LONDON, ONTARIO – This week we bring you a new work of short fiction . . .
MY MOTHER'S BEST and oldest friend was Sarah McDougall with whom she shared one of the most extensively documented friendships I’ve ever known. They were only children, born within four months of one another on the very same street, and served in many ways through the succeeding seven decades – Sarah died first – as the sibling that neither one of them had. It may have been simple proximity that threw them together at first but even as their circles of acquaintance expanded to include others with whom they might spend more time for a while, Mom and Sarah never fell out or drifted apart and maintained to the very end a familial sort of ease in one another's company.
Picking up on that special connection that Sarah had with our mother, she was the only family friend who my brothers and I, for a while at least, called ‘Auntie’. Or more formally, ‘Auntie McDougall’. But never, interestingly enough, ‘Auntie Sarah’. Neither woman ever left the city for any significant length of time, so letters and postcards between Mom and Sarah were necessarily few. Nor did they ever take much to using the telephone – which was not the case with some of my mother’s other friends - though when they eventually lived in different neighbourhoods, they would put the briefest of calls through to warn the other that they were popping over for a visit in ten minutes time and a fresh pot of coffee would not go amiss.
No, the documents I speak of are our family’s photographs. There were three shoe boxes full of old snaps that had fallen out of badly disintegrating albums or had never been properly catalogued in the first place. The April after I got married, I helped my mother overhaul her entire pictorial archive by gluing all of the keepers into six sturdy new scrapbooks that I gave her for her fifty-seventh birthday. And it was during that marathon of sorting and pasting and pressing that I realized anew, not just how large a part Sarah had played in the life of my mother, but what an instructive counterpoint she provided for me at a few key stages in my own growing up.
Chronology won out in the end but, had we taken a thematic approach, Sarah could easily have claimed an entire scrapbook to herself. I sometimes find myself trying to give that never-compiled book a title, even though I know I’m not qualified to do so. I’ve only got glimpses, hundreds of frozen moments that emerged intermittently through the years and make up a larger picture of someone who tugs on my heart like no one else in my parents’ entire pantheon but with whom I never claimed familiarity. It wasn’t reserve so much that kept me that little bit at bay. I think it had more to do with the quiet dignity she always maintained in navigating her way through what turned out to be a hard and difficult life.
Of course, the first few years, I wasn’t really studying her at all. Young people don’t mind limiting adults to a one-dimensional reality. In fact, it can make life a whole lot easier. You can only treat your dad like an automatic allowance-dispensing device by disallowing his humanity. You’ll let your mom make your bed and pick up your rancid socks for years on end, confident in the knowledge that you’d never force such grubby tasks on a real person who deserved your respect.
But when the fuller humanity of these older beings finally starts to dawn on you, quite against your will, you realize that selfishness and laziness were not your only reasons for so limiting them; that there was also a substantial dose of dread. Yes, adults get to drive cars and stay up as late as they like. But condemned as they are to run in ruts of rarely altered routine and to shoulder responsibilities that must be constantly monitored or all will be lost, those older lives appear too constrained to allow the flourishing of a complete human being. Either they’re a separate breed or you have to admit that what they are is what you in all likelihood are destined to become and that can be a daunting prospect. And your parents’ old photographs flip that equation on its head and bring that prospect even closer, letting you know that what they were is what you are.
“Here’s this one again,” I said, handing over one of the most notorious snapshots in the collection. “I think it deserves a page to itself.” Mother and Sarah are nine years old and are standing behind two pairs of my granddad’s woolen long-johns that have been hung on the line to dry. Each girl crouches behind her own pair and is totally obscured except for her laughing, demented face that beams out at the camera from between the undies’ legs.
Mother leaned back in her dining room chair and for the six hundredth time at least, cracked up at this stupid picture. The men in our family always pretended not to see anything amusing about this snapshot. We never laughed at it and whenever it surfaced, we’d roll our eyes and mutter something caustic or dismissive. But in our heart of hearts I actually think we found it reassuring as pictorial confirmation that in the right sort of circumstances, women can get every bit as goofy as men.
“I guess you had to be there,” said Mother, slowly recovering, and set the picture down in the childhood heap with its more restrained contemporaries. Mother and Sarah are pushing a stroller loaded to the brim with every doll they own; one spilling over the side of the pram and barely hanging on for its imaginary life. Mother and Sarah with skinny little legs and no chests are lying on their tummies at the beach, sipping Cokes through straws. Mother and Sarah decked out in matching overalls and two-tone shoes are posing beside their bicycles on a quiet country road, looking just like an ad for Doublemint gum. Mother and Sarah, dressed up in billowy dresses and moistly clutching sprigs of gardenias before their very first high school dance, pose in front of a garage wall looking like they’re about to be shot.
It seems they no sooner acquire such excruciating self-consciousness than boys start to appear on the scene. “No, it took longer than that,” explained Mom. “You were the same and so were your brothers. Teenagers gets secretive and camera-shy. You’re just not around your parents as much and they take most of the pictures. There are whole lost years between some of these pictures.”
Then, suddenly, the flurry of teen-aged boys is whittled down to just two slim and serious looking servicemen with full heads of dark hair and faces so smooth that, to me, they almost look ghostly. Why is it that nobody can look at a camera like that anymore? That unflinching, unapologetic presentation of self? Handsome men with single chins in the prime of their physical glory and dressed to defend democracy; each one glowing with the sort of confidence that becomes possible when you have a beautiful fiancé nestling on your arm. In that exuberant moment before they have become acquainted with the unwinnable odds, they are staring life straight in the eye and daring it to enfeeble them.
With war’s end, the photos poured forth in new profusion. Both couples were married in the autumn of 1945 and at a glance, their wedding pictures are almost indistinguishable. Money was tight and each couple’s best outfits had to perform double duty for the bride and groom at one event and then bridesmaid and best man at the other. No lace gown and rented tux to mark the happy couple in these pictures – shoulder to shoulder they stand at either ceremony like four well turned-out mobsters in dark and ample suit coats with wide collars and padded shoulders. You can tell the women from the men because they wore skirts and their coats tuck in at the waist. And, if you have a fine eye for distant church architecture and can distinguish the spire of St. James from Wesley, then you can even decipher just who is marrying whom.
And then begins the invasion of the babies. We had the boys and they had the girls. Between them the two couples produced seven little spits in the generational flood that engulfed the western world – and the very last spit was me. The people in these pictures now become definitely recognizable to me; verifiable by memory. Bouncing babies and radiant moms, proud looking dads and uncontrollable brats.
Sitting next to her easily-cowed husband on our old green couch with ruptured springs and the never-quite-erasable odour of Claude the incontinent cat, my dad’s snobbish sister who never did have kids, mechanically dandles my brother Glen on her lap. One of Sarah’s young girls – Julie I think – sort of smiles with a hand over her mouth, trying to deflect attention from her missing front teeth. Two of my brothers who think it’s going to be really funny forty years later, cross their eyes just before somebody clicks the shutter on a slightly more formal shot. My brother Bruce throws one of the McDougall girls - again, I think it’s Julie - into the lake. The rump of the McDougalls’ dog is the only part of him that’s visible as he goes rooting through a picnic basket in search of deviled eggs. And – land sake’s alive – there’s me (but no girls or adults in evidence) earning ten cents from my brothers by running naked across the front lawn while church empties out across the road. Had I known there was a camera involved, I would surely have held out for a quarter.
Shortly after the last McDougall daughter was born, Sarah’s husband, Frank, becomes conspicuously absent from a lot of these two-family outings. Or, if he’s there, then he’s sporting a face that lets you know he’d rather not be.
“I guess he was drinking by then?” I asked my mom.
“Well, he always had, you know. But the army made him stop for a while. Then, after a two-week Victory bender, he swore off the stuff for good. He married Sarah and the kids came along and we thought he’d straightened out. But yeh, he was at it again by then. Look at this one – you can see it in those bleary eyes. Boy, he hated those picnics. “Taking the blighters for a run,” he used to call it. You know, you can toss off a phrase like that once and maybe it’s funny. But not all the time. It got to the point where we actually had a better time when he didn’t bother coming but Sarah always wanted him there so what do you do?”
My only real encounter with Frank – my single most vivid memory of him – concerns alcohol; beer to be precise. I was about six years old and sitting next to him on the new couch we bought after Claude went to his reward. This in itself was most unusual because Frank ordinarily emitted an aura that kids found pretty repellent. He may have been into his cups or just a little clumsy, was fiddling in his pocket for a lighter or something when he suddenly spilled a full glass of beer all over my lap. My pyjamas were drenched and the beer was shockingly cold and I jumped off the couch and turned around to see Frank pointing at me and beseeching my parents with a look of outraged innocence. “That little bugger tried to steal my beer!” he roared; no doubt trying to be funny but the joke was a little beyond me.
“I did not. You spilled it,” I yelled right back at him with considerable heat of my own.
“Well, sure, but only because you were trying to grab it.”
This was too much for me and I looked over at my mother in desperate bewilderment and she calmed me in a trice with one of those impeccably tuned mother-looks that can pack a hundred words into a single glance. I’d never before seen her use such a glance in the defense of an ostensible adult. It said: “Frank’s in an immature snit right now and not about to admit his fault. Fear not, my son, in the court of high mothers, your innocence is noted and affirmed.”
This incident developed into me and Frank’s only ongoing joke, albeit a rather lame one. “Who spilled the beer?” we’d ask whenever we came face to face, pointing at each other as we swayed to the left and the right like boxers squaring off for a match. Indeed, that pantomime of fighters was probably a pretty true reflection of our feelings for one another. He was the only one of my parents’ friends whose appearance in our doorway always made my heart sink. It wasn’t that I held a grudge over a pair of soaked PJ's. What I couldn’t stand about him was watching the way he treated Sarah. Nothing criminal or violent, just shoddy and mean-spirited; habitually throwing off remarks or recalling incidents – willfully misremembered, I’m sure - which unfailingly cast her in an unflattering light.
Sarah was no scrapper. She was never going to sass her husband back or put him in his place. At least when they were out in public, her shyness and sense of decency would never allow the sort of retaliation he so richly deserved. Though both of my parents grew mighty tired of the drunken, sloppy Frank, they both insisted there was a far better, more sensitive man underneath who, for them at least, was never quite obliterated by the booze. I must admit I never saw it. At least not while he was alive. But when he sealed himself away in the garage and carbon monoxided himself to death one night in the fall of 1970 – thereby scuppering his insurance policy and causing real financial hardship to his widow – I had to acknowledge that at least the man was sensitive enough to feel the misery of being the kind of person he was.
Coming out of the church after Frank’s funeral service - where no one, clerical or lay, so much as breathed the word ‘suicide’ - our family had a sudden abundance of automobiles when Sarah asked Mother if she would ride along with her and her daughters to the cemetery in the undertaker’s limousine. I’d come to the church with my two brothers who were in town that month and was originally going to go to the cemetery with them until Dad nodded that he’d like me to join him in the family sedan. I was surprised by how literally shaken he was by Frank’s death. Before the service got underway, Dad went up to view the body and from about three rows back I could see a tremor in my father’s right hand as he rested it on the closed lower portion of the coffin lid and peered down into the dormant face of his friend. I hated seeing my father like this but not as much as I hated the idea of him having to drive alone.
“Nothing ever came easy for Frank,” Dad told me as he started to sort out the tumult of his feelings during the long, slow procession to the graveyard. “And there was so much he wanted. He knew what he wanted, which is more than a lot of us can say. But he wanted it so bad, it seemed to blind him to everything else, including what he already had. I remember when our families were just starting out and you kids had all been born and he turned to me one night when we were sitting on their back porch and the women had gone in to make coffee or something. “So tell me, Bill,” he says. “How is it that you got all the boys?” Now fathers are supposed to want sons, I guess . . . though I always figured I’d probably have to raise whatever kind of kid showed up. But it would never have occurred to Frank that our family was just as unbalanced that way as his. He just saw that he wasn’t getting what he wanted.
“And he was just the same way with jobs. Nobody got fired as often as Frank and it wasn’t because he wasn’t capable. But his bosses knew they couldn’t trust him. He was smart. He was as qualified as any of us. And he was ambitious, which is something employers usually like in a worker. But he was ambitious in a way that let them know that whatever job they gave him, was never going to be enough. They knew he was a chancer who’d drop them in a second if something better came along and so they always found a way to beat him to the punch.
“I remember watching him in the water when we all went to the beach together. And he could do all the dives and the strokes and swim long distances. In a pool off the high board, he could even do flips. But the man couldn’t float to save his life. That part was too elementary for him; everybody could do that. I remember trying to teach him one day, holding him underneath, and Frank just as rigid as a plank. “Take it easy,” I’d tell him. “Just let everything go.” And I’d pull my hands away and he’d hold his breath and go all tight and fold up like a jackknife. And there he was this afternoon, laid out so flat and easy on that ruffled white satin and his face looking more serene than I’d ever seen it look in life. And I thought, you poor heartbreaking bastard. You had to gas yourself to death to do it, but you’re floating, Frank, you’re floating,”
WHEN I WAS FIFTEEN and my oldest brother Glen was twenty-two, he had emigrated to the other side of the globe in hot pursuit of an Australian woman named Beryl he’d met while backpacking in Europe and then couldn't put out of his mind. In the nearly four years since I had last seen him, Glen had travelled through Mexico and South America, found God and then lost Him, married Beryl and held a series of jobs in computer technology at a time when more and more corporations were starting to utilize that technology in their operations. In short, he had arrived as a fully-fledged adult.
The gap in our ages was large enough that we had never really tuned one another in like we had those intervening brothers who shared more of our interests and experiences; me particularly the third eldest; he particularly the second eldest. We usually tolerated each other just fine but didn’t have much to do with each other. And there were times when he could be horribly condescending to me and I expect that he just as frequently found me to be a nuisance and a pill. At the most fundamental level, I loved him and even looked to him in some ways for guidance – but more by example than consultation.
Such gaps shrink considerably with the passing years and it was my hope that the next time we met, I would’ve begun to arrive as a functioning human being with a few defining accomplishments under my belt and the semblance of a guiding philosophy in my skull. But I hadn't achieved any kind of equilibrium when Glen brought his new bride back to Canada to meet the family at Christmas of 1970. Indeed, I had just been jilted by the first serious girlfriend of my life after nine months of universe-expanding bliss and couldn’t meet the vacuous gaze of neighbourhood dogs without feeling intimidated and ashamed. All I needed to make my disintegration complete and irreversible was to have Glen lording it over me once again, making ‘tsk, tsk’ noises and saying something dismissive like, “Come on, Morgan, snap out of it. This puppy love crap is just a little infantile.”
That first encounter with no-longer-requited love had hit me with a suddenness and a totality beyond imagining. Nothing in my previously blessed life had prepared me for this. The death of grandparents had been a walk in the park by comparison. They’d all had good long lives and plenty of time to prepare themselves. And there was no questioning death. It had to be. What made the jilting so unendurable was the unshakeable sense that this awful calamity wasn’t even necessary. Just a change of attitude, a shift of mood, and happiness could be restored. Couldn’t it? It all seemed so arbitrary and wrong. Surely she’d have to come to her senses. So then I’d get into waiting for Linda to come around – waiting for her to see the light – which only protracted my vulnerability and pain.
I desperately wanted someone to talk to but just didn’t know where to turn. My friends were all too obnoxiously happy and then when school was let out for the holidays, I was cut adrift in this bustling household gaily preparing itself for the triumphant return of the newly married computer genius. The folks were so excited about seeing Glen again that I just didn't have the heart to unburden myself and pee on their parade, to call them away from such happy preparations, all the decorating and cooking, to tell them . . . to tell them what? That I wanted to kill myself? That I was feeling wretched beyond belief due to a situation that had absolutely nothing to do with them and which they couldn't do a thing to fix? Why bother? I needed some clinical objectivity and that’s one thing that family can never provide.
And there’s the picture of Sarah attending that party at my parents’ house on Christmas Eve. That was far and away the biggest party they ever threw. The quantity and range of the different nibbly foods artfully laid out on platters and trays was just staggering. As was the extravagent smorgasbord of every kind of booze laid on by hosts who rarely ventured beyond anything more than a beer or – in the stifling thick of a serious heatwave – two.
The house was packed with all these roaring, red-faced giants from my deepest, darkest past; all the prehistoric monsters my folks had ever known; all the booming voices that used to keep me awake at night on my childhood cot; all the enormous bodies and shapes I’d ever spied on from the top of the stairs where I stood lurking in my pyjamas ready to run back to bed and hide under the covers if one of them came up to use the washroom. And here they all were, miraculously reassembled at the very same time and crammed into this single fragile house where I navigated through packed hallways and rooms, nicely hammered on rum, and feeling like a slightly scrambled time-traveller who can’t remember where he parked his capsule.
Sarah is sitting on the footstool with the needlepoint floral cushion just in front of the fire; a vision in white with her pale cream dress and a spangly white shawl around her shoulders. Some glowing tints of green and red from a nearby Christmas tree are reflected in her pure white hair. And in her hand, a shallow wine glass is filled with thick white eggnog.
“Such a tiny creature,” I remarked to my mother. "And dressed all in white like that, sitting by herself, I thought she looked like a snowflake. And then I thought, snowflakes shouldn’t sit so close to the fire. Not good for maintaining their delicate corporeal frames.”
“You were potted, weren’t you?”
“Just a couple sheets to the wind. She saw me smiling and beckoned me over.”
“Well, neither one of you is smiling much in this picture.”
“No, it wasn’t that kind of talk. Did she ever tell you about it?”
“No. But Sarah wouldn’t, you know. She’s always been a vault where secrets are concerned. I think that’s part of the reason we’ve stayed friends for fifty-seven years.”
“Hello, Mrs. McDougall,” I said, rippling my fingers in a small salute.
“My goodness, you’ve lost weight, Morgan. How did you manage to do that?”
“I got dumped,” I found myself answering before I had time to consider who I was talking to or formulate some glib lie about the Air Force diet and Melba toast and mountains of raw carrots. The bluntness of my answer seemed to knock her off balance and I regretted my tone even before I remembered that Frank had only been dead about three months. And then I could feel my face flush with shame. By the time I dared to look at her again, she seemed to have regained her composure and looked at me with a directness – indeed, a kind of scrutiny – that I’d never seen her wear before.
“Well, I’ve just been widowed, Morgan. So maybe it’s time we had a talk.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. McDougall . . . I just forgot all about it.”
“Nothing to apologize for. Sit down, Morgan. And what do you say we dispense with this ‘Mrs. McDougall’ business?”
“Well, we used to call you ‘Auntie’.”
“Yes. Let’s leave that one lie, shall we? How old are you, Morgan?”
“Very well then. That happens to be the minimum legal age. You now can call me ‘Sarah’.”
She was still nursing her eggnog but I took one from a tray held forth by my father. Then, bravely speaking her name out loud to see how it would feel – and, in truth, there seemed to be a tinge of indecency about it – I instigated a toast.”
“And what are we drinking to?”she wanted to know.
“I haven’t got a clue,” I said and appalled even myself with the sound of blank desolation in my voice.
Sarah shook her head from side to side and drew her lips tight in impatience. “This won’t do, Morgan. Now you might not want to believe this but there are worse things than admitting that a match is a bad one before it’s too late to change it.”
“Yeh. But I didn’t admit that. I thought we were doing fine.”
“But that’s only one opinion. And in a couple, that’s a minority opinion. You loved this girl, didn’t you?"
"I did. I still do."
"Then give her some credit. She had her reasons, important and serious reasons, for calling the thing off. I assure you she didn’t do it lightly.”
“No, she didn’t,” I had to admit.
“And she’s probably having a pretty rough time with it herself?”
“Well, we can hope so.”
“And no doubt spared you both for a much better chance later.”
“Come on, Sarah. Do you have to make her sound so bloody altruistic? I got dumped.”
“Yes,” she said, meeting my anger with some of her own. “And I got hung”
“I trust you’ve had eyes all these years. I don’t think there’s anyone in this room who doesn’t know that Frank and I were not a brilliant match. I’m not saying we didn’t love each other because we did. But we weren’t able to help each other very much. At some essential point where we should have been able to meet, the bridge just wasn’t there and we left each other hanging. When we got married, we were forcing something that wasn’t meant to be. I didn’t have the courage to say, ‘Wait a minute. I don't think we're doing this right.’ And, of course, I didn’t want to hurt him. But in the end I think we hurt each other more than people ought to.”
“That’s a new concept for me,” I admitted. “That it might take courage to dump someone.”
“Oh, Morgan,” she sighed and then cracked the hint of a smile. “You really are so maddeningly young. She went out with you for how long?"
"About nine months," I said and then a new kind of sadness suddenly flooded my heart as I saw past my own feelings of betrayal and recalled Linda's shattered demeanour on the night she dropped the bomb. "I think I'd like to take back what I just said about hoping she's having a rough time."
"Good for you," said Sarah. "I know that nine months is a lot of time, particularly at your age."
"Is it ever."
"But time is what you still have, Morgan. You know, there's a game you can play called 'What If' but you can only play it so long. It's a good game while it lasts and it'll show you a lot of possibilities if you don't stop playing it too soon. Like I did. Then a lot of other people make the mistake of trying to play it forever but something tells me you're not going to be one of those. But eventually you wake up to the life that you've dreamed yourself into and you know that you've got to live it. Your character is set, your relations are established, and if you've been lucky you'll find that you're proficient in a few things that can raise you above the day to day and help you draw a broader perspective on it all. That would be religion and mothering in my case - grandmothering now - and from what your mother tells me, I suspect it's going to be writing in yours."
"God, I hope so."
"God, indeed, young man. I'll pray for it," she said, then glanced around the room before resuming. "I think some people also find that larger perspective in marriage if they've taken the time to truly align their hearts. It seems to me your parents have it. Or something pretty close to it. And I'm afraid that Frank and I didn't."
It was startling to hear someone who knew my parents so well holding them up as an example of something that was notable and good; startling, not because I didn't sense that it was true but because I was so rarely inclined to step back that little bit and regard them in that way..
"Morgan, please don't construe any of this as me complaining," Sarah continued. "I'm not that kind of person and even if I was, it wouldn't serve me any purpose to complain to you. I'm only speaking up this way because I see you feeling sorry for yourself and drinking too much and it makes me want to scream with impatience. Do not mistake any of this as a complaint but do think of it as a warning. This life is for keeps and you've still got all the time in the world to try and get it right."
I was mesmerized by the intensity in Sarah's old eyes when everything suddenly flashed a blank bright white and I wondered if she'd spontaneously combusted. Looking over to my right, I saw my mother wielding her camera, unscrewing a newly spent flash bulb and smiling. "Caught you that time, didn't I?"
As the party drew to its end, the guests filed past Glen and Beryl in the front hall and, with much oohing and aahing, they bestowed their coffee percolators, imported towels and sheets, crock pots, waffle irons and other hideous matrimonial sundries upon the honoured couple. When Sarah's turn came she very simply avoided such ostentation and fuss by setting her small, matchbox-sized gift on the stair to the right of the banister where it wouldn't get stepped on. Then, standing on tiptoe, she pulled Glen's head down and planted a kiss on his cheek. "I used to have to pick you up to do this," she laughed and then turned to Beryl and gave her a welcoming hug. "My congratulations to you both," she said and then slipped out the door to go to her daughter's for her first Christmas in twenty-five years without Frank.
While the dishes were being washed and dried and put away, Father found Sarah's gift and brought it through to the kitchen for Glen to unwrap. It was a decorative piece of china, a painted log with five red and white flowers along the top; the kind of useless gee-gaw that certain old ladies smother every table in their house with. Glen shrugged his shoulders and Beryl looked bemused. They obviously weren't too impressed and as there wasn't any tag on the package, they didn't know who it was from. I didn't think they deserved to know.
"Oh, Sarah's funny with all her figurines," said Mother. "I guess it must've seemed pretty insignificant. I can't say I remember that china at all. Did they even take it with them when they went back?"
"Couldn't have," I said. "I stole it."
"Morgan!" said my mother, looking shocked and upset. "Your own brother's wedding gift. And at Christmas time too."
"I know, I know. I just couldn't stand the idea of them having that thing and never giving two seconds' thought to who gave it to them."
"And I suppose it meant something to you?"
"I used that thing like a talisman," I told her. "Carried it around in the pocket of my winter coat until the spring and then I kept it in my sock drawer for a few years. When I told Linda the story of me and Sarah's talk that night and how it really helped me draw a new bead on our relationship, she said, "That doesn't belong in a drawer." So now we have it on top of the bureau."
Mother looked at me wordlessly and shook her head in wonder, bent back down to her task and resumed pasting pictures in her book.
If you would like to contribute to the ongoing operations of Hermaneutics, there are now a few options available.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
ALL LIFE IS A GIFT :
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRADITION :