty much everyone at some point in their lives, so it’s really no excuse.

It’s what I do and why I’m doing it that’s evolved for me. I remember when my very first book came out in 1998–All I Need and other poems for kids.  I self published and non-stop promoted.  I hand sold over a thousand books in a matter of months and had to go into a second printing.  I was ecstatic!  One day in a bookstore while I was trying to convince them to carry my book, the owner said to me: “You’re going to get tired, you know.”  And promptly bought three copies to sell in her store.  Me tired, I thought.  Nevah!  Because for me it was all about the networking, the promoting, the schmoozing, talking to people in the industry, rubbing elbows with the right ones, getting known.

But as time went on, I remembered what that shop owner had told me.  It kept sticking into me like a thorn in my sock.  Because it was true.  I’d started to get tired. More books did come out.  I was getting there.  But I had to launch ’em, had to try to promote ’em or else feel guilty. And the sad fact is that each subsequent book seemed to lose its lustre for me.  Sure I was thrilled, but not quite as much.  I kept on wondering where that feeling was, the one I had when my very first poem was published back in the 70s, or my first short story back in ’96. Then there was the time that I found out my short story had won first prize for a fiction award in 2000, out of about 90 other entries.  I was shocked!  I was ecstatic! But then I actually called backed the bearer of such good tidings to ask him if he was certain he’d called the right person.

What, I’ve been wondering, has become of that unmitigated glee, that scream-into-my-pillow rapture?  Hmmm.  Not so much any more.  Back then I wanted to shout out to the world, wanted to go out into the writing world and introduce myself, and sell myself and convince myself, and everyone else, that yes, I had arrived.  I was finally a writer, and I was finally entitled to be there, amongst them, because I’d proven myself. I was out there because I wanted to be, and I was totally loving it!

So what’s happened to me? What’s changed.  After more than 25 books which are read by hundreds of thousands of kids internationally, with books translated into 8 languages,  read in classrooms, in book clubs, and hopefully by kids hiding under their covers with flashlights…what’s happened to me that I don’t even want to be out there anymore?

And I think, honestly, that the store owner was right.  I’m just plain tired! Tired of all the hype and the controversy and the networking and everything that goes hand-in-hand with this business of being a writer. Sure, FB is a good tool…it lets me be out there virtually, without being out there literally. But mostly I resent its intrusiveness and the way it can suck up your time.

I suppose I’ve become somewhat of a hermit by choice, opting not to participate so much any more in things that sap me creatively.  Sure, I’ll  attend the odd book launch or event, especially if I’m personally involved in it. But most of the time I prefer hiding out right here in my office, trying to avoid the real world and even the cyber one.

So if you’re looking for me, by any chance, or wondering, maybe, what’s become of D.L., you’ll find me right here, in front of my computer, butt in chair. Doing exactly what I want and need to be doing right now. Writing a story.

Room for Uncle Clive

This short story was originally published in Storyteller Magazine, Fall 1998. Please feel free to share!

Room for Uncle Clive

by Deb Loughead

 “Cover your heads, or they’ll get caught in your hair!” Uncle Clive warned us on one of the first nights he stayed at our house.  He took a long drag on his cigarette and it glowed orange, lighting up the stubble on his chin.  “Watch out!  There’s one now!”  When I jumped,  he slapped his hand on the warm wooden step where we were sitting, and bellowed a guffaw that bounced off the house across the street.

            “That’s just a story, like what you said about dragonflies sewing up our mouths,” I told him.  “Bats can’t get caught in our hair.”  I gazed warily at the darting shadows, hunched my shoulders and shivered with the possibility that what he said was true.  After all, we didn’t know Uncle Clive very  well.  Maybe he was right.  Maybe he had some sort of primeval insight into things like bugs and bats.

            A hot spell had settled on the city of Toronto like a soggy sponge that summer our Uncle Clive came to stay with us.  In front of our house the pavement shimmered with heat puddles every day.  Garbage cans put out to the curb were a swarm of flies and hot rotting smells that made you plug your nose when you walked past.  The old men in our neighbourhood withered on their sleepy front porches in the afternoon, clammy in white undershirts and trousers; even their dogs lay panting in the shade, too sluggish to bother lifting their heads to bark.  Leaves curled listlessly on tree branches.  Gardens dried out and shrivelled up in the pounding sunshine, suffused the air with the dusty scent of sun-baked earth.  At the end of the street, like a shining mirage, Lake Ontario gleamed, blue and beckoning in the summer haze.

            Nightfall scarcely diluted the heat; it still radiated off the sidewalks and streets, even off the houses, like a co-conspirator of the sunshine that had tormented us all day.  Some of the dads would stand out front and hose down the bricks of their homes while children danced, shrieking, through the spray to cool off before bed.  Up and down the street voices murmured from front porches late into the night, while down by the railroad tracks near the lake, campfires winked as toothless tramps, oblivious to the heat, roasted potatoes for their dinner. 

            At dusk, our family always gathered on the front steps.  Inside it was like a coal furnace, Uncle Clive said, and you could probably fry bacon on the hardwood floor.  Even the sheets on our beds were hot against our sun-dried skin.  The cicadas droned on long after dusk set in and bats flittered through the branches of the catalpa tree in our front yard.

            “I’m not afraid of the stupid things like you are, Mary,”  my younger brother Pat told me with shaky courage in his voice.  “I’ll just get my baseball bat and bash their heads in.”  Mom snuggled closer to him on the porch step, enveloped him protectively with her maternal girth.

            “Mary’s right, Pat.  It’s just a story,” she reassured him.  Then her tone changed, like it did whenever she spoke to Uncle Clive. “Stop it, Clive.  You’re scaring them with your foolish tales,” she said, in a voice that was little more than a growl.

            Uncle Clive just chuckled indifferently, then sucked on his cigarette again and glanced off towards the twinkle of campfire light by the tracks.  Mom sighed and shook her head as she stroked her protruding abdomen.

            Her new baby was due soon and our Mom sighed a lot that summer.  Even though she kept her dark hair pinned up and wore loose dusters, there were always tiny beads of perspiration on her forehead and upper lip, even first thing in the morning.  Her round face stayed pink all day, pink and scowling.  Sometimes Uncle Clive would sneak up behind Mom and lay a grimy hand on her swollen belly.  She would cringe and turn even redder and then snarl, low and fierce, “Don’t ever do that again, Clive.”  But he always did.

            It wasn’t easy to like Uncle Clive, but we had to try, Mom said, because he was Dad’s older brother.  He had slick black hair, bad teeth and a face that was pitted like the surface of the moon.  He had only a few pairs of patched trousers and some holey T-shirts that he lived in that summer and most of the time he smelled like the bathroom hamper.  His belly stuck out almost as much as our Mom’s.

            He showed up on our doorstep one morning, clutching a dented trumpet in one hand, and a battered suitcase in the other.  That was the day that our Mom’s serene face started to change and sudden frown lines sprouted on her forehead.  Instead of being sent off with a sandwich like all the other tramps, he stayed for breakfast, lunch and supper that day and for weeks afterwards.  If it hadn’t been for our parents’ generosity he would have been down by the tracks with the rest of the hobos, roasting potatoes, he liked to say.  And he always reminded our parents that he owed them his life.

            Uncle Clive had lost his job at the sewer pipe factory, like so many other men at that time.  But not only his job, his home, his wife, and most of his dignity, too, our Dad said.  How could he cast his own brother aside, especially after his wife had dishonoured him by running off with that butcher up on Bloor Street, the red-faced one with the missing fingers who always smelled of smoked sausage and garlic?  And how could our Mom argue with that sort of logic?

            Maybe Mom would have been able to cope with Uncle Clive if Dad had been around more often.  But Dad had a job.  He was a railroad engineer and even though there had been some layoffs at the railroad, Dad never feared that his own situation was in jeopardy. 

            He was often away for days at a time, leaving our Mom waving bravely in the doorway, clutching the door frame until her knuckles were white as she watched his lanky frame stroll off along the street and out of sight.  When he was gone, she would turn and hug us both and whisper,  “Well, kids, we’re on our own again.”  Then she would glance towards Uncle Clive and her brow would rumple with a sudden frown.

            Throughout that searing summer Uncle Clive slept on a cot in the basement at night, but he lived on the front porch most of the day.  He ate there, hunched in his chair, devouring his food with carnivorous zeal, only pausing to raise his head if someone was passing by.  He slept there, too, snoring, sonorous in the hush of drowsing warmth, his chair tipped back against the wall at a precarious angle.  Pat and I would stare quietly at the strange balancing act and  fantasize about what would happen if the chair slid away from the wall. 

            When he wasn’t asleep, he would sit up, try to square his chronically rounded shoulders and play that tarnished old trumpet of his.  But his big band melodies echoed through the steamy streets like off-key funeral dirges.  The sour notes would curdle our Mom’s weary face and shrink her wide mouth into a tight pucker.

            Uncle Clive smoked out there on the porch, too; he always seemed to have money for cigarettes.  When the trumpet wasn’t pressed against his lips, a cigarette was jammed between them.  Our Uncle was one of those people who made smoking look fascinating.  A cigarette would be stuck to his lip, even when he was talking.  It was almost as though it had been glued there permanently, the same cigarette that never went out, Pat and I thought, except that there was always another waiting behind his ear.  He could toss one into the air and catch it between his teeth, first try, and twirl it expertly in his fingers like a tiny baton.  He blew the most wonderful smoke rings for us, swirling circles like vaporous wreaths that were big enough for us to poke our heads through.  But each morning our Mom went out and swept butts off the front porch, her face sweaty and bleak.

            Uncle Clive liked to play cards in the evening, long after the rest of us had gone to bed.  He’d sit there blowing on his trumpet under the porch light, the mournful notes resonating like a siren song in the muggy darkness, beckoning his tipsy  friends off their own sagging porches to join him.  Some of them brought bottles of whiskey to share and their drunken voices shattered the stillness of the sultry summer nights. 

            I could often hear my Mom on those nights, pacing the floor in her room.  Sometimes she would stamp her foot or pound her fist against the wall out of sheer desperation.  But there was nothing she could do except pick up the bottles and sweep up the butts the next morning, and hope for a thunderstorm that would inevitably keep Uncle Clive’s friends away.

            When he wasn’t slouched in his chair on the front porch, our Uncle was in Mom’s kitchen, and in her way.  The kitchen was Mom’s domain, but Uncle Clive liked to cook.  And if he didn’t particularly like what Mom had planned for a meal, or if he fancied his favourite food, there he was, in Mom’s way, stepping in front of her, elbowing past her and occasionally sliding his hand over her swollen belly.

            Our Mom hated it.  He smoked in her kitchen, flicked ashes on the linoleum and squashed his butts in the sink when she had her back turned.  He left greasy pots and pans on the stove and crumbs all over the floor, so that they crunched underfoot when you walked.  And he left dirty dishes on the counter, knowing full well that Mom would wash them up and stack them away neatly in her spotless cupboards.  And all the mess, all the fuss, all the bother was because of Uncle Clive’s favourite food.  Mushrooms.

            Uncle Clive loved mushrooms.  He picked them himself, down by the lake in the early morning, before the blazing sunshine turned them inky and soft.  Sometimes he had them fried with eggs for breakfast, or in toasted sandwiches with onions for lunch.  Sometimes he concocted a rich mushroom soup that smelled like heaven and made our stomachs grumble, and had it for supper with thick slabs of homemade bread slathered in butter, instead of the food that Mom had prepared.

            We never got to taste Uncle Clive’s mushrooms.  Our Mom didn’t allow our family to eat them.  They’d been banned from consumption, ever since a kid in our neighbourhood had died eating a poison mushroom long before Pat and I had ever been born.  So our Uncle’s love affair with the “forbidden fruit” made their relationship even more tenuous.

            Whenever Dad got home from one of his journeys, Mom’s face lit up and her careworn look temporarily vanished.  Our family would head down to the lakefront and stroll along the boardwalk in the sleepy heat of the afternoon, seeking relief in the refreshing breeze that wafted off the water.  We’d bask on sun-scorched towels then hop-scotch across the sand to splash and wade in the chilly shallows.  The picnic lunch that Mom packed in the cooler, pickles and hardboiled eggs, buttered bread and cold chicken, always tasted so much better at the beach than if we’d been eating around the table in the stifling kitchen.

            Whenever we arrived at home again, all of us hand in hand, clinging to those precious interludes when Dad could spend time with us, Uncle Clive would be waiting on the porch, snoring, or smoking, or playing his trumpet, and I’d feel Mom’s hand stiffen at the sight of him.

            He was always trying to help her, but he couldn’t do anything right, as far as she was concerned.  If he decided to water the lawn for her, he would deliberately soak Pat and me with the icy spray and we’d retreat, shrieking with laughter, to the shelter of the house, tracking in a trail of water and mud.  His lawn duty ended abruptly after the third time it happened.  Our Mom asked him in a pleasant voice laced with poison, not to bother watering any more.  Then she mumbled indiscernible words as she knelt over her pendulous stomach, and struggled to mop up the mess on the floor. 

            Pat and I were trying to trap bees in snapdragons out in the garden one morning when he was “helping” our mother.  He had actually managed to fill a laundry basket with fragrant, sun-bleached sheets that he’d plucked awkwardly from the clothesline.  His pitted face was sliced with a toothless grin of triumph; he hadn’t dropped a single one that day.  But he stumbled as he carried the basket inside, dumped the load in a patch of dirt near the back door. Our mother heaved herself down the steps, elbowed past him and tried to salvage what she could.

            “Thanks, Clive.  I’ll do it myself from now on.”  Her voice was as taut as the clothesline; she spoke to him through gritted teeth.  Uncle Clive just shrugged indifferently, then shuffled back to his post on the front porch.

            “Shit.” The word burst like a sin from her lips as she seethed with a sweaty rage.  She stuffed the dirty sheets into the basket, then gazed over at the two of us with wide-eyed fury. We quickly lowered our own wide eyes.

            “I’ve got to wash them all again,” she said, as if she were trying to believe it herself, and we looked at her again, grateful for her flimsy explanation.  “That’s why I’m mad.”  A tight smile, little more than a grimace, made us glance away once more.

            For the rest of the day she tried to maintain that contrived smile of hers in front of Pat and me, a smile so strained that it looked painful. But those pent-up emotions came out in the bedroom that night when Dad was home.  Awakened by the sound of her sobbing through the wall, I listened to the muted murmur of their conversation.  

            “Send him away,” she whispered hoarsely.   “I can’t stand it any more.  He’s driving me insane.  He’s always there.  Always around, hounding me, following me in the kitchen, trying to help me when I don’t need it.  Touching my stomach.”

            “He never had any kids of his own,” Dad said.  “It’s a bit of a mystery to him, this whole pregnancy thing.  He wants to help you. Try to be patient with him.”

            “But what if he touches the kids?”

            The silence that followed her question was sharp and hard.  In the muffled dark I lay there, sweaty and limp, wondering exactly what she meant.

            “Why would you even think that?” Dad asked her a few minutes later.

            “I think of everything,” she replied.  “Just send him away.  Please.”

            “How can I?” Dad tried his best to comfort her.  “He’s my only brother.  He would have taken in our entire family without batting an eye, if the tables were turned.  Be thankful, Emily.  There’s only one of him, and there’s always room for one more.”

            The discussion ended with Mom’s frustrated sobs muffled in her pillow.  Alone in the shadowy comfort of my room, I brooded over what I’d just heard, tossed in a tangle of dampened sheets until sleep finally soothed my restless thoughts. 

            It was the mushrooms that finished it for Uncle Clive.  Towards the end of that summer, our mother’s enormous girth, combined with the oppressive heat, made it uncomfortable for her to do little more than sit.  There were dark circles under her eyes, and her bangs were always soaked with perspiration.  She seemed to sigh more than ever, and she spent her time sitting at the kitchen table in front of the open window, knitting tiny outfits with wool that clung to her plump, moist hands.

            Pat and I were having races on the front porch that morning, screaming as we ran, and thumping our feet hard on the wooden boards so that the front window rattled.  It was still early and Uncle Clive came outside yawning and blinking, a potato sack clutched in his hand.

            “You kids are noisy,” he said, scratching his belly through a tear in his shirt.  “Let’s give your Mom some peace and quiet for a while.  She looks tired.  You two can come and help me pick mushrooms.”

            So Pat and I set off for the lake shore with Uncle Clive.  He let me carry the potato sack and he held both our hands as we trudged across the dewy grass towards his favourite patch.

            He showed us which mushrooms to pick.  As we knelt beside him and watched, I wondered what could be so harmful about such pretty, spongy things as mushrooms, with their ivory caps and feathery gills.  After all, Uncle Clive hadn’t died from eating them.  He hadn’t even been sick and he ate them raw sometimes, while he was cleaning them, the way some people munch on peanuts.

            “Why won’t Mom let us eat mushrooms, Uncle Clive?” I asked.

            Uncle Clive dragged on his cigarette, then turned a mushroom slowly in his yellowed fingertips.  He gazed for a moment far out across the lake, where the boundless blue sky met the rippling water.  Then he shrugged.

            “I don’t know, Mary,” he said.  “I really don’t know.”  Then he pointed towards  the horizon as he dragged on his cigarette again.  “See.  See all that blue out there.  That’s where I’d like to be.  Where the blue sky never ends.”  And he stood squinting at the sky and exhaling a ribbon of smoke through his nose.

            When we got back, Mom was waiting on the porch.  Her face was white and tense.

            “Where have you been with my children?”  She clutched her enormous stomach with one hand and the railing with the other.  I could see from the sidewalk that her knuckles were white, her body trembling.

            “We were down at the lake, Mom.”  I ran over to her and hugged her arm.  But she didn’t even glance at me.  Her stormy eyes were fixed on Uncle Clive.

            “What is the matter with you, Clive?”  Her voice was high and strained.   “You don’t go off with someone’s kids and not tell them.  Where are your brains, man?”

            Uncle Clive blinked at her, dumbfounded. 

            “I-I’m sorry, Emily,” he stammered.  “I thought you looked tired.  I never thought of asking.  Martha and me…we never had kids.  I didn’t know you had to ask.  We only went for the mushrooms.”

            “Mushrooms!”  She spit the word out like it tasted bad in her mouth.  Then she turned and grasped my shoulders in an iron grip.  “Did you eat any Mary?  Did you or Pat eat any of them?”

            “No,” I whispered. 

            Mom turned and stared coldly at Uncle Clive.

            “I wish you’d take your stinking mushrooms and your stinking trumpet and get the hell out of our house!” she said.  Then she walked slowly inside.

            When Pat and I crept timidly indoors a while later to make up with our Mom, we found her crouched, puffing and panting, on the kitchen floor.  Her face was pale, strained with an effort that we couldn’t quite grasp.

            “Get help,” she murmured, then she groaned loudly.

            We didn’t know what was wrong with out mother in there, performing strange contortions on the faded linoleum, and fear washed over me in an icy wave.  I clasped Pat’s hand and dragged him down the hall.

            “Let’s get Uncle Clive,” I whispered. 

            He was hunched in his chair on the porch, cleaning mushrooms.  When I told him something was wrong with Mom, he flicked his cigarette into the grass, stood up slowly and plodded into the house.

            Pat and I were worried when we heard that last agonizing groan, followed by a thick silence.  We gazed at one another, perplexed, then sneaked back inside to peer apprehensively into the kitchen.

            Uncle Clive knelt on the floor looking bewildered and a little incredulous at the sight of the slippery, writhing miracle that he held in his trembling hands.  Mom lay beside him, modestly covered with a table cloth.  Her face was dripping with sweat and damp tendrils of hair clung to her cheeks.  She was smiling weakly, and her eyes were misted with tears.

            “Thanks, Clive.”  Her voice was weak and hoarse.  “Are you all right?”

            But our Uncle was so awestruck that he couldn’t answer.

            Uncle Clive left shortly after the baby was born, to find work with the harvest out west.  His letters were brief and sporadic, but Dad always read them aloud to us.  Eventually Uncle Clive settled into a job as a farm hand on a big wheat farm in Saskatchewan.  He claimed that he liked the life—the wide open spaces and the endless sky.  But there just weren’t so many mushrooms around.  I liked to imagine him standing in a vast field of wavering golden wheat, playing his trumpet to a boundless span of azure sky.

            In every letter he wrote,  he asked how we all were.  And he never failed to add:  “Give my love to Emily and the baby.”  Mom always looked funny, when Dad read that part, sort of distant and wistful.  Sometimes she even managed to muster up the shadow of a smile as she bounced baby Clive on her knee.

 


 

Eden Mills Writers’ Festival 2011

If you haven’t yet made plans for this coming Sunday September 18th, why not take a drive to the quaint village of Eden Mills, Ontario, and spend the day basking in the wonders of the written word.  There will be readings in the meadows, and signing tables by the book sales tent where you can come face to face with the Canadian authors whose works you admire and have them scribble a few words inside your book.  Visit the food court with it’s diverse selection of delicious foods, or bring along your own and dine at the picnic tables or the reading sites.  And don’t forget to stop by Publishers’ Way.

From noon until six there will be a variety of opportunities to celebrate books and their creators in this idyllic country setting. For more scheduling information, directions, bios and presentation times of participating authors, please visit www.edenmillswritersfestival.ca.

Come for the words! Gates open at 11:00. Hope to see you there!

I think (nonstop) therefore I am (working on a novel)

I’m always amazed when I’ve finished the first draft of a novel. (Which I haven’t just done, unfortunately, and am currently being distracted from by doing this!)  Because I always wonder…where did all those words come from? And how did I manage to put most of them in the right place?  And how did I come up with that particular character or plot twist, and find my way to such a satisfactory ending?  And will I ever be able to do it again?

What it took was an incredible amount of thinking. And that, I find, is the biggest dilemma when I’m in the midst of a project that requires so much concentration and focus.  During those deep-thought times, I find myself resenting…this is difficult to admit…the intrusion of the entire world, because every single one, large or small, is simply another distraction leading me away from where I need to be, which is inside my story. 

So please don’t blame yourself if I seem short-tempered or cranky sometimes, and try not to resent me, either–it’s not you, it’s me.  Honest. Sometimes I wish I could hide out in a cave, become a hermit, just to be able to completely immerse myself in my passion.  But I have a family, and friends and a household to run, and I’ve chosen to walk this path in life, as well as my creative one.  And it’s inevitable that sometimes they cross.  I’m trying my best to deal with both. And a writer needs huge blocks of time to THINK…when that’s disrupted, we can be like hibernating bears awakened from that dark and quiet place where we’ve buried ourselves.  I always wish I could find more thinking time during the day, because if that doesn’t happen, then my nights are sure to be compromised, and I’ll be scribbling notes in the bathroom.  I think when I’m walking the dog, when I’m hanging out the laundry, when I’m peeling potatoes, when I’m mowing the lawn, when I’m taking a swim.  Often when people are talking to me.

What this is all leading up to is an apology, of sorts, to my world and everyone who interacts with me.  Please understand, I’m always working, sad but true. I don’t have an off switch.  And if I’m not actually in front of the computer, I wish I could be. (Again, sorry.)   Most of the time only part of me is existing in the present, and the rest of me is existing in a world that I’ve created myself, and won’t be able to escape from until I’ve written those two brilliant words: THE END.

Sand Dancing

Here’s the story in it’s entirety, in case you missed it! (Originally published in Storyteller Magazine, Fall 1996; reprinted in Ottawa At Home, September 2004) 

Sand Dancing

by Deb Loughead

 

My mother was always dancing.  Music, any sort of music, made her body move.  Soft, romantic melodies, and she would sway and swivel gracefully as she stirred porridge at the stove or did her ironing.  A big band’s brassy swing, and she would jive with an invisible partner. 

            It was the sixties, though, and while our older sister Sonja was hooked on the clean-cut image of the Beach Boys and their sun-and-fun fantasies, our mother grooved to the bad-boy beat of the Rolling Stones.  Whenever one of their songs came on the radio, Mother turned it up full blast.  The three of us children would watch in a sort of stunned fascination as she shrugged and shimmied around the room.

            Father was a classical music buff.  Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi– sonatas and symphonies soothed his soul.  He always claimed that bird song was the classical music of nature, but our Mother’s rock music he compared to the savage fury of a tornado.  “It doesn’t last long and you count your blessings when it’s over,” he liked to say.  “Then you try to assess the damage.”

If he ever happened to wander into the kitchen when Mother was in one of her Rolling Stone stupors, he would pause for an instant, watch her with a look of disgusted dismay, then turn off the radio and ask:  “Haven’t you got anything better to do, June?”

            It was Father’s idea to motor east across three provinces and spend a summer at the sea.  “It will rejuvenate us,” he said.  “Think of the sea birds careering over the foamy waves, the shore birds scurrying along the beach on their delicate legs.”  “Think of the work,” Mother said, “and think of the hours we’ll have to spend in the car.”  “We won’t know anyone there,” said  Sonja.  “It’ll be a bore, and Peter and Laura will drive me insane.”  But my younger brother Peter and I were eager for any adventure that would spare us the tedium of those dragging days of summer in the city.

            I think the thing I remember the most about our drive to the east coast that summer was my parents’ bickering over the music on the car radio.  It was tinny to begin with, and barely audible even in the front seat.  But Mother was constantly spinning the dial, searching for a rock station.  And despite the constant crackling and poor resonance, she would sing and sway to the throbbing beat as we sped along the endless miles of highway.  Mother would turn it up, Father would turn it down.  She would turn it on, he would turn it off, mile after mile.

            As we neared our destination, Father would often skid to a halt on the dizzying edge of some cliff-side stretch of coastal highway.  He’d leap from the car, fling open our doors and point out a pair of cormorants preening themselves on a sun-drenched rock in the bay.  He would stand staring in rapture, then read aloud to us the description and habits of the bird from his tattered field guide.  While he was distracted,  Mother would quickly find her station once more, and the battle would begin again in earnest as soon as he climbed back into the car.

            Finally Father gave Mother the daunting task of following the road map.  He instructed her to trace the path of the thin grey lines, a cobweb of weaving country roads that would lead us to the coastal town where he’d rented our summer cottage.  He smiled proudly and patted her knee each time she peered over the rattling map and said:  “Right turn at the next intersection, William,”  or “straight ahead through these lights.”  Everything was fine, until he realized we had passed the same gas station three times and were driving in circles.  Then he yanked the map from her hands, studied it for a moment as he drove, and set us quickly on the right course.  Mother just stared out the window, twirling a tendril of  chestnut hair and humming to herself,  ignoring Father’s barrage of impatient remarks for the rest of the journey.

            Our clapboard three-bedroom cottage on the beach  was grey and weathered, and smelled perpetually of mildew.  My brother Peter and I loved it at once, and the windswept days of freedom that it represented.  Sonja sulked at first, but soon she grew fascinated with the  canvas of the wavering seascape.  She would lie on the warm sand for hours, mesmerized by the rhythm of the sweeping waves.

            Mostly I remember the sand…sand everywhere.  Sand in our sneakers and crunching underfoot on the kitchen floor.  Sand in the scallop chowder at supper, and clinging to our scalps. Sand between the sheets at night.  It was a nuisance only the first week, but once the sand had become permanent, once it had settled in our hair, crept between the cracks in the kitchen floor, and left a constant gritty coating in the bathtub, we didn’t even notice it anymore.  It was as much a part of our lives at the sea as the ceaseless ebb and flow of the tide, and the stiff breeze that snapped the clothes on Mother’s line, and sent the sailboats scudding past our beach-front cottage.

            Father spent that holiday satisfying his bird watching obsession.  Freed from the burdens of teaching university English courses, he prowled the wharves and the beaches day after day, equipped with binoculars, field guide and notepad.   He was constantly in search of some elusive species that might have travelled off course, or strayed from its habitual breeding ground.  Only rainy weather and the ghostly grey sea fogs that crept ashore unexpectedly, would drive our father indoors.  Late each afternoon he would come tramping into the kitchen, hot and discouraged, slam the screen door behind him and heave a great sigh.

            “I can’t understand it,” he would say to no one in particular.  “Day after day, the same blasted species.  If only I could see something new!”

            Then he would sink into a lounge chair in the screened porch, light up his pipe and bury his face in one of the countless ornithology books that were always stacked up around him.  Every few minutes he would scan the seascape with his binoculars for fear of missing out on the opportunity of spotting a coveted specimen that he could add to his lifetime list.  Then he would turn his face back to his books.  Only the top of his head was visible then, a balding dome with a book in front of it, and pipe smoke in a wreath above his head.

            For Mother, life by the sea was really not much different from being at home.  Her hands were as red and raw as they were the rest of the year, steeping in dishwater three times a day, scrubbing laundry in the tubs, or sweeping the stubborn sand from every room.  But she never complained about any of the work, disguising her discontent with her coral lipstick smile.  She even made a game of her sweeping, and danced gracefully with her broom as if it were an actual human partner.  We called it sand dancing.

            Mother wore pedal pushers and pop tops around the cottage to keep cool, so that her taut, slender midriff, and her tanned, muscular calves were always exposed.  On days when it was really  hot, she would put on her short shorts that crept high on her thighs and threatened to expose the bottoms of her buttocks whenever she bent over.  Those shorts (as we always referred to them) made our father scowl and shake his head in embarrassment, and sometimes he would grumble “Whatever  happened to dresses?”

            Mother had a radio in the kitchen, since that was where she spent most of her time.  My brother and I had a perpetual game of Monopoly set up on a card table in the corner that we returned to whenever we began to feel bored, or had had too much sun.  Sonja spent most of that vacation baking in the sunshine, and staring at the sea.  In fact, I think we saw more of the soles of her feet than anything else that summer.

            Camping out in the kitchen playing games and keeping Mother company meant that we were there from the very beginning when that thing happened shortly after our arrival.  We were sitting right there watching when it all started.  And Mother was wearing those shorts.

                                                                        *

            We had been outdoors all morning, collecting shells in the sand, while Mother sat watching us from beneath the wide brim of her straw hat.  Finally, some time aroundnoon, she had called out “that’s enough sun for today, children,” and dragged us reluctantly indoors.  Sonja, as usual, ignored her completely.

            The radio was blasting out “Satisfaction”.  I’ll always associate the song with that day.  Mother was standing by the stove, stirring up a rich, creamy fish chowder for our lunch.  As she stirred, her hips undulated sensuously in time to the music, and those shorts crept precariously up her buttocks.  The screen door slammed.

            “Ready for lunch, Sonja darling?” Mother asked.

            “I’ve brought your fish, Mrs. Whitman.”  We all looked up.  A man was standing in the doorway, unabashedly watching our mother dancing in those shorts.

            “Oh!” Mother gave a quick little gasp and snapped the radio off.  Her face was red.  It was one of the only times we’d ever seen her blush. 

            “Where did you come from?” she asked with a smile.  The fellow smiled back, and that was when it happened.  Mother blinked her green eyes quickly, in a startled, bird-like way, and something changed in her face.  She actually looked flustered, and she tugged discreetly on the bottom of her shorts.  “Fish,” she said.  It came out in a hoarse whisper.  “You said something about fish?”

            “Sorry if I startled you some, Mrs. Whitman.  I’m Evan Stewart.  I met your husband watchin’ gulls on the docks when I was bringin’ in today’s catch.  He said you’d be interested in some fresh fish.”  Evan stepped forward and shook Mother’s hand firmly.  He looked straight into her eyes.

            “Yes…well…fish.”  She was having trouble tearing her eyes away from him.  Peter and I looked at one another and shrugged.  But just then the screen door slammed again, and there was Sonja, standing in the doorway staring at Evan Stewart in the same spellbound way.

            His shoulders filled the doorway.  A headful of tangled black hair framed his sun-browned face, and his eyes were the exact colour of the sea.  There was a scar on his upper lip that looked like a permanent snarl, but there was one on his cheek as well, right in the dimple spot, so he was always smiling, too.  A thought flashed through my eleven-year-old mind as we sat there watching this stranger who had just stepped through the door without being invited.  Maybe he isn’t a fisherman at all, I thought with pounding heart.  Maybe he’s really a pirate.  Maybe that’s why Mother and Sonja have that look on their faces. 

            That was just how he looked, with his tight, black T-shirt and snug cut-off jeans,  and those dangerous, sinewy muscles beneath his taut, tanned skin.  But he wasn’t wearing pirate boots.  I checked.  Only a harmless pair of tattered sneakers, missing their laces.  It was a comforting sight.  Perhaps we wouldn’t be robbed and murdered after all.  But why were Mother and Sonja staring at him like that?

            “He talks funny, Laura,” Peter whispered to me.  He was staring at him with the same unrestrained fascination.

            “Be quiet, Peter,” I said, nudging him. “And quit staring!”  Then I realized that I was staring too.

            Mother fetched her purse and paid him for the fish.  “Thank you, Evan,” she said.  “This haddock will be wonderful for dinner.”

            “My pleasure, Mrs. Whitman,” Evan said.  “I’ll be glad to bring some for you again.”  He was still looking into her eyes.

            “Yes, well, certainly Evan.  I’d like that.  Later this week, maybe?”

            “Okay then.  I’ll be back in a couple of days.”  He turned to leave, but stopped in the doorway and flashed a smile at Mother again.  “You like the Rolling Stones, do you Mrs. Whitman?”

            “Yes, I do, Evan,” Mother said.  Her eyes never left his face.  “Do you?”

            “My own personal favourites,” said Evan.  Then he gave her a long look of approval, his aqua eyes sweeping over her lean, tanned form without the slightest hint of embarrassment.

            “You’re a good dancer, Mrs. Whitman.  Some good.”  The screen door slammed, and he was gone.  Mother was still standing there, gazing at the doorway, when the fish chowder boiled over.

            At dinner that evening, as Father cleaned the last morsels of haddock off his plate, he said “Nothing compares to the taste of fresh fish.  It’s good, isn’t it June?”  Mother just stared at the doorway again and said “some good.”

                                                                        *

            Two days later Mother was wearing those shorts again, even though it was a rather cool day.  This time when Evan arrived, her smile was spontaneous, and she had a look of reckless joy on her face.  This time, along with the fish, Evan brought Mother a bouquet of wild lupines that he’d picked along the way to our cottage.  He confessed it proudly, then handed the flowers to her with a look of school-boy innocence.  But there was something more in those aqua eyes of his, and Sonja pulled a chair up alongside our Monopoly table and took a sudden interest in the game.

            From that day on, whenever he delivered the fish, Mother asked Evan in for lunch and a cup of King Cole tea.  And she told him to call her June.  One day he brought her a cookbook of East Coast recipes, another day a basket brimming with wild berries.  Sometimes he brought us children curious shells or lobster claws, or tiny living crabs that had gotten tangled in his nets.  He was friendly and open with all of us, relating tales of his voyages “out to sea” in his father’s boat, storms he’d encountered, rescues he’d assisted in, friends he had lost.  He spoke softly in his lilting East Coast accent, his voice washing over us like a warm tide.  We were all  drawn to his salty, sunburned smell, his reckless smile and his astonishing aqua eyes.  And always,  day after day, Mother’s radio station would be playing  on in the background.

            As Mother grew more accustomed to his presence, she would go about her household chores, washing up dishes, baking  dessert for dinner, or sweeping sand out the door. And she would sand dance with her broom, fully aware of Evan’s eyes following the graceful curves of her body as she spun effortlessly about the room.  Sitting inattentively at our Monopoly table,  feigning interest in the game, Sonja would watch them furtively, and frown.

            It was on one of the days when Mother was sand dancing that everything changed again.  Evan cut in on the broom.  She was only flustered for a moment, but as Evan’s hands gripped her waist, the thrill of actually dancing with someone overcame her, and she threw back her head, shook her chestnut mane and laughed out loud.

            “He wants her,” Sonja whispered to us with alarm.  We didn’t know what she meant.

            “Yeah.  He wants to dance with her.  Aren’t they great together,” I said.  Peter and I started to clap, and Sonja stared at both of us with horrified amazement.

            After that they sand danced every day.   Whenever the screen door slammed at noon, Mother would look  up with a new spark in her eyes and an eager smile on her full coral lips.  Something was going on between them, yet our presence made it benign in a way–something that would never truly take root.  On the day he slipped his hand up the back of her pop top and she let out a startled gasp, Sonja whispered “cool”, and the three of us watched in stunned silence.  She didn’t move his hand, either.

            Where was Father while all of this was happening?  Watching birds, of  course,  as inattentive as ever towards our mother.  He had contacted ornithological societies in the region and was always racing off to reported sightings by other avid birders.  He was gone most of the day, but on the days that he did arrive early, the slam of his car door would alert Mother and Evan.  They would part nonchalantly if they’d been dancing, and sit innocently at the table to continue their idle chatter.

            “Father is clueless,”  Sonja whispered to us once, after he’d virtually exploded into the kitchen, his face joyous and animated, and begun describing to all of us the coveted specimen that he’d spotted earlier that afternoon.  “Totally clueless,” she said.

            “Why?” I asked, and she stared at me in disbelief.

            Even though Father had begun to question the over-consumption of fish at our meals (fish sandwiches packed for his bird-watching expeditions, fish chowder, fish baked, barbecued, fried, broiled, fish salad, fish everything) he even went so far as to ask how Evan was doing, and to comment on what a charming lad he was.

            “Oh, he’s charming all right,” Sonja would say, and Mother would stare her down with an icy smile and add, “He certainly is, William.”

            I suppose Peter and I were as naive and unsuspecting as our father.  We enjoyed Evan’s company and his fond attentiveness, and it wasn’t until years later, when I understood what irrepressible longing was all about, that the true intent of his visits became clear to me.  But it all ended one day, just as suddenly as it had all begun.

            As usual, they were sand dancing after lunch.  It had become a customary part of Evan’s visits, but now there wasn’t any space between their bodies.  He had trouble keeping his hands off our mother by the end of the third week, too.  His eyes seemed to absorb her, to drink her in like some powerful elixir.  His gaze was heavy and penetrating, full of an emotion which Peter and I couldn’t understand.  Mother absorbed his attention like a dried-up sea sponge, and it was beginning to overpower her as well.

            Sonja was asleep on a towel out in the hot sand—a part of her lazy vacation routine.  So when the screen door slammed, we all thought she coming inside to cool off.  Evan and Mother just kept on dancing, and Peter and I didn’t even glance up from our Monopoly game, until we heard Father’s voice.

            “I ran out of gas down the road and…”  He stopped. 

            We looked up to see Sonja standing in the doorway behind him, in shocked silence.  Mother and Evan froze in their steps.  Mother’s eyes had the look of a wary sparrow.  It was clear that they had been touching.  Father saw Evan’s hands dropping quickly from Mother’s waist.  He stood watching, assessing the damage, perhaps.  And something changed in his face, a flood of insight that rushed in like a tidal bore.

            Father took a measured step forward and set his field guide carefully on the countertop. Then he did the proper and gentlemanly thing.  He cut in on Evan with a polite bow.  From where we were sitting, we saw Mother’s shaken face blossom into a coy smile, as Evan, flushed now, stepped aside.  And then our father did something completely contrary to his nature.   He pulled Mother in close, placed his hand on her buttock and gently nuzzled her neck! 

            “William,” Mother whispered, and I saw her blush for the second time in my life.  Evan slipped out the door without slamming it.  We didn’t even see him leave.

            Father never objected to Mother’s music after that.  Sometimes he even danced with her right there in the kitchen, the two of them swirling and sliding barefoot across the gritty floor,  laughing and embracing as they second-guessed each other’s moves.  She took to wearing filmy cotton dresses, and those shorts were put into retirement.  And he invited all of us along on his bird watching expeditions, an opportunity which Sonja politely declined, but Peter and I leapt at for the sake of going somewhere. 

            Even though our father never did learn to dance a step without looking as clumsy as a blue-footed booby out of water (as he described himself),  and even though our mother never could tell a plover from a sandpiper, somehow the final weeks of that summer by the sea brought all of us closer together.

            My most vivid memory is the sight of Mother in a billowy sun dress, sashaying barefoot across the sand beside Father as we set off to watch birds. With one hand she clasped her straw hat in the brisk sea breeze. Father? He had his field guide tucked under his arm, as usual.  And he clutched our mother’s free hand as if he feared she might flutter off suddenly, like one of his coveted specimens.

 

 

                                                                End                  

 

 

 

 

Sand Dancing part III

Two days later Mother was wearing those shorts again, even though it was a rather cool day.  This time when Evan arrived, her smile was spontaneous, and she had a look of reckless joy on her face.  This time, along with the fish, Evan brought Mother a bouquet of wild lupines that he’d picked along the way to our cottage.  He confessed it proudly, then handed the flowers to her with a look of school-boy innocence.  But there was something more in those aqua eyes of his, and Sonja pulled a chair up alongside our Monopoly table and took a sudden interest in the game.

            From that day on, whenever he delivered the fish, Mother asked Evan in for lunch and a cup of King Cole tea.  And she told him to call her June.  One day he brought her a cookbook of East Coast recipes, another day a basket brimming with wild berries.  Sometimes he brought us children curious shells or lobster claws, or tiny living crabs that had gotten tangled in his nets.  He was friendly and open with all of us, relating tales of his voyages “out to sea” in his father’s boat, storms he’d encountered, rescues he’d assisted in, friends he had lost.  He spoke softly in his lilting East Coast accent, his voice washing over us like a warm tide.  We were all  drawn to his salty, sunburned smell, his reckless smile and his astonishing aqua eyes.  And always,  day after day, Mother’s radio station would be playing  on in the background.

            As Mother grew more accustomed to his presence, she would go about her household chores, washing up dishes, baking  dessert for dinner, or sweeping sand out the door. And she would sand dance with her broom, fully aware of Evan’s eyes following the graceful curves of her body as she spun effortlessly about the room.  Sitting inattentively at our Monopoly table,  feigning interest in the game, Sonja would watch them furtively, and frown.

            It was on one of the days when Mother was sand dancing that everything changed again.  Evan cut in on the broom.  She was only flustered for a moment, but as Evan’s hands gripped her waist, the thrill of actually dancing with someone overcame her, and she threw back her head, shook her chestnut mane and laughed out loud.

            “He wants her,” Sonja whispered to us with alarm.  We didn’t know what she meant.

            “Yeah.  He wants to dance with her.  Aren’t they great together,” I said.  Peter and I started to clap, and Sonja stared at both of us with horrified amazement.

            After that they sand danced every day.   Whenever the screen door slammed atnoon, Mother would look  up with a new spark in her eyes and an eager smile on her full coral lips.  Something was going on between them, yet our presence made it benign in a way–something that would never truly take root.  On the day he slipped his hand up the back of her pop top and she let out a startled gasp, Sonja whispered “cool”, and the three of us watched in stunned silence.  She didn’t move his hand, either.

            Where was Father while all of this was happening?  Watching birds, of  course,  as inattentive as ever towards our mother.  He had contacted ornithological societies in the region and was always racing off to reported sightings by other avid birders.  He was gone most of the day, but on the days that he did arrive early, the slam of his car door would alert Mother and Evan.  They would part nonchalantly if they’d been dancing, and sit innocently at the table to continue their idle chatter.

            “Father is clueless,”  Sonja whispered to us once, after he’d virtually exploded into the kitchen, his face joyous and animated, and begun describing to all of us the coveted specimen that he’d spotted earlier that afternoon.  “Totally clueless,” she said.

            “Why?” I asked, and she stared at me in disbelief.

            Even though Father had begun to question the over-consumption of fish at our meals (fish sandwiches packed for his bird-watching expeditions, fish chowder, fish baked, barbecued, fried, broiled, fish salad, fish everything) he even went so far as to ask how Evan was doing, and to comment on what a charming lad he was.

            “Oh, he’s charming all right,” Sonja would say, and Mother would stare her down with an icy smile and add, “He certainly is, William.”

            I suppose Peter and I were as naive and unsuspecting as our father.  We enjoyed Evan’s company and his fond attentiveness, and it wasn’t until years later, when I understood what irrepressible longing was all about, that the true intent of his visits became clear to me.  But it all ended one day, just as suddenly as it had all begun.

            As usual, they were sand dancing after lunch.  It had become a customary part of Evan’s visits, but now there wasn’t any space between their bodies.  He had trouble keeping his hands off our mother by the end of the third week, too.  His eyes seemed to absorb her, to drink her in like some powerful elixir.  His gaze was heavy and penetrating, full of an emotion which Peter and I couldn’t understand.  Mother absorbed his attention like a dried-up sea sponge, and it was beginning to overpower her as well.

            Sonja was asleep on a towel out in the hot sand—a part of her lazy vacation routine.  So when the screen door slammed, we all thought she coming inside to cool off.  Evan and Mother just kept on dancing, and Peter and I didn’t even glance up from our Monopoly game, until we heard Father’s voice.

            “I ran out of gas down the road and…”  He stopped. 

            We looked up to see Sonja standing in the doorway behind him, in shocked silence.  Mother and Evan froze in their steps.  Mother’s eyes had the look of a wary sparrow.  It was clear that they had been touching.  Father saw Evan’s hands dropping quickly from Mother’s waist.  He stood watching, assessing the damage, perhaps.  And something changed in his face, a flood of insight that rushed in like a tidal bore.

            Father took a measured step forward and set his field guide carefully on the countertop. Then he did the proper and gentlemanly thing.  He cut in on Evan with a polite bow.  From where we were sitting, we saw Mother’s shaken face blossom into a coy smile, as Evan, flushed now, stepped aside.  And then our father did something completely contrary to his nature.   He pulled Mother in close, placed his hand on her buttock and gently nuzzled her neck! 

            “William,” Mother whispered, and I saw her blush for the second time in my life.  Evan slipped out the door without slamming it.  We didn’t even see him leave.

            Father never objected to Mother’s music after that.  Sometimes he even danced with her right there in the kitchen, the two of them swirling and sliding barefoot across the gritty floor,  laughing and embracing as they second-guessed each other’s moves.  She took to wearing filmy cotton dresses, and those shorts were put into retirement.  And he invited all of us along on his bird watching expeditions, an opportunity which Sonja politely declined, but Peter and I leapt at for the sake of going somewhere. 

            Even though our father never did learn to dance a step without looking as clumsy as a blue-footed booby out of water (as he described himself),  and even though our mother never could tell a plover from a sandpiper, somehow the final weeks of that summer by the sea brought all of us closer together.

            My most vivid memory is the sight of Mother in a billowy sun dress, sashaying barefoot across the sand beside Father as we set off to watch birds. With one hand she clasped her straw hat in the brisk sea breeze. Father? He had his field guide tucked under his arm, as usual.  And he clutched our mother’s free hand as if he feared she might flutter off suddenly, like one of his coveted specimens.