BY TRISH KNOX
Copyright is held by the author.
SYLVIE GLANCED around her mother’s living room. She’d known this day would come — in fact it had been coming for months, like a demon prowling. Memory snatcher. Soul ripper.
She’d known, so why was she sitting here in a trance, like a child needing further instruction?
She knew what she had to do, she had a systematic plan in place for packing. Sunshine streamed into the room, bouncing off the window of the corner china cabinet and blinding her. In the sunlight, the antique cabinet stood proud, the grand dame of the living room. Sylvie would lay out each piece of china and crystal from her mother’s modest collection and take pictures so her brothers and sisters could claim the items they wanted. Then she would pack it all up, carefully placing the delicate china away. It seemed so easy in her head.
Her gaze travelled to the family photos scrolling across the digital frame her mother never could quite figure out how to operate. Smiling faces seemed all wrong in this room now. She leaned over and flipped the switch, watched the frame go black.
She stood; there was no avoiding what she had to do any longer. In her mother’s bedroom she couldn’t help the instinct to smooth the wrinkled bedspread into place. Chanel No. 5 lingered, destined to forever dress the room even though her mom was gone. “We may not have any money Sylvie, but we sure have class,” her mother used to say. This was inevitably followed by a whispered, “Every woman needs a little Chanel.” And Sylvie always acted like she’d never heard that line before.
Here is where Sylvie would begin. Here was the hardest place. If she could do this, she could face the rest. She opened the drawer to her mother’s nightstand and reaching in, carefully laid out the rosary beads and prayer books. She placed them in the “keep” file at her feet.
In the silence, she sorted through the bank slips and junk haphazardly crammed in with personal mementos. There was a $50 bill and by her quick count about $300 of gift cards her mom had stuffed away. A year’s worth of visa bills. And teabags. A spatula.
She smiled as she caught sight of her mother’s retirement certificate from the Westminster school board. Twenty-seven years. That was a long time. But missing in that formality was the script that went with it. How in that time she’d raised six children, battling with her bank account so they could stay in their family home despite the money her husband squandered away.
Sylvie did the calculations in her head. What sort of salary would a school secretary in the 1970s have made? She now understood her mother’s many struggles. Take for instance, the everyday task of preparing a family dinner. Sylvie would rather face a room full of screaming toddlers then make dinner every night. It had become the stuff of family tales, her brothers teasing her mom about how she could squeeze three dinners out of one package of ground meat. “Mystery” dinners they called them. Sylvie didn’t get it, those meals had always worked for her. And she wished her 17-year-old brain had known what her 48-year-old brain knew now — making dinner every night for six children deserved a hero’s medal.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she sifted through the photos. She lost track of time as she looked at her mom sitting with her co-workers; the one of her friend, Ellen, hugging her. That night the accolades had flown. Over and over “What would we have done without Jules!” rang out. They lauded her quick mind, razor sharp wit, her attention to detail. There was a picture of their family, all six of her children gathered for their mother’s big day, her father absent, as he had been when he lived with them.
She slipped the elastic from the last stack of photos. A note slid into her lap, the paper parchment thin and yellowed with time. Sylvie carefully unfolded the note and read the scrawling handwriting.
Dear Jules: I received your request for shelter at the Sisters of the Sacred Heart Convent and wanted to let you know we have two beds for you and the older children to share as well as three trundle beds for your little ones. We look forward to your arrival. Sister Mary Margaret will meet you at the train station to make the trip to the convent.
The postscript displayed an address in the Laurentians.
Sylvie frowned at the date neatly written in the top corner. June 14, 1969. She would have been only three years old. Her youngest brother barely a year. A convent in Quebec, a whole province away. The word shelter screamed out at her. She thought of all the years in between the writing of the letter; their home an arena for vicious battles, great stand-offs and the silent accusations that flew between her parents. She flipped through the stack of photos and papers but found nothing more.
Sylvie folded the letter back up. Her mom had tried to leave her dad almost fifty years ago! She’d sought refuge in a convent. Sylvie sat searching her memory only she had no memory to grab onto of a time as a three year old in a convent with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.
She picked up her cell phone and punched in her sister’s number. Surely, Beth would know. She was five years older and the keeper of all family folklore. Her sister could tell you what day and the precise time each of the McKinnon children had been born. The family statistician on every broken bone, hospital visit, championships and awards. She was pretty sure she could recite the exact time of day Sylvie’s own three children had been born, facts Sylvie herself was unsure of.
No answer. She tossed the phone down in disgust. What good were those things if no one ever used them for talking?
She sat in the stillness of the unlived-in room. There was so much she didn’t know. And she felt an overwhelming need to be with her mother, to talk to her, to hear her voice, have her explain this parchment version of their family history.
She stood, the collection of papers and photos falling around her. She couldn’t be here any longer. The rest of the packing would have to wait. She gathered up the photos, tucked the letter into her purse. In the living room she glanced at her father’s ashes in the china cabinet, then she shrugged into her coat and grabbed the ‘keep’ box on her way out the door.
The opening piano chords to Say Something filled the silence as she maneuvered the SUV through familiar roads. Even her daughter, Sydney, had declared the Lexus sound system was the bomb. Sylvie belted out the tune. In her car she was a rock star. A diva.
Fifteen minutes later she pulled into the parking lot at Eden Park as she did every day. “Say something I’m giving up on you.” She couldn’t sing anymore because she was crying. Anything could bring on the tears. Morning light. Midnight. Coming home. Cheesecake.
She smiled absently at the front desk receptionist as she entered the building, crossing the foyer to press the elevator key. She needed to talk to her sisters and brothers. Was she the only one who couldn’t remember something so monumental? How come they never talked about this?
Her heels clipped away on the tile as she hurried along and turned into the room at the end of the hallway. She set the carton on the window ledge, took off her coat and laid it on the armchair in the corner. Slowly she approached the bed and the silent figure lying in it.
“Hi Mom, it’s me, Sylvie.” Eyes, dim and watery, fluttered open.
“Hi Mom,” Sylvie said again. No answer. And the empty stare that broke her.
“I brought you more of your things from home.” She began to unpack the photos, the prayer books and rosary, and wondered, how was it that your life came down to one cardboard box?
She turned at the soft swish of shoes on the floor. “She sure didn’t like her shower today.” Susan, the caregiver on night shift waved a blanket then dropped it on the foot of the bed. “That one went missing for a few days but we tracked it down in Mrs. Moore’s room.” She lowered her voice, “She had a whole collection of things, it’s amazing what we find in her room — shoes, pillows, even another resident’s end table!” Mrs. Moore was the patient two doors down from her mom. Sylvie figured her wandering tendencies would soon mean a ticket to the lock down ward for the more severe dementia patients.
Sylvie nodded. “I’m sure she didn’t like the shower.” She thought of how vulnerable her mother looked every time they fastened her inanimate body into the mechanical lift that made Sylvie think of a crane on a construction site, carrying her from her bed to deposit her in her wheelchair. Those were the only times she cried out. Sylvie couldn’t imagine how she might react to being naked in a shower.
She could hear her mother’s voice when the kids had MuchMusic on the big screen tv in the family room. “In our day, a lady modestly covered her body.” She’d shake her head at the way girls “flaunted themselves these days” as she put it. “What should a young man look forward to then?” she’d ask.
Sylvie glanced at her purse. The letter peeked out at her. She looked down at her mother. So many answers lay in that vacant stare.