This is the story I have tried not to write for years. I have written about the death of the father of seven children, about how his wife locked herself away in her bedroom and put beer in her coffee mug in the morning in case Mrs. Harris from across the street had nothing to do but sit at her bay window and stare, and the children who had to wear socks for mitts and plastic bags to line their leaking boots, and how when my mother went to school hatless, her teacher asked her, “Where is your hat?” and she answered, “I forgot it,” and the teacher replied, “Tell your mother you need a hat,” and Mom nodded out of respect, knowing there would be no hat for her to wear. I’ve written about how I wasn’t allowed to have a pet rat in Grade eight because Mom can’t stand the sight of them, and about the time when Grandma sat down on the toilet and heard a splash and as she flushed she saw a rat spiralling down the white porcelain bowl.
This one here is the one story I kept avoiding. But then last Christmas, when my aunts came and sat in our rose wallpapered living room and my mother was hairless and glassy-eyed from chemo-brain, they told all these stories again. They told them with laughter, or with seriousness, but without anger, as if they were someone else’s stories. They told the story about the man who used to be a friend of my grandfather’s, a farmer who owned a small fruit and vegetable farm outside of town. At the beginning of the summer, after my grandfather died, the man started bringing generous bunches of carrots or radishes or kale to my grandma each week. She would invite him in for a tea, and sometimes he said yes, and she apologized about the mess and tried to throw out the Bazooka bubble gum wrappers and spilled cereal before he finished wiping his boots clean on the cocoa mat. Sometimes he said no, and Grandma was relieved, and my Aunt Glennice was delighted that she could cook fresh vegetables for supper and wouldn’t have to run to the convenience store for canned pasta because Grandma had forgotten to get groceries before the store closed. (My uncle says that Aunt Jeannette now needs to have at least two heads of lettuce going bad in the fridge at all times, just so she knows they’re there.)
When September came and the kids left their jobs in the tobacco fields and the tar from the leaves was slowly wearing away from their cuticles and they had finished painting the decrepit porch and shutters with their earnings, then the farmer came by to gently lift the brass mailbox lid without wiping his boots and left a bill charging Grandma for all of the summer’s produce. “And she paid for every last one of those vegetables, though it took her months,” Aunt Glennice said in our lamp-lit living room.
The story I’m about to tell is the one I’ve been avoiding. This one is about the family in the big house down the street. We’ll call them the Mansfields. There were three girls who were a bit older than my aunts and mother. My mom says that she and her siblings grew up knowing they were poor but not knowing how poor they were. She and her sisters would lug out plastic tubs from the basement and fill them with soap and water and sponge bathe the poorer, dirtier kids in the neighbourhood. I picture them all out in the front yard with the green garden hose and the mutt, Scamp, looping between the kids and barking while several stations are set up. My aunts and mother stand in their swimsuits, eyes squinting beneath bowl-cut bangs while the others, dressed in grey undershirts and torn shorts, step into their Ivory baptisms and shed their grime like Pig Pen stepping out of his cloud of filth.
The Mansfields would have seen this, and they also would have known that my grandma’s kids played down the ravine in Catfish Creek, where catfish can’t survive. The kids made rafts of sticks and thin logs and pop bottles while playing Huck and Finn. The Mansfield house was something else, and who knows how much of something else because most all of the houses looked like something else compared to the one in which plastic and cardboard were duct taped around the cracked bedroom windows and where the kids wore their winter coats to bed.
Mrs. Mansfield arrived at the front door one day and holding in her fists the necks of several green plastic garbage bags full of clothes that didn’t fit her three daughters anymore. “I was wondering if these would fit your girls,” she said to Grandma, who was still dressed in her yellow housecoat with pink petals. Mom, Aunt Jeannette, and Aunt Glennice came around the corner slowly and Mrs. Mansfield smiled and held out the bags for them and they took them shyly to their room and tried things on. “And we were so excited,” said Aunt Glennice. “We never got new things.”
This isn’t really quite true. My mom, the youngest girl, never got anything new. But there were a few things Aunt Glennice was given when her father was still alive—a pink cashmere sweater and a plaid coat. She also bought a pair of jeans, I know, because she was only allowed jeans with the zipper on the side. Zippers in the front were for sluts.
But the Mansfields’ clothes were “gently used” and trendy, and the girls threw shirts over their heads and pulled on still-dark denim. Many of them actually fit properly, weren’t too tight or short or tearing at the hem. When they came out of the bedroom, Mrs. Mansfield was still there. She smiled and asked, “Did you find anything you like?” and the girls nodded and said thank you. Then she turned to my grandmother.
“And how would you like to pay for these?” Mrs. Mansfield asked kindly.
The girls looked down and tried to keep their faces from turning white and prayed their mother would have the humility to refuse. “Well,” said Grandma slowly, “I don’t have enough cash to pay you up front.”
“That’s fine! I completely understand,” said Mrs. Mansfield. “Why don’t we do it in increments.”
“And she paid for every last piece,” Aunt Glennice told us. The clothes began to feel like hair shirts. They ended up in a pile at the back of the closet until the girls outgrew them.
A couple of years ago Mom was in the chemo ward, where the nurses said that she “just lit up the place” with her presence. Friends or her sisters drove her there and flipped through copies of Canadian Living while she slept. The nurses loved Mom’s wigs and we all knew the blond one might be a little too young for her, but they told her she might as well take the opportunity to find out if blonds actually do have more fun.
Mom was there one day with plastic chords plugged into her arm, and in the far corner of the room she saw Mrs. Mansfield all alone. Maybe Mrs. Mansfield is a happy person. Maybe she usually has a daughter or grandchild or neighbour and this happened to be a day when they all happened to be busy. But Mom thought Mrs. Mansfield looked worn and sad. And she couldn’t talk to her because she was sleeping in the dark corner. And she didn’t talk to her because it might bring the woman more pain than pleasure to see someone she had wronged in the past, even if she were lonely and dying now.