Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada
Light rain lingers. Whiffs of a distinct and almost palpable freshness mingle with the smell of brackish seawater. Wet weather has cleansed the pavement, washing away dirt and even oil. As we stroll past a pub’s open doorway, the odor of a rag damp with beer resurrects a memory of my father.
When he was a young man and I was a small child, he owned a similar establishment in northern Wisconsin. The juniper smell of gin or the sound of clinking glass can instantly transport me back to that place where songs on the jukebox cost a nickel. Pat’s Tavern was just a hole in the wall, barely wider than a corridor. I remember the linoleum patterned white against maroon, and the way it got scuffed and tracked in winter when the drinkers came in from the snow with mud and sand on their boots. Sometimes, during afternoons when there were few customers, I was allowed to sit on a barstool sipping orange soda.
Saint John is a New Brunswick port city on the Bay of Fundy in the Canadian Maritimes. Industrial, multicultural, and a little chic, it is also somewhat seedy. Though there are signs of former prosperity and respectability, many old buildings have been usurped for alien functions. Heavy wooden doors from another era grace the tattoo artist’s studio down the street, and a former bank has been turned into a bar. Facades are a pastiche of boarded-up windows and very weathered brick walls interspersed with signage and posters advertising last month’s or even last year’s concerts. In this crumbling town, geometry remains a hedge against nature. Everywhere straight lines challenge the slump and slope of elemental wear.
Because I am a painter, the seen world around me is always fodder for composition. Flat surfaces rise to the picture plane I’m creating in my mind. Objects such as chairs and tables offer themselves as sculptures with air and space moving freely around them. As my husband and I walk these streets, I visualize figures in each doorway with their torsos framed by the architecture. Imaginary and ghostly faces stare at me head-on, like portraits formalized by carefully defined rectangles. Perhaps, in some clairvoyant way, I see the dead framed in the spaces where they used to live.
At a restaurant, we’re seated at an exceedingly simple wooden table. I peer out the rain-streaked window at the sharp angle of the precipitous street. Enhanced by yellow electric lights, the brick buildings cut through by narrow alleys yield a scene reminiscent of a detective novel set in the 1940s. I try to imagine a story that would convey this ambience.
But that is a story I will never write.
The stories I know are like certain types of stone. They’re formed far below the surface of earth under conditions of intense heat and great pressure. As the mix slowly cools, the complex crystalline structure of some lovely pink or gray granite comes into being. Mostly, I find that all the stories I have to tell issue from a place where there is no light. Even my own narrative is born in darkness.
Later, back in our rented room, we are sleeping, or rather I am not sleeping. This doesn’t really matter. During these hours of insomnia, I offer myself up to a dimension where I learn by receiving whatever comes to me. During the fluid wee hours of the morning, vivid moments surface from the watery past to haunt and instruct. I lie awake remembering the girl and the young woman I used to be. For whatever reason, likely having to do with Saint John and the memories triggered of my childhood, I recall the white hospital floors radiating light upward…and I know I am remembering Ethel.
When I went to see her for the last time, my grandmother’s appearance shocked me. Although she was sixty-two, the cancer had aged her beyond recognition. Fine gray hair framed her sallow, sunken cheeks. Her attempted smile failed to hide the pain she was experiencing. At that late stage of her illness, any showing of her teeth resembled a grin from a skull.
When a white-uniformed nurse came to help her to the bathroom, we could see her exposed back marked by the knobs of vertebrae curving treacherously above skeletal legs. She was nearly helpless, without modesty and with no modicum of self-determination or control. I found myself picturing the stream of urine or fecal matter issuing from her wasted frame while the attendant held her poised over the toilet like a baby. After she was returned to her bed, we only stayed a short while longer. I never saw her again.
At the time, it seemed as if Ethel was just finding her way home. The cemetery where we buried her body was simply a part of her, and by extension, it was a part of me too. Her husband, Lloyd, the man who was ostensibly my grandfather, worked for the city as caretaker. Upkeep of the cemetery kept him busy. In summer, there was grass to be mowed. In winter, roads needed plowing. And from time to time, graves had to be dug.
Ethel and Lloyd were always the first to know when anyone in the local area died. From her kitchen window, Ethel bore witness to a seemingly unending vista of granite markers. These marched in succession over the nearby hills as a constant reminder that our earthly days are numbered.
My uncle Tim was only three years older than I. We played in the cemetery for hours, hiding behind gravestones and leaping from monuments. The dead didn’t scare us, but we knew to keep our distance when the funeral corteges arrived. I remember seeing the smeared faces through windows of cars crawling along behind the black hearse.
After the memorials, lots of floral arrangements were discarded. Ethel used to save the ribbons for me.
“Maybe you can use them with your dolls,” she would suggest. The long strips of satin were smooth and cool to the touch. Sometimes we ironed them to make them look brand new.
I was too old to want ribbons when Ethel died. And I don’t think Lloyd dug her grave. He was probably too busy drinking and weeping to care whether she got buried or not.
The fact is as a child that intimate knowledge of the cemetery began for me a kind of obsession with death. I was curious about it. I wondered what it would be like to be dead.
It seems to me now that Ethel always smoked Marlboro cigarettes. At that time, many smokers preferred unfiltered Camels. Ethel was very fond of smoking. Tobacco was central to her sense of wellbeing. Still, as she inhaled and exhaled, the tars and particulates cooled and collected in her lungs, eventually precipitating her cancer.
The parameters of Ethel’s life seemed to dictate an early death from poor health. Eleven pregnancies, an inadequate diet, and excessive use of alcohol undoubtedly compromised her immune system. Then too, her factory work exposed her to glues and solvents on a daily basis. Inhaling these fumes over a long period of time must have been unsafe. Maybe things could have been different for Ethel, but they were just this way.
From seven to two each weekday, Ethel worked in a factory that manufactured fiberglass fishing rods. Women employed by the small firm assembled and glued the fittings on these high-end pieces of equipment destined for discerning anglers. In northern Wisconsin, fishing was something of a religion, so there was a local as well as a national market for the product. Their task involved a great deal of patience and manual dexterity. Still, although they had to concentrate on the job at hand, the women were able to talk and gossip while they put in their time. Ethel loved this camaraderie with her co-workers. The job provided her with both an income and a social life.
Ethel never learned to drive. At quitting time, either Lloyd or Tim would pick her up. Then, she would come home to scrub floors and watch her soap operas on their fuzzy black-and-white television that barely had a picture.
Nothing in Ethel’s daily routine was anything like a promise fulfilled. She drank a lot, and Lloyd was a drinker too. They mostly drank beer. I would watch Ethel drink two, three, and even four bottles. How did she stay so slim? She didn’t eat much. The beer and the nicotine kept her going.
Squashed cigarette packages and half-empty matchbooks were always strewn across the square Formica tabletop in their kitchen. A relic from some burned down diner, the table was never completely level—or maybe that was the floor. In the living room, warped boards bowed up in front of the oil burner. Walking over them was like navigating a sea swell, and sitting down on the frayed couch in front of the window was like sinking alongside the Titanic.
I’m not sure Ethel ever expected anything to change or get better for her. I don’t think she thought of anything as having gone wrong. For most of the year, laundry hung limply on the glassed-in but unheated front porch. Blue work shirts of Lloyd’s swayed silently next to her own torn underwear. In winter, wet trousers froze stiff and had to be stretched out over a makeshift rack next to the oil burner to finish drying. In summer, Ethel could hang the clean clothing outside, and then it seemed almost cheerful. The hard-won whiteness of mended sheets related with massive cumulus clouds that swept across those blue skies like seaborne ships.
In the midst of her less-than-fortuitous circumstances, Ethel seemed to harbor some unfathomable optimism. She had good-looking, slender legs. Sometimes, while walking down the street with Lloyd, she would reach for his hand and their fingers would intertwine. She colored her hair to hide the gray, and sewed a leopard-skin coat for herself out of fake, plush fur. During my childhood, I never saw her get angry or look sad.
“Let’s get those puppies out from the round house,” she would say. Then we’d carry the whole stinking, squirming, blinking mass out to shit on the mown grass underneath the clothesline while the mother dog—Queenie or whichever bitch it was at the time—stood by looking nervous and exhausted.
Ethel’s dogs always got hit on the road in front of the house, but it didn’t matter. There were plenty of dogs to be had. Strays came all the time, and she took them in, tossing them table scraps and feeding them on crusts of white bread soaked in partly sour milk. They must have had fleas, but what could she do about that? Lloyd pulled the fat ticks from them, first sorting the bloated insects from their fur, then touching these with hot tip of an extinguished match because that made the tick’s head withdraw.
By the time I knew them, Lloyd had a steady job, and, in spite of his ongoing drinking problem, they had a roof over their heads. The house consisted of four rooms—a kitchen, a living room, and two bedrooms, one for Lloyd and Ethel and one for the kids. The kitchen faucet provided the only running water. Until the late 1960s, their bathroom was a privy located at the end of the drive.
Ethel’s refrigerator usually contained the following items: a carton of milk, white bread, Oscar Mayer bologna, and a jar of that pimento cheese spread Lloyd liked. If they weren’t drinking beer, instant coffee was their mainstay. Her dishes were chipped and mismatched. Mugs and ashtrays sported advertisements for local businesses. Salvaged jelly jars were used as glasses.
In the living room, sequined plaster cats and huge stuffed animals won at the carnival were used as decoration. I coveted these and imagined myself tossing wooden rings over the Coke bottles to walk away with a big white teddy bear or a shiny rhinestone tiara. In summer, when the carnival came to town, hawkers on the midway would always convince me to part with my quarters to try for a prize, but I never won anything.
Later, I began to hope for a boyfriend with a good arm for knocking down the kewpie dolls with a softball pitch. That never came to me either. My dates bought cotton candy to share, and we went on a few rides. Then came the exploratory kisses in the shadows near the fairground. Sometimes they hoped for more. At one time, Ethel too must have had an ardent, would-be lover. But I never made her choice. I never gave in before I was ready.
Ethel had her first child out of wedlock at eighteen. Who knows where or how my father was conceived? Maybe in the back seat of a car or in some hunter’s shack out in the woods. Perhaps under the influence of some bootleg hooch.
I don’t know what Ethel’s experience was, but here’s how I think it might have been:
At first the baby swam freely inside Ethel’s belly and his presence didn’t matter so much. She didn’t know she was about to give birth to my father. In the beginning, she may have believed that she could contain the baby there inside her. Maybe she thought that if she waited quietly, she would bleed this unknown being out of her. When the boy partially responsible for that unborn creature asked for her hand in marriage, Ethel refused him.
Why? That’s a question no one has ever been able to answer, not even her sister who was with her at the time. He was a good boy from a well-respected family. Somewhere, I have his name written on a piece of paper. My husband has even researched him on the Internet. The young man was a solid citizen with a family business and a potentially good income. Perhaps he’d been in love with Ethel, because he didn’t actually marry until he was in his 50s. Why didn’t Ethel accept him? Was there an issue of date rape? Maybe she was already in love with Lloyd, but I’m not sure she had even met him yet.
No, I think it possible that Ethel was involved in magical thinking.
There is no baby, she may have thought. The baby will not come.
But then it did come. The year was 1928. There must have been a stigma attached to Ethel’s status. She had the dubious distinction of being an unwed mother. In that world of small-town snobbery and moral indignation, any dream she harbored for respectability would have been gone.
A few years after the birth of my father, Ethel married Lloyd and went on to have ten more children, two of whom did not survive infancy. Later, the family suffered further losses. One son died while serving a stint in the army. Cause of death was listed as suffocation while sleeping. Was it really a drug overdose or alcohol poisoning? If Ethel knew the truth, she never said. Another son landed in prison. Later, he escaped from a minimum-security work project for prisoners and became a fugitive.
Meanwhile, her oldest daughter desperately tried to feed and clothe a large family with little help from a husband who was mostly away doing time. Sometimes, on a rare visit to their house, I would open the refrigerator and only find a single carton of milk inside. I remember how the kids’ feet were crusted with sores from running barefoot.
Ethel’s youngest daughter married just out of high school. While her husband Frankie did his army time in Vietnam, Penny lived at home. Hoping and praying that Frankie would survive the war, she worked to save money for the appliances they’d need to start their married life. A few weeks after his discharge, they finally set out to pick up their new refrigerator. Faulty brakes on the borrowed truck caused an accident. Penny was killed instantly at a railroad crossing as the oncoming train crushed the passenger side of the hapless vehicle. Though critically injured and hospitalized, Frankie survived. But he wasn’t able to attend the memorial for his young wife.
At Penny’s funeral, Lloyd grew more and more hysterical. He tried to take the body from the casket. He fell on the floor weeping, and had to be helped away and medicated. They buried her near the house so that Ethel could see the grave from her kitchen window.
Tim soon left home to marry his high school sweetheart. After training to be a plumber, he bought a nice house and settled himself nearby. But Ethel seemed to begin breaking down. She missed Penny so much. They had been as much like sisters as like mother and daughter.
Suddenly and finally Ethel was sad. The sorrow over Penny never really left her eyes. The cancer that started in her lungs spread to her liver and other organs. She lasted about nine months on chemotherapy. Lloyd couldn’t take being left alone. A year or so later, he blew out his brains with a pistol.
The day before Ethel’s funeral, we decided to run the river that flowed through that town in northern Wisconsin. It’s different now, but at that time, the Flambeau Flowage meandered through undeveloped tracts of evergreen forest. Periodically, its smooth, dark surface gave way to short stretches of whitewater. Like all wild and untamed streams, the Flambeau demanded attention and even obedience. It was all too easy to capsize.
In anticipation of each rapid, my father would lift the boat’s motor up out of the water. We’d aim for the deepest channel and hope for the best as we swayed and bobbed on the strong current that roared between threatening rocks. Cold spray lashed over the gunnels, but we managed to stay afloat through all the rough stretches.
Once, when we were momentarily hung up, I looked down to spot a cooler and some other gear wedged on the riverbed below us. It was ominous. The lost possessions of that previous expedition seemed to be a warning. But we pushed ourselves off the perch and floated free. Passing the tall pines that lined the banks, we rode that surface of glassy, blue-black clarity toward the end of the ride and our waiting car.
The next day, we put Ethel in the ground.
I do not forget her or that place where she’s buried. It’s still easy for me to relive the way it felt to run my fingertips over the hewn granite grave markers. I recall sunlight on the green grass—so much green—and then dissolution—a kind of letting go into non-being, a shattering of the moment. I’d close my eyes and wait for the world to compose itself once again. I can also reinvent the odors of raw alcohol and cigarette smoke on the breath and in clothing. I remember sinking my fingers into some dog’s fur as if holding on for dear life.
In death, the mutual body spreads like a thin film of oil on water with each successive color imprisoned in an iridescent band. Perhaps in life, we learn almost nothing. When we think we have an answer, it gradually slips away. Ethel must have felt this when she kissed each of her baby’s heads.
Now in Saint John, I awaken with a headache that causes my vision to waver. The world, viewed through this pain, does not seem to be organized into any coherent whole. I see patterns and energy, but the concepts don’t follow these. Finding solace in concrete objects, I locate myself on this bed, here in Canada, at a place where we have come to rest. I take some medication that will help. It has stopped raining during the night.
The doorway from this room to the next leads to a window that frames a view of the land jutting out into the sea. What is there beyond the trajectory of cliffs? Only water, fluid and deep.
Gazing from our window overlooking the port, I see that the white cruise ship moored there yesterday has vanished during the night. If we had been watching, we might have seen it go. From a distance, there would have been no sound, just the slow departure of an ocean creature moving toward some other berth or home.
Perhaps as a result of the waning headache, I’m acutely aware of light and color. Juice goblets form a composition beside our folded white napkins at breakfast, and I feel curiously distanced from the conversations going on around me. After muffins, eggs, and coffee, we rise to return to our room. I start down the hallway, feeling somewhat disoriented.
We are here, but where is this?
In deep time, the continents shift. My insignificant mass slowly shifts with them. High windows in the reception area yawn with a ghostly yellow radiance. When we return to our room, my husband turns on the television and, somewhat absently, begins watching a show being delivered in Inuit. The program is obviously about hunting because a man is pointing to some kind of animal scat in the snow. Hearing this foreign tongue makes us both feel that we have truly entered another country, a place where we understand little or nothing and where the meanings we’ve gathered simply don’t apply. Such things can happen. Somehow, though unintelligible to us, this documentary suits our mood.
Later, as we stroll through the streets of Saint John in sun, I find that I want the sensation of churches anchored with angularity against the blue sky. Narrow streets and alleys fall sharply, showing us the way to the sea. From the dock, we gaze toward the indistinct horizon. Tomorrow we will continue our journey. Most momentary details of vision or experience will be lost as we drive on.
For now, the nights will be short-lived and transitory, and dawn will illuminate my meandering discourse with the darkness. For me, this is a season of acceptance and assemblage. Periodically, I begin to have news of my own upcoming demise. Though I hope to have many more years on this blue planet, the idea of my death no longer seems incomprehensible to me. Still, my current task is simply to be here on this sun-drenched arc of land overlooking the Bay of Fundy. For some time yet, the light will always come, and I’ll still remember Ethel.
I think of Ethel most often at dusk. Ethel was not educated enough to know that the night sky harbors galaxies, pulsars, quasars, and black holes. She couldn’t have guessed about the radiant energy generated millions of years ago that finally reaches us from burned out stars which are no longer there. On clear nights, the encrypted and elemental messages of those distant beacons bear down on me, and I struggle with their undecipherable meanings. At the edges of sleep, when I reach out for Ethel, she comes. As I move towards my own oblivion, my grandmother helps me to enter the darkness without fear.