– J. Jill Robinson
I stopped in front of 1024 13th Avenue SW, where my Aunt Marg, Uncle George, and Marie, their daughter, used to live. The big blue house was still there, though would have welcomed a paint job. A woman was sitting on the front porch having a smoke, and when she saw me approach, she gave me a friendly smile and invited me to come up. She had a shaggy head of white and purple hair, and a ring in her nose. While I explained to her that I had relatives who had once lived in the house, and that I would dearly love to see inside, her young, naked cat jumped from her lap and up onto my shoulders, curled itself around my bare neck like a scarf, and began to purr. What a strange sensation that was.
She said her name was Anna, and that I was welcome to see the house, but it was a mess because she was just moving in. She butted out her cigarette in a can filled with sand and butts and opened the front door. I followed her inside. In the foyer I glanced up at a pretty stained glass window. That one, I thought. That’s the one Marie meant in her letter.
The first room we went into appeared to be a small bedroom, with clothes piled on an unmade bed that was a nest of quilts and blankets. Then I saw that the room had a small fireplace, too, and I realized that this must have been the den where Uncle George sat when he couldn’t face the stairs because of his pain, and where he was sitting when Marie and her mother came home from church that Sunday and saw him sitting in the shadows like a spectre. Here. Right here.
As we continued the tour Anna told me she was an artist who worked with repurposed leather, and that her father and grandfather in England had done leatherwork, too. In the kitchen she showed me their tools, which she now used for her creations. All those years my grandfather, and then my father, held these tools in their hands, and now I do, she said, touching the worn wood and metal fondly. So I understand exactly where you’re coming from.
When we’d viewed the living room, nd the other bedrooms, I followed Anna back onto the front porch. She sat down and lit a smoke, and I said goodbye. I went back down the steps and along the cement walk, and through the space where the gate had been. The way Marie and her parents had done countless times, carrying their burdens and then putting them down.
Daddy, said Marie in one of her letters to me, was a tall and thin man, with pale skin and red hair, and he had a long and angular chiseled face. I always thought he looked like Abraham Lincoln. Daddy had the use of only one eye, but I don’t know why that was, what had happened to it or when, though maybe I knew once. Was he poked in the eye with a stick when he was a boy? Perhaps. I don’t recall ever looking directly at it, though I must have, because in my own mind’s eye I can still see a cloudy eye with white in its pupil.
Daddy had suffered from arthritis since he was a young man, and he was not inclined towards anything athletic. (I’m not either, but with me it’s sheer laziness!) In pictures you can see the pain in his poor dear face. He seldom complained, but the pain, Mother said, was unrelenting and constant. The arthritis affected one knee in particular, and his hands—one of his fingers was permanently cocked. He limped, and had trouble climbing stairs, so he often slept in an easy chair in the den. I remember him taking handfuls of aspirin trying to relieve the pain—there wasn’t much else available in those days.
Mother herself had the constitution of a horse, and an excellent sense of humour, which she would need through the dark years that loomed ahead. Daddy had a good sense of humour too, but it was harder for him to draw on. It can’t have been easy for Mother, living with someone both handicapped and in chronic pain, though she never expressed anything in the way of regret. They were exceedingly fond of one another.
After Daddy graduated in accounting at the University of Saskatchewan, in 1921, he became an auditor with the Dominion government. He liked his job, which sometimes involved travelling from Saskatchewan to Alberta and British Columbia. He liked to drive (so do I!) and in the summer Mother and I sometimes went with him. All three of our birthdays were in July, so it was fun travelling and celebrating together. Mother was three days older than Daddy and for those three days she teased him with great pleasure.
I was five when we moved to Calgary from Saskatoon, and Mother was so happy that she would be living closer to her sister—Aunt Edith and Uncle Dean were in Banff by then. We lived on 13th Avenue West in a two storey house. My parents’ bedroom was upstairs at the front, and it was painted blue and green, which was an unusual combination for the time. Mother said it was like floating in the sea when she slept! The green of the sea; the blue of the sky. My room was also on the second floor, but it was painted yellow—my favourite colour—and it had a little porch, out the back.
St. Hilda’s School for Girls was close by, and in September Mother started me there in kindergarten, but I lasted only until Christmas because I hated going. I just wanted to be home with Mother. I wept and carried on so much that Mother took me out and taught me herself because she hadn’t yet found a teaching job.
We had lived in Calgary about a month when Mother read in the newspaper about an antique sale, and decided she wanted to go. So we set out together along Tenth Street, and after we crossed the Louise Bridge into Kensington we stopped, and Mother told me to wait while she went to ask directions. She didn’t look both ways as she stepped off the curb. In Saskatoon this wouldn’t have meant much, but in Calgary things were different, and Mother was promptly struck by a passing truck and thrown into the street. I stood there frozen in fear, unable to move a muscle. Mother was badly bruised, but thank goodness nothing was broken. The worst part of the incident involved the man who was driving the truck that hit her. Mother felt so bad for him. He had stopped right away and rushed over to help her. He was so distressed he threw up all over the road. Just the month before, his own daughter had been struck—and killed—that same way. Not only that, but the accident with his daughter had occurred just two blocks from where we were.
Mother and Aunt Edith spoke to each other on the telephone every single day, and it was my job to stand beside the telephone with Daddy’s pocket watch and tell them when three minutes was up. (The long distance rates went down after six o’clock, so that’s when calls were generally made.) It was exceedingly rare for anyone to call during the day, and therefore it has stuck in my mind how the telephone rang that morning in November 1933. I was ten, and Mother, Daddy, and I were having breakfast at the dining room table. We all looked at each other, startled. Mother got up to answer the telephone and I can still see the expression on her face as she heard the news. Her face paled and crumple, and Daddy and I exchanged glances. What had happened?
How is Edith? we heard Mother ask, her voice a whisper. Then she turned her back on us, and we couldn’t hear what else was said.
I reached over and held tight onto Daddy’s cocked finger until Mother hung up the receiver and turned back to us.
That was Uncle Dean on the telephone, she said quietly as she rejoined us at the table, collapsing into her chair and holding her face in her hands, her fingers on her temples. Uncle Dean, calling to tell us that little Cora had died early that morning. Of pneumonia. We knew she had caught a cold, but no one had taken it all that seriously, and expected her to recover without incident. Her father was doctor, after all. I remember trying to process what Mother was saying, thinking to myself, Cora? Dead? We had been to Banff just two weeks before for her fifth birthday party. Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Birthday cake, and the best lemonade I’d ever tasted. Pink, with slices of lemon floating in the pitcher, and ice. How could she be dead?
How is Aunt Edith? I asked.
She won’t come out of her room, said Mother. And she won’t open the door, not even to your Uncle Dean. But maybe she will for me.
In October of the year I turned sixteen, Daddy was asked to make a trip to the Okanagan, and he decided he would take the train because the roads were unpredictable at that time of year, and the government wanted the audit done expeditiously. On the following Sunday, not a week after he left, Mother and I came home from church and to our surprise there was Daddy, sitting in the parlour. I remember thinking it was odd the way he was sitting there without a light on. He always needed a light on to read, because of his having only one eye. The shadow was deep, and he was hunched down in the chair, and the room was in gloom even though it was just lunchtime. Mother put her hand on her chest and exclaimed, I thought you were a spectre! and I wondered what a spectre was.
Daddy said he had woken up very early the morning before, and thought sleepily that fog had somehow rolled into his hotel room, because he couldn’t see anything clearly. But as day came and the room brightened the fog didn’t go away, and he still couldn’t see well, and as this greatly worried him, he decided to come right home.
Uncle Dean drove in from Banff that very afternoon to examine Daddy, and the next morning he telephoned Dr. Sanford Gifford, the best eye surgeon in the U.S., at his office in Chicago. Dr. Gifford agreed to see Daddy. He would be willing to operate on Daddy’s eye if his preliminary diagnosis were accurate.
Mother and Daddy took the train down to Chicago for the operation, and they left me at home on my own. I could have gone out to Banff, but I didn’t want to. Mother arranged for Aunt Edith to call me every day at six from Banff to make sure I was all right, and Daddy left me his watch so I could time the calls.
Down in Chicago Mother and Daddy stayed at the Palmer House Hilton, which Uncle Dean paid for. Did you know that the Palmer House Hilton is where the chocolate brownie was invented? Mother brought me one home and though it was a little stale by then it was delicious. It tasted of apricot. The Palmer House Hilton was quite the hotel, Mother said. So fancy, and grand. But she said that when they went out into the streets of Chicago she had never seen so many poor and desperate people on the streets. Black people and white people. It was during the Depression, and many people were badly off, she said, and in the direst of straits.
When he saw Daddy, Dr. Gifford confirmed his earlier diagnosis, and the very next day Daddy had the operation. It was successful, and Mother was overjoyed. The operation was so successful, in fact, that someone at the hospital—not Dr. Gifford—decided to release Daddy early. He could rest at the hotel, he was told. But on that very first night in their hotel room, Daddy turned over in his sleep and the cardboard cone taped over his eye caught on Mother’s shoulder, and the dressing was torn off, and Daddy’s eyeball split wide open.
I can’t begin to imagine the pain Daddy must have been in. I still shudder at the thought. Mother said he was in pure agony, and that he screamed with the pain. Mother shook with horror as she tried to use the telephone, and she dropped the receiver on the floor, twice. The wait until Dr. Gifford arrived with morphine was hellish. Dr. Gifford rushed into the hotel room, and as soon as he saw the damage that had been done he was livid, and began to swear a blue streak. He gave Daddy an injection and then he began to rail against the stupidity and incompetence of the hospital staff. Daddy should not have been released from the hospital, he said. There would be no charge for the operation, he said. But how could that help Daddy? The eye could not be saved. Daddy was now permanently and completely blind, and our lives changed drastically after that.
Daddy stopped working for the government, and Mother stopped teaching. We divided up the house and made an apartment upstairs to rent out, and from then on our bedrooms were on the main floor. Poor Mother, leaving a job she loved and taking over everything to do with the household and lack of money, and caring for an ever-present, depressed, and miserably unhappy man who had no hope of ever getting better. And a teenaged daughter who I’m sure wasn’t as much help as she might have been.
And poor Daddy. He had lost forever the three things he liked to do most—work, drive, and read. (My favourite things too!) Daddy’s being so terribly sad all the time made me terribly sad as well. Sometimes when Mother had to go out I would sit beside him on the chesterfield in the front room and hold his bent finger the way I had when I was little, and we just sat like that for the longest time. Maybe the sun would be out and cast rays over us through my favourite leaded glass window, the oblong one by the front door, and I tried to describe for him how prettily the light lit up the stained glass.
At the end of April I was up at university in Edmonton finishing my exams and preparing to graduate, and Daddy wouldn’t let Mother tell me how sick he was, because he wanted me to get through my exams with flying colours. Which I did. But because he made Mother promise, I didn’t get to see Daddy before he died. I wish I’d known. I would have happily failed every single course if it meant I could have seen him one more time. I understand why they didn’t tell me, but I wish I had seen him.
Daddy died because he had taken so much aspirin for his arthritis over the years that he had ulcers, and his stomach lining had been eaten away and had begun to bleed, and they had also discovered a malignancy in his bladder. Oh Daddy.
Shortly before her death Marie sent me a present. When I unwrapped it my heart leapt: Uncle George’s gold pocket watch, the very watch Marie had timed the telephone calls with. A thrill coursed through me: I had the actual watch in my hands! It had a gold chain and bloodstone fob, and was engraved with his initials, GW. I carefully wound the watch and set the time, and the timepiece worked beautifully for several days, not even a week, and then I forgot that it was in my jeans pocket and it first went into the washer and then into the dryer. I wondered idly what that metal banging sound in the dryer was and then my heart stopped and I knew exactly what it was. Cursing my stupidity I pulled the watch from the heavy, wet jumble of clothes.
J. Jill Robinson
J. Jill Robinson became a writer in Calgary, where she attended the University in Calgary (BA, MA). She now lives and writes in Banff. She is the author of four collections of stories and a novel. Her work has won Event’s creative nonfiction contest (twice), Western and National Magazine Awards, and four provincial book awards.