“Strip mine your memories,” said Jake, my writing teacher. So I did. And found that, even after forty-two years, the last sight of my mother’s face still haunts me.
She lay, cocooned in pillows, dressed in a silk blouse and dark wool suit. Her cheeks glowed like marble, bloodless and cool. Her hair, combed and pinned back, made her look as if she had just visited the hairdresser. Caked with makeup, her features had been rendered smooth and ageless, a wax caricature of my real mother. The casket and its brass fittings gleamed under stained-glass fixtures set in the vaulted ceiling. Although it was a drab winter afternoon, muted yellow hues filled the corners of the room, as if it were lit by a waning fire.
I stared at her forehead, cheekbones, hair for a full minute. But could not detect evidence of the final indignities. Seeing her there, surrounded by plush fabrics, made up like a movie star, dressed in the clothes she wore to play the church organ, caused a slow bile to burn up my throat. I held her hand for a few seconds and then lifted my fingers to my nose. The embalming fluid had overwhelmed her all-too-familiar scent of bleach and Tide. I touched her cheek once and turned away.
A case of deja vu, I thought. But that made no sense. In all the fourteen years of my life, I had never been to a funeral.
I wanted to run from that muffled room, escape those oak-paneled walls. However, the brick funeral home sat in the middle of downtown Winnipeg. I had lived in the bush all my life and had no idea where to go. So I stumbled away from the casket, over to the family pew. Sat next to my youngest sister. And my eight other siblings. Through a glass block barrier which separated us from the larger sanctuary, I watched dark silhouettes file into the chapel. And remembered the last day I saw her alive.
It was the second Saturday in December, 1968. The temperature hovered near minus twenty and the dry snow squeaked underfoot. But the wind had died down during the night. I had made porridge for breakfast and fed the younger kids. After I cleaned up the breakfast dishes, I decided it had warmed up enough for a ride. Every morning, it was my job to turn out our three horses, clean stalls, and throw a timothy bale in the outdoor manger. My young mare hadn’t been ridden all week, except for short daily trips for a drink. Because our stable had no running water, we rode them after supper, down the hill to the nearby lake. I always carried an ax to chop a hole in the ice. Sometimes it took over an hour, depending on the thickness.
In the dim hallway, where I scrounged up some long underwear, I tripped over a laundry basket. Jeans, shirts, towels, and sheets splayed onto the floor. I plucked up bundles of sweat-stinky clothes and stuffed them back into the basket. Several other baskets, filled to the brim, lined the narrow entrance to our three adjoining bedrooms.
My mother called out from her bedroom at the end of the hall. “The kids don’t have anything clean for school. And it takes two days to dry everything.”
Despite my eagerness to get outside, I could not ignore the laundry, or her voice. When I entered her bedroom, I stared at the crumpled bed. She had been curled up in it for the past three days – like a fox in its den, in a fetal half-circle, hidden in a nest of sheets. The room stunk like dirty socks, sawdust, sweat, perfume.
As she spoke, she pushed strands of hair away from her red-rimmed eyes and struggled to raise herself. But she couldn’t get much higher than the pillows. Her skin resembled fireplace ashes, grey and smudged.
I said, “Right. I’ll do a few loads. Hang them outside, so they’ll freeze solid. Then I’ll crack them in half and haul them inside to dry in the back porch. Should take me all day.”
She sighed, wiped her eyes, ran her palms down her cheeks. “Where’s Val? Can’t she help?”
I wanted to spit but swallowed the phlegm. “She’s gone to Marc’s. You know, that half-wit RCMP she likes to mate.”
She sighed again and asked for a glass of water.
As I turned to fetch it, my cheeks burned with a furious pity. My mother hadn’t eaten any breakfast and probably no one had asked if she needed to go to the bathroom. My father had headed for the bush hours ago. My two older brothers, who cut and hauled logs with him, never asked if she needed anything. Several times, I had seen them giggling into their fists when our father called her a “lazy bitch.”
The previous October, he had taken our mother to a Kenora doctor. She saw this physician often, but he never questioned the recurring fractures and black eyes. The doctor resembled a car salesman, chubby and pale from too much sitting. After the examination, he declared her to be trapped in a bad menopause, caused by ten pregnancies, three miscarriages, and twenty years of overwork. He prescribed tranquilizers and told her to take it easy. Get the kids to do more.
By November, she started to fall down. Almost every day. When she collapsed, we dragged her to bed. Sometimes she stayed there. Sometimes she got up and made supper. My father took her back to the pudgy doctor and asked him to fix her so she could make meals and do laundry. Instead, the doctor committed my mother to a psych ward.
She stayed for a couple of weeks, at the same time as my best friend’s mother, Maude, who was also menopausal. After Maude’s husband had died of a heart attack, she had been diagnosed with a “nervous breakdown” and endured a series of shock treatments. She told me, years later, how the nurses forced my mother to get up out of bed and walk. Even when my mother fell down, they kept prodding her. Maude wasn’t too clear on the ugly details but I decided that my mother must have been given shock treatments, too. No adult ever told us kids the exact diagnosis.
I brought my mother a glass of water and four slices of toast covered with peanut butter and raspberry jam. While she drank and ate, I sat on the end of the bed and watched.
“Can you do the clothes?” she asked.
I glanced at the baskets in the hallway and grimaced at the injustice of it all.
“I want to ride my horse.”
“I don’t get to do what I want.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m not the mother. You are.”
She started to answer but stopped. Then she buried her face in the sheets. I could tell by the heaving motions she was crying. Her head bobbed into the thin material – silent, but violent movements. Like a swimmer breast-stroking into the waves. I felt like a shit for reminding she couldn’t do her job.
I grabbed her plate and stomped out of the room. As I headed for the dingy kitchen, I booted the row of laundry baskets. They spilled. A sour part inside me felt good about kicking dirty clothes all over the hallway.
Two hours later, I had washed and pegged four loads of laundry onto the sagging line behind the house. As I finished up the last basket, a five-point buck approached our compost pile. He dipped his head and nuzzled deep into the pile, rooting for potato and carrot peels. I stopped and walked closer. Then I picked up a browned apple slice and offered it to him. He sniffed and chomped hard. So hard the apple chunk slid from my numb fingers. I leaned over to retrieve it. The buck, irritated by my interference, reared up and stomped both of his sharp front hooves into the back of my head. The impact knocked me face first into the compost. Despite the rotten vegetables and the egg shells jammed into my mouth, and the shooting pains in my head, I yelped.
The buck spun away, back into the pine forest.
Inside the house, I washed my scraped cheeks and stared at the grainy bathroom mirror. Tears stung my eyes as I thought about the unfairness of washing other people’s dirty laundry and the unfairness of being booted face-down into half-frozen compost. By a stupid deer.
While I dried my hands, I heard muffled crying and moans. The bathroom, about the size of two kitchen tables, was attached to the left side of the entrance porch. In this twelve-by-twelve room, washing machine, tubs, closets, shelves, barrel stove, and cement cistern were crowded together. Both bathroom and porch had been added after the main house was built. To allow heat from the barrel stove to flow into the bedrooms, a rectangular hole had been cut into my parents’ room and fitted with an iron grate. The sounds emanated from this grate, near the ceiling. I wanted to stuff a blanket into it, but couldn’t figure out how to do this without setting fire to the house. The nearby stovepipe glowed from the four-foot logs I had rammed into the stove, to heat the water for the laundry.
I had heard her sobs many times before. So I hardened my heart and grabbed my barn-smelling coveralls. Shadows from the pails and tubs stacked on top of the cistern reminded me that the laundry chores had chewed up the warmest hours. If I wanted to ride in daylight, I needed to hurry. I flung open the back door and raced across the snow-packed yard. As I ran, I remembered that I had forgotten to let out the horses. My mare liked her morning feed so she might try to dump me and run back to the barn. I hardened my heart again and decided to risk it. After I bridled her, I led her outside. Then I chased the two other horses outside and pitched them a fork full of hay. As we rode through the pine forest behind our house, she tried to dump me. Twice. Because of the cold, I rode bareback so it took some fancy clinging to stay on her back. After an hour, she had tired enough to give up trying to pitch me.
By the time I entered the back porch and peeled off my coveralls, the metal stove had stopped pinging and the stovepipe had stopped glowing. The floors in the house felt stiff and cold. I could hear CBC on the television set in the living room but it appeared that no one was old enough or strong enough to throw some logs into the stove. After I loaded it, I went to check on my mother. She hadn’t moved. But she was no longer crying.
I started peeling potatoes.
After about half an hour, my two older brothers and my father returned. Tired and chilled from their day in the bush, they wanted food, and lots of it. They devoured moose stew and mashed potatoes, and left the kitchen. My father went into the far bedroom to nap and my brothers went into the living room to watch CBC with the younger kids. Everyone assumed that I would clean up the kitchen, even though I still had to water the horses and bed them down for the night. No one else wanted to go outside. The temperature had dropped, below minus twenty-five.
When I got back from the lake, I brushed the rim of frost from my scarf and hood, and removed stiff layers of barn clothes. Through the grate above the stove, I could hear my father and two older brothers laughing.
“She hasn’t got out of bed all day,” my father said.
“It’s Saturday. She wants a day off.” My brother, Ernest, a year and half older than me, said this quietly, as if unsure of he should agree with my father.
A chair slammed against the wall. “Nope, she’s faking. AND she’s a lazy bitch!”
My oldest brother, John, taller and broader than my father, could drive a pulp truck and work as hard as a grown man. He said, “Maybe it’s time to go back to the doctor. I could take her into town tomorrow morning.”
“And get her to buy Christmas presents. I don’t know who the hell is going to look after all that crap.”
I heard the sound of sheets being yanked.
“Look at that! She’s pissed herself. Ernie, get your sister.”
As I hung up the last of my outdoor clothes, Ernest came into the porch and gestured for me to follow him.
“I heard what you said. More laundry for me.”
When we went into my parents’ room, my father had already cleared the blankets off the bed. My mother sat on the edge of the bare mattress, shivering and mumbling.
“That’s it. Get her ready. We’re going to the hospital. Let that idiot doctor worry about piss-stained sheets.”
He grabbed the bundle of bedding. Then he looked at us, swore, and stomped out of the room. John followed.
After I pulled clothes out of drawers and closets, my brother and I started dressing her. Though we didn’t know it, it was to be our last physical contact with her. Ernest complained about this unmanly chore, but, to me, it seemed beyond funny.
As we stripped off her damp nightgown, I laughed. As I cupped her breasts into a bra and he fastened it at the back, I laughed. As we hoisted up her underpants, zipped up wool slacks and pulled on a thick sweater she had knitted, I laughed. As I knelt at her feet and rolled up her socks, I laughed.
When I sent Ernest to fetch her winter coat and boots, I cried.
She looked at me for half a minute but her eyes could not focus. Outside the window, I heard the old station wagon rumbling, so I sent Ernest to tell our father she was ready. When he came back into the bedroom, huffing from the cold, we wrapped her arms over our shoulders and lifted her up. With one kid jammed under each armpit, we walked her out to the Chevy.
Then we sat at home and waited.
A week before Christmas, she died. They had found the brain tumour. But it was too late. As I said, I saw her face one last time, at her funeral, the day before Boxing Day. She did not resemble the woman we had carried out to the car.
So what do I do with these memories now, Jake? Oh yeah, I forgot.
I write a story.
Donna Besel lives in a rural community and writes fiction and nonfiction for various publications. Her writing has accumulated numerous honours, including nominations for CBC’s Literary Awards and “Canada Writes” competitions. She teaches creative writing workshops to all ages and has instructed groups on art, music, outdoor activities, and trauma.