Thursday, July 8, 2010


"Floss" and Wilf Marr

My grandmother saved my life when I was a child. My parents were alcoholic and violent. The front room was forbidden territory, for Big People only, where voices started out happy and excited, and escalated to shouts and bumps and crashes in the night.

I remember when I was about four, standing outside my grandparents' back door as dusk was falling, looking in at them sitting in the comfort and warmth and light within. Already, I felt alien, separate, like I belonged on the outside looking in. I couldnt open the door into that warmth and safety - it had to be opened to me, I had to be invited in, out of the falling dark. I lived in a different world, one I already knew I had to keep hidden, and I didnt belong there either.

My grandma's house was so silent you could hear the clock ticking and tocking on the kitchen windowsill. A little yellow cottage on Christleton Avenue, surrounded by flowers and blooming bushes, it had a picket fence with a white trellis covered with roses arching over the gate, where I would stand, swinging back and forth, gazing out at a world stupified with summer heat. Bees hardly had the energy to buzz, and the only excitement was the tinkle of the ice cream truck coming down the street. My grandma hosed everything down in the morning, before the day got too hot, then pulled the awnings down like sleepy eyelids over the front windows.

We could smell the freshness of the lake two blocks away, and the scent of thetall grass in the fields around Grandma's house. Everywhere in Kelowna where there are condominiums today, there were orchards then. Almost every yard sprouted a profusion of flowers, so the air was scented with lilac, snapdragons, peonies and pinks. It was a small town then, picture pretty and provincial in its ways. It was another era, the end of the forties, and though my life with my parents felt like one long bad dream, life itself held an innocence and a goodness as fresh as the special way the air smelled just before the summer thunderstorms that Grandma loved. The sky turned dark and the reverberation shook our little cottage, sounding like the heavens were splitting in two. And then the sizzle of the rain came down, and the fresh scent wafted through the screened in back porch where we sat for so many hours of my childhood.

My grandma looked after me when I was little and when I got older I spent summers with her, and this is how she saved my life, by showing me existence could be other than what it was in my house. She is the one who baked me cookies, told me stories, pointed out fairies dancing in the flames of her fireplace. She took me to church and gave me standards to live by. Grandma developed conscience in me and I was more afraid of her than of God. She never raised her voice to me, but her quiet words of caution and her sorrowful disappointment felt like hot lava pouring over my head.

"I have magic glasses," she told me, "and I can see you even when you're far away." So I knew when I went back to Vancouver, she was still watching over me, which scared and reassured me at the same time.

When all her adult children were visiting in the living room, she would often retreat to the closed in back porch and I would join her there. I knew what was wrong. The sound of ice cubes tinkling in glasses was a sound we both hated.

My grandparents lived simply and frugally. My grandfather made a modest living selling herbal remedies in his little shop, Health Products on Ellis Street, years before you heard much about herbs and alternative health treatments. Shelves lined the back room and the shop had the foreign smell of the cardboard round containers full of herbs that went from floor to ceiling. Sometimes I helped count out pills, fill bottles and put the labels on. My grandpa was thin, silent and gruff but had a twinkle in his eyes and a very soft heart, especially for children. In years when men didnt cry, especially as he got older, my grandpa would often be silently overcome with emotion, when something touched him. "It's the French in him," the women whispered to each other. His mother, who died when he was very small, had been French.

The aunts and uncles adored my grandpa, but were in agreement that "Mother runs him ragged." They thought it unfair that he had to go into the pantry to snort back "a little nip", thought he should be able to sit in the parlor and bravely down glasses of the amber liquid like they did. They encouraged him to, when they visited. But when company was not present, most times he'd retreat into the pantry for stealthy sips and she pretended not to notice. It was their arrangement.

An often told tale was how Grandma had given away Grandpa's best suit during the Depression, to a hobo who came to the door. They said the house must have a mark on it, so many hobos came knocking. Grandma never could turn away anyone who was hungry, even though feeding her own five children was difficult enough in those lean years. One man needed clothing and Grandma figured Grandpa didnt need the suit in the closet since he rarely wore it, so he would never miss it. Turns out, it was his best suit, the only other suit he owned being the one he wore every day:) Must have been a well-dressed hobo! Another time, Grandfma found a roll of bills in a dresser drawer and merrily spent it, thinking it was extra money - it was their rent money!

My mother still told the story, in her seventies, of the time she trudged home in the cold of a Prairie winter evening, after a long day on her feet as a hairdresser, looking forward to the pork chop she anticipated was waiting for her at home. When she came through the door, she found a hobo sitting at the kitchen table, scraping the last bit of congealed gravy onto the last bite of pork chop - her pork chop! Her voice still registered outrage, some sixty years later!

Grandpa got his family through the Depression by doing books in return for a sack of potatoes, or a sack of coal, trudging from house to house to earn the bits and pieces that kept his family fed. Grandma washed the family laundry - dresses and pinafores and sheets for five children - by hand in the bathtub, in those years. She walked miles to the railroad station to buy over-ripe bananas so she could make desserts for her family. My mom used to say her best Christmas was the one when each child received a single orange and a small toy car handmade by Grandpa.

I lived with my grandparents during my final months of high school, and I remember my Grandpa, who always wore a suit and tie, every day of his adult life, skinny and vulnerable in his long johns, stealthily padding from his bedroom to the bathroom in the early morning. He was so much the head of the family, so respected, that it felt strange to see him frail and powerless in his underwear - our eyes would meet and he'd smile and shake his head ruefully, with his customary twinkle, and we'd both studiously ignore his state of undress.

Through my childhood, when I was in Vancouver with my parents, he would enclose a small envelope inside letters to my mother, and in it would be a shiny dime for me. In those days, a dime would buy a popsicle, some penny candy and some Dubble Bubble.

Grandpa went along obligingly most times with all Grandma's plans. The family jokingly called her The Brigadier. She was always generously volunteering his services to her women friends, if they needed to be picked up or dropped off somewhere. He silently chauffered everyone on endless drives in the country on dusty Sunday afternoons.

His one quiet protest was at mealtime. He never sat down at the table without "playing checkers" with the salt and pepper shakers, and the condiments. He always moved them a few inches to the right or left. They were never just right where they were. If he was feeling cantankerous or irritable, he would thump them down extra loudly. Thump! Thump! and the salt and pepper would go three inches to the right and the sugar bowl five inches to the left. Sometimes the women would try to set everything exactly perfectly, to see what he would do. And then fall into fits of giggling when he sat down, surveyed the table, and moved one item one inch, just on general principles.

My grandma was Irish and proud of it. Her favorite song was Galway Bay which she played over and over. When she got older and began to think of death, another favorite was Beyond the Reef. She told me marvellous stories, of relatives who had supernatural things happen to them, of fairies, of a perfect little girl called Vivian, who had impeccable manners and who was set as a model of deportment to us grand children. "Vivian would never do that!" she'd say, with smug conviction. We all hated Vivian!

Grandma would have tea parties in the afternoon, with trays of dainties, and fancy flowered cups and saucers. Ladies wore housedresses and aprons to do the housework in those days. For tea parties, they took off the aprons and donned nicer dresses, and often white gloves to the wrist. And hats! Going to Church on Sunday was an occasion for finery, and on Easter Sunday everyone sported new dresses and hats and gloves and shiny patent leather shoes.

Grandma tried to teach me manners. I remember her amusement when, at one afternoon tea, I got mixed up and responded to a question I hadnt heard with a dreamy, bemused, "Huh, Miss Hicks?" and how she teased me on the way home. "HAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH, Miss Hicks?" she grinned, fairly chomping with pleasure. (She and her friends called each other "Miss Hicks" and "Mrs. Marr", and Grandpa was always referred to by my Grandma as Mr. Marr, even after fifteen years of friendship.)

Grandma had a wild and zany sense of humour. She loved to play practical jokes, especially on her poor cat. She had a big black fluffy Persian called Beau with a kink in his tail. He got the kink by getting his tail caught in the screen door, with some assistance from my Grandma. When he wanted to go out, he was a torturous mass of conflicted desire. Grandma would stand at the doorway, arms akimbo, holding the screen door open invitingly. Beau would size up the situation: her holding the door, the memories of his tail connecting with the doorjamb, the inviting scent of the outdoors, the needs of his bladder.......Finally, no options left, he would bolt for the door and Grandma, timing honed to the split second, would let it slam just in time to connect with his tail. An enraged yowl, my Grandma's cackle, and Grandma serenely resumed her housework, while the cat plotted revenge. Grandma kept him confused as, most times, he would be let in and out without incident. But each time, looking through the open door, you could see him calculating, gauging, wondering: would this be the time the door let fly? Eventually Beau would sulkily come back inside, till bladder needs put him in the same predicament once again.

Grandma cleaned the house in the mornings. Sometimes while she was busy in the kitchen, I would be allowed to listen to programs on the radio, while I rocked back and forth in the rocking chair. This was very special, especially my favorite show, Maggie Muggins, that always ended with the line: "And I dont know WHAT will happen tomorrow!", which about summed up the story of my life (and the cat's!)

In the long and silent afternoons, with everything tidy and the wash on the line and the sweet peas watered, Grandma rested, to the peaceful and comforting ticking of the clock. I remember her climbing into the bottom bunk beside me to settle me for my nap, her soft womanly grandmother's body providing a safety and a comfort I never knew anywhere else. It was with my grandparents that I went for drives, had regular meals, went visiting, saw life as normal people lived it. Home was a battlefield, strewn with corpses that got up the next morning and fought again, where I retreated into silence, and watched with scared eyes.

I got to pay Grandma back for those early years when she was old and in a nursing home. I sat with her through many many hours and paid her back with time and love for the time and love she so generously gave to me when I was small.

Her life as she had known it ended with my grandfather's death, but she lived fifteen more years without him. Her spirit utterly rejected the nursing home. "There are too many OLD eople in here!" she, in her eighties, declared. She was unable to adjust to where her life had landed her. Grandma felt trapped for too long in a life she no longer wanted.

She would walk down Ethel Street to my little cottage full of children, and sit out in the yard under the grape vines and cvhat with me while I weeded my garden. Then I would walk her home, tears rolling down her face, back to her room at the Lloyd Jones.

"I'm still here!" she'd say disgustedly, when I popped my head around her door the next day or the next. "I'm just too damned healthy."

But sometimes she would talk about the Old Days, the stories of her time, when life was vital and whole around her. One day she put music on and started dancing lightly, a few steps, smiling, and I saw straight inside her, to the light bright smiling self inside the body that didnt work too well any more: the self that she had been as a young girl was still there.

Once she told me "I wanted to raise you, especially after your father died, but your mom wouldnt allow it. She thought people would think she was a bad mother if she gave you up. But I wish I could have - you never had a chance."

When she was moved to the extended care unit, she retreated increasingly into silence and sometimes we would just sit, not needing conversation. My presence was enough for her. One night as I wheeled her into her room I saw a purple sunset out the window and wheeled her closer. We watched in silence as it set.

She didnt want anything but to be gone from her body in those final years but sometimes I would talk her into coming and sitting out under the trees with me, just outside the hospital. I'd wheel her to where green branches arched overhead and we'd sit and listen, to the wind rustle through the branches, hear the birds chirping above us.

It was under these same trees that I told her I was moving away to the wild west coast, the move that had been my dream for twenty years. It was hard to tell her her most frequent visitor and supporter was going away. I was full of inner tears but also knew that I must go. I had already been waiting for the last five years and knew if I didnt leave now, maybe I never would. With her characteristic generosity Grandma encouraged me to go. "It's your dream, and you've had such a hard time. You deserve some happiness."

We sat in silence some more. I watched her turning her ring around and around on her finger. Her engagement and wedding ring were welded together, symbol of the love she and grandpa had shared for the sixty-odd years they were together. She was deep in thought, turning and turning the ring. The air turned electric and still.

Suddenly, she pulled it off and handed it to me. I started to demur, to shake my head but "No," Grandma insisted. "I want to be sure that you have this. It's never been off my finger, but I want to be sure that it goes to you."

I knew when I left Grandma that I would carry her with me, that she was so much a part of me that I could never really lose her. I went back for a visit later and found her much changed, not as aware of who I was or that I was there. But when I spoke of the ocean and the eagles and the beauty of where I lived, she smiled.

I went back to help her make the transition from this world to the next and spent a week at her bedside, listening to her labored breathing, wetting her lips with moistened Q-tips when she lifted her hand and pointed. In a moment when she was still aware, I leaned close beside her ear and told her: "Thanks for all the love" and watched a single tear slide down her cheek. I knew she wanted nothing more than to be released from her body and that hospital bed, to be with my grandpa once more, so I supported her with love in her dying as she had supported me in times when living had seemed too hard for me.

My mom broke down at the end of the funeral when the strains of Galway Bay began. And on the bus, heading home, through the mountain pass towards the beaches and the wilderness I love, I was looking out the window, remembering how the real parting had been when I moved away, but how I knew then that I would carry Grandma with me inside my heart forever. She was as much a part of me as the air and the sky and the trees and the wind, and so we would never really be apart. Just then, the strains of Galway Bay tinkled through my brain. I wasnt thinking of the music, it was playing in my mind. Instantly, I said "Hi Grandma, I love you!" and the music drifted out the other side and away. And I knew that it was Grandma, passing through.


  1. I enjoyed the story of your Grandmother very much.I have known strong women like her and they are truly unforgettable, and they live on in our hearts and in stories like this that we share.

    Thank you for visiting oldgreymare and I do hope to see you at Genesis on the 1st!


  2. Thanks so much, Suzan. Women from bygone years were tough - they had to be......I will be there on the first for sure........racking my brain for something interesting!!!!! You have made usall think, a very good thing!

  3. This reminds me of so many memories of my grandparents, how prideful they were! They were raised in tough times and endured so much...tender kindness meant a lot.
    I wish we could find more of that today! I am glad your grandmother lives on in you and your memories!
    She sounds like an amazing woman~xXx

  4. Thanks so much for reading such a long post. I love the old stories. I only wish I had written down more of them when Grandma was still alive to tell them to me....I have quite a few of them and will be posting them as I go along..........those were the days:)


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