I stabbed the ground and pressed with my foot, but the earth in Grandma’s garden would not yield. I then raised the spade over my head, brought it down with a “thwack,” gathered a shovelful of thin, gooey mud and turned it over.
“Angelica, what’re you doing?” Grandma’s forehead was pressed against her bedroom window screen.
“Dad told me to.”
“He told you to muck around in my garden?”
“What in heaven’s name?”
I carried on, hammering at the hard ground, until Grandma stepped outside. Her dress was hiked up a little higher on one side, stretched tight over her wide hips. The white curls on the back of her head were squashed flat from her pillow. I felt bad for interrupting her afternoon nap. She ran her fingers through her hair, straightened her dress and hobbled down the stairs, leaning on her cane. She looked at the muddy mess at my feet and rewarded me with a small smile. “You’ve been working hard.”
Grandma lived in a quiet, suburban neighbourhood with houses so close together that, in her words, “You could spit out of your kitchen window and have it land in your neighbour’s sink.”
“The ground’s still frozen underneath. I guess April’s too early for planting.”
“True. The night frosts will kill new sprouts. Give it a few weeks then you can take me out for some bedding plants.”
“I don’t even care.” A familiar feeling clawed at my gut, a hunger, but not for food. I turned away. I kept my eyes on a robin red-breast that bopped around in the mud, plucked a fat worm and flew back to his tree.
“What’s wrong? Thinking about your mother again?”
“Forget her. The past is the past.”
I wondered if something was wrong with me, that I missed a woman I could barely remember. Grandma and Dad refused to talk about my mother, but that only intensified my yearning to know what became of her. For now, though, I needed to concentrate on the chore that Dad had assigned me. “I’m supposed to clean up the yard, too.”
Last year’s vines still cling, brown and dried, to the side of the house and dandelions were beginning to dot the yard. A pile of leaves, neglected since last autumn and now exposed by the melted snow, coagulated in a soggy pile near the shed.
“Why the rush to clean the yard?” Grandma asked.
“Dad wants the place to look nice.”
“Oh, that’s it. I’m not moving. Put the shovel down.”
Wisps of hair had fallen out of my pony tail and draped over my eyes. I brushed them aside with a dirty hand and pointed to the chipped paint that curled from the back fence. “Your fence needs painting. I’ll do that next week.”
“Never mind the flipping garden. Come inside,” Grandma said.
“He said I had to help you.”
“Tell your father I don’t appreciate his interfering.”
I wished that the ongoing war of words between my father and grandmother would stop, always putting me in the middle. No use telling Dad to ease up on Grandma, especially when he had his mind set and there was no use telling my stubborn Grandma to be reasonable.
The garden gate hung open and its rusty hinges squeaked in the breeze. A missing bolt caused it to hang cockeyed. I had to lift the gate on one side in order to close it. I slid the bolt into place and zipped my hoody to my chin. The sun peeked out from the gathering clouds and beamed down. I lifted my face to feel the warmth.
My grandmother took care of my sister and me when we were growing up. She cuddled us when we were hurt and was there for our school concerts, even when Dad was too busy. She bought me my first box of tampons and she was the one who I called after I got drunk at a party at seventeen and needed a ride home.
Now, I worried about Grandma. She called often, wondering if we’d seen her keys, or the new can of coffee she just picked up from the store. After the accident last year, Dad took her car away. She had caused a four car pile-up on the boulevard and the driver of one of the cars was sent to hospital. She claimed the sun was in her eyes. A witness said she was on the wrong side of the road.
I knew Dad was right to do what he did. I just wished he could have been gentler about it, instead of yelling, “Hand me the damn keys before you kill yourself or someone else.”
Despite that, it was my mother, Darlene, who occupied my thoughts most days, even though I hadn’t seen her in many years and could barely remember what she looked like. All I could remember was her black hair and dark eyes. I imagined her with a long, thin nose, like my own. I didn’t know if that was my memory or because Dad said there was a resemblance. In my mind she had been reduced to a cut-out image. I tried again to bring her image forward, to coax blurry features more clearly into consciousness.
I was six years old and sat watching television beside my sleeping mother when Dad ran into the house with Nikki in his arms.
He shouted, “You left the baby in the hot car! She could have died while you’re passed out on the couch.”
“I’m sorry,” Darlene had said, over and over. Her frizzy hair was silhouetted against the light that streamed in from the window. Her sad, brown eyes, wet with tears, met mine and then she turned away.
Dad said he destroyed all of Darlene’s photos because he couldn’t bear to look at her face after what she had done. He also forbade contact between her and his daughters. He had the law on his side since she had been declared an unfit parent. All I knew was that she lived in Vancouver. I also knew I would never be happy until I found out what happened to her.
“Angelica,” Grandma said. “Come inside and get cleaned up. You can tell me what’s on your mind.”
I followed her into the house.
Grandma loved to feed people. She tottered around the kitchen, using the counter tops for support, as she prepared sandwiches. Slices of sharp cheddar cheese, vine-ripened tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers, thick slices of ham – cut from the bone, not the packaged kind, waited to be placed between slices of whole wheat bread.
“Can I help you with the sandwiches, Grandma?”
“No. I’ll be done in two shakes of lamb’s tail. You can set the table.”
“Dad and Nikki will be over, soon. Nikki was sure mad about having to get out of bed to help. She spent a half-hour banging dishes around, trying to show us how bad she has it.”
“To help? Darn him. He can’t wait to get me out of this house. If he expects me to live in an old folks’ home, he can go fly a kite.” Grandma’s hands shook. She dropped the knife and it clattered onto the floor.
I bent down and picked up the knife.
Grandma turned and knocked a glass to the floor where it smashed. “Darn it! I hate being old.”
I jumped up and grabbed the broom. Shards of glass were scattered across the kitchen floor. I reached with the broom and gathered pieces up into a pile.
“Grandma, why did my parents get a divorce?”
“You already know.”
“Tell me again.”
Grandma turned to the counter. She hated it whenever the conversation turned to Darlene, as it often did. “She’s a thorn in my side, even after so many years. She was drunk. Your father came home on a hot day and found Nikki locked in Darlene’s car. He had no time to search for keys so he smashed the glass with a rock.”
“She was sorry. I remember her crying.”
“It was the last straw.”
“I remember them arguing.”
“Enough talk. There’s no point in dredging up old hurts.”
I sat at the table and chewed the sandwich placed before me. “You asked what was on my mind and then you say you don’t want to talk about it.”
Grandma reached into the cupboard for her bottle of pills and shook one into her hand. “You’re like a dog with a bone. She’s not worth your tears. I’m sorry to say, but your mother was nothing but trash. My blood boils remembering your Dad’s phone call, how that awful woman almost killed little Nikki. He pleaded with me to move to Calgary to look after you girls. Your dad has his faults, but he was right to have taken you and Nikki away from her.”
I tensed at the sound of a knock at the door. Dad walked in and Nikki trailed in after him.
“You’re just in time for lunch,” Grandma said. Her voice had a hard edge to it.
I took a deep breath and prepared myself for the inevitable argument.
“Thought you’d have more accomplished, Angelica. Why are you wasting your time trying to turn the soil? Too early in the year for that. Should have worked on cleaning up the yard,” Dad said.
“I didn’t know.”
“Leave the girl alone, Victor. I don’t care two beans what the yard looks like.”
“It’s about giving a good first impression to buyers, Mom.”
“You’re not locking me up in an old folk’s home!”
Nikki chewed her nails. “Do I have to listen to this stupid argument again?”
“Nikki, be patient,” I said.
“I haven’t got all day.” Nikki removed her gum, stuck it to the side of her plate and helped herself to a sandwich. With ear buds implanted, she bopped her head, chewing in time to the music.
I could hear the tinny beats from the other side of the table.
Dad shouted, “Nikki, you’ll ruin your hearing listening to music so loud.”
She stared at him with dull, cow eyes, but made no move to turn down her iPod.
“Take the headphones off right now!”
“They’re ear buds, Dad.”
“Nikki, just…” Dad made a stop sign with his hand. “Mom, listen, at the new place you don’t have to worry about stairs, about making meals or cleaning.” His voice had a pleading quality, now.
“This is my home!” Grandma yelled.
“I have a right to sell any time I want. I bought this house for you.”
“With money gained from the sale of my acreage!”
“You need people to take care of you!” He paced the floor, sandwich in hand.
“I can take care of myself.” Grandma pointed to her chest.
Nikki retrieved her gum and pushed her plate aside. “Can we go, now?”
“Really? Next you’ll be burning the house down.” Dad got up and paced the floor. “What the hell am I going to do with you?”
“It’s not my fault the stove was left on. I fell asleep. Just wait until you’re my age.” Grandma’s jaw shook and her face scrunched up. Loud sobs filled the room.
Dad stood with his arms crossed, hands in his armpits.
I hated to see Grandma cry. I stood behind her chair and put my arms around her and kissed the top of her head. Her hair smelled like it needed a shampoo. “The house is getting to be too much for you.” I pulled a comb from my purse and ran it through her thin hair. The stubborn curls resisted manipulation.
“It’s not.” Grandma said.
“You slept through the smoke alarm. The fireman had to carry you out of here. Doesn’t sound that bad to me though, being carried in a fireman’s arms, right?”
Grandma managed a small smile, pulled some tissues out of her bra, blew her nose, then stuffed them back into her bra. “I’ve lived fourteen years in this house.”
We all looked over at the faint scorch marks and smoke stains that still marred the wall and ceiling near the stove.
“It’s me or Dad that has to drive here to mow the grass or shovel snow.”
She patted my arm. “Family takes care of one another.”
“We can only do so much,” Dad said.
“I helped you folks when you needed me. I left my lovely acreage, my horses, and my henhouse, to move to the city and help you.”
“You know I appreciate it.”
Dad turned away, took a dishcloth and began to wipe the stovetop. “You need to clean under the burners, Mom.”
“Don’t change the topic. I did it for these girls. God knows they needed mothering.”
I remembered the first time I entered this house -- the smell of chocolate cake, Grandma pressed Nikki and me into her soft body, squishing our faces against her breasts. I couldn’t get my arms all the way around her.
“My little darlings. Look how you’ve grown,” she said.
Later, after munching on cake and ice-cream, I looked around the room -– plush furniture, framed photos of us on the walls and high shelves filled with books and lots of things Grandma called knick-knacks. I reached my hand to touch a beautiful porcelain statue of a dancing lady.
“Look, but don’t touch,” Grandma said.
I expected a slap or a scolding, but turned to see Grandma smiling at me. I scrambled onto the couch.
“Mind your sticky fingers on my furniture, love.” Grandma washed my hands with a warm, soapy cloth. “Would you like to colour?” She opened a Kmart bag, withdrew a colouring book and a new box of sixty-four crayons, with a built-in sharpener.
Dad looked out the window and shook his head. His mouth was grim. “Starting to snow. Outside work is out of the question today.” He took me to another room. “Take Grandma for a ride, okay? Just get her out of the house for a few hours” He ran all ten fingers through his hair and held his head like he had a headache coming on. “Sometimes, doing the right thing means hurting people.”
Grandma took my arm and we headed for the door. “I get so darned tired of being alone, cooped up in that little house.” She stopped, looked down over the railing at what was once her flower bed. “Do you see the tulips poking their wee heads through the soil? I love perennials. Don’t pay them any attention and they come back every year.”
I smiled. “Watch your step.”
We sat in the car outside Dairy Queen and Grandma licked a chocolate dipped, soft ice-cream cone. She smiled and then covered her mouth. “Excuse me. I left my teeth at home. This is such a treat for me.” She popped the last bit into her mouth, swirling the piece of cone with her tongue, softening it before she chewed it with her few remaining teeth.
“Grandma, it would be nice if you didn’t have to cook and clean…”
“Don’t you start!” She pulled her coat around her shoulders.
I started the car and turned on the heat. We sat quietly for a while.
“Why don’t you and Dad ever talk about my mom?”
“You’d best forget about her.”
“Angelica, we did our best for you.”
“I know. It’s just that I have this big, empty hole inside me. I need to know.”
“I’ve always been here for you.”
“You won’t always be.”
Grandma’s face fell. “Best get home. Your father will wonder what’s become of us.”
Snowflakes continued to fall on our drive home, but melted on contact with the windshield. I parked the car and helped Grandma up the stairs and into the house, opening the door with a creak.
Grandma stopped dead. She looked around and quivered. Heavy silence hung in the room. She looked like she had been punched in the stomach. The prints and photographs were gone from the walls and the glass taped with cardboard. Pale rectangles showed on the yellowed walls, where pictures once hung. The mantle, shelves and book cases sat barren, except for a thick coating of dust where, for years, Grandma had been unable to reach with her cloth. In the kitchen, doors hung open and most of the cupboards were empty. Labelled boxes lined the walls of both rooms.
“I need to sit down,” Grandma said, and flopped onto a chair.
Dad cleared his throat. Nikki popped her gum. Grandma dropped the packages onto the floor. She looked down at her lap. Her head wobbled. She perched on the edge of the kitchen chair, leaned forward and clasped her fingers like claws on her knees.
I stepped forward and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder, but startled when she shouted, “You dirty thieves!” She pointed a shaky finger at us.
“We’re not stealing anything,” Dad said.
“Then why are all my precious things in boxes?” Grandma pulled a box towards her, marked, “Collections,” and tore open the top. She removed carefully packed tea cups, ceramic cats and glass dancing girls. With hands flying, she ripped through the tissue paper, unwrapping ornaments and dropping them onto the floor like an angry child on Christmas morning.
She ignored Dad and continued to unpack. Once the box was empty, she flung it aside, put her head into her hands and wept. Grandma’s knick-knacks, her beloved objects, that for years, Nikki and I were forbidden to touch, were now scattered haphazardly on the floor where anyone could step on them.
Grandma blew her nose and turned to look at me. “That was a dirty trick.” Her lips pursed together. “You take me out for ice-cream and then bring me home to this.”
“Sorry,” I whispered and bit my lip.
“Been uprooted too many times. Each time I end up in a smaller place. Farm, to an acreage, then to a little house, and now, to one tiny room in an old folks’ home. Won’t be long before you’re putting me in a casket and planting me in the ground. All of you go home. I’m sick to death of the whole lot of you.” Grandma got up, walked to her bedroom and closed the door.
The three of us stood quietly and looked at one another. I rubbed my hand across my eyes and blinked away the tears.
Dad knocked on Grandma’s door. There was no answer. “I got a call about an opening at Cedar Glen.” He stood with hands on his hips and talked again to the closed door. “We have no choice, Mom.” Dad looked at the ceiling, took a deep breath and let it out with a huff through his mouth. He closed his eyes and shook his head. “Mom, it’s a care centre, not an old folks’ home. You’ll like it.” There was still no answer from behind the closed door. “We’re leaving now. Come on, Nikki.”
After they left, I knocked on Grandma’s door.
“Go away,” Grandma said.
I opened the door to see Grandma seated in her chair by the window. “I’m sorry,” I said. She was staring at an empty spot on the wall where a picture once hung. I sat on the floor at her feet and took her hand. “You deserve better.”
Grandma’s lower lip trembled. “It’s not your fault. It’s your father’s. He wants to be rid of me.”
“He thinks you need more care.”
“Then your father is right. I’m a useless old woman.” She let go of my hand and crossed her arms across her chest.
“He never said that.”
“Might as well have.”
“I don’t think you’re useless.”
Grandma met my eyes at last. “I know you don’t.” She took a deep breath and her eyes filled with tears. “Guess I’ll just have to face it. Tomorrow, I’ll be out of my home. Soon, I’ll be sitting like a potted plant in the corner, like the other old biddies.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“I’ve been inside those places, Angelica. They stink of old people urine, and all those vacant eyes staring into space. That’s no way to live.”
“I wish there was something I could do.”
She hesitated for a moment. “No one has touched the box in my closet, yet. You might as well sort through it. If you see anything you want, you’re welcome to it. I’m going to have a lie down.”
I carried a box to the kitchen table. Inside, I found letters bound together with a rubber band, years-old receipts for gas, telephone and so on. At the bottom of the box was a photo album. I opened to a wedding picture of my grandparents. It was hard to imagine Grandma ever being young. There were baby pictures of Dad, and more of him as he grew up, photos of Grandpa and Grandma together and a few of Nikki and me. I noticed that one of the pages was a little thick. A second photo was tucked behind one of Dad’s high school graduation. Dad was holding my hand. Standing beside him was a pretty, dark-haired woman holding a baby. I stared at the photo for a long time, memorizing her features. On the back of the photo was written, “For Mom, from Victor, Darlene, Angelica and our new baby, Nikki.” I removed the rubber band from the stack of letters. Several were marked with a return address in Vancouver, B.C., and the name Darlene Saunders.
I ran back to the bedroom and opened the door. “Thanks, Grandma,” I said, but she was asleep.