Between the offer of a cup of tea and her departure there exists a lifetime of untold stories.
You don’t want to hear my stories either. When I was young, I didn’t care about much about my grannie’s blue-haired friends. I knew how to be polite though, how not to scrunch my nose up at their smell, or recoil in horror if my hand happened to brush the surface of their thin, yellow and blue skin.
She had no concept of decorum. I can see the dislike in her green eyes and cat-like smile. You know, it’s unnerving when she stands behind me. If you find me in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the stairs one day, look to her. One push is all it would take. It would be a gentle shove, so as not to leave even the tiniest bruise on my skeleton.
Of course she has no idea that I am afraid of her. Please don’t breathe a word, Mutter.
But you can’t. I buried you in the ground, after you buried yourself in the politics of war. Mutter, I always understood why we had no visitors. I played along with your stories and pretended to understand what you meant when you said it was okay to tell lies. Sometimes. Sometimes you said, it could be a matter of life and death.
We are in the kitchen and Papa is behind me. He watches me put on the kettle and my hands are shaking. We drink coffee, not tea. Tea is for them.
But it’s not Papa whose critical eyes burn a hole in my heart. I buried him in the ground after he buried us in the lies.
Don’t tell, but I hated him for what he did to Mutter. He made her cry. Even after they took him away. We got a teapot and Mutter taught me to make tea the English way. Boil the water. Warm up the teapot. Use loose-leaf tea and let it steep for ten minutes. Not nine or eleven. Milk, not cream and sugar into the cup first. Pour the tea. Pretend to like it.
My daughter-in-law is pleased that I make tea properly. At least I won’t ever embarrass her again by putting the milk in after I’ve poured her tea. It was a terrible day, the day I sinned over the teapot.
Now, she watches me, waiting for mistakes. No, I’m not being paranoid. She’s waiting for me to trip or spill or choke or forget my way into a Home for the Aged. You know, what I tell myself? Remember not to trip on the carpet. Six steady steps to the kitchen, or six unsteady steps to the Care Home.
Don’t kid yourself. Being old is a lot like being young. You have no say. I am not the boss of me.
“Do be careful,” she orders. “You don’t want to break your pelvis again.”
I demure but inside I shout at her. “This is where I plan to die. Broken or whole, you’ll never get me out of here again.”
Her watchful eyes narrow. Oh My. Did I speak out loud again?
Tea? Is she deaf?
“Don’t bother. I’ll pour.”
That I ignore. It’s very rude. She’s not polite for such a proper woman. Mutter would scold me if I’d behaved that way. Sometimes Mutter could be strict. She admired the man with the toothbrush mustache and he preached law and order, rules and regulations.
Mouth washed out with soap. Never say that word in our house. Never say Nazi. Do you want to get us arrested?
Of course, you know the camp they sent Papa too was an internment camp? The RCMP deemed him a danger to Canada.
What? Of course he was. Papa was a danger to Mutter and to me and to our poor cat.
She can be critical too. Where is my son? Why am I stuck with his snotty wife every day?
While we wait the requisite ten minutes for the tea to seep, (not nine or eleven) my son’s wife bites her nails. My poor son.
Will he visit me?
For a brief moment, I think she looks sad. He’s very busy. He sends his love.
She casts her eyes around the small room. Her left leg bounces up and down. Why won’t she look at me? Finally she settls on the six plants that line the windowsill. “Have you watered those this week?”
“Yes,” I say, meaning no.”
“Oh,” she says, “I’ll do it before I leave.”
You think she is kind to visit me? If you think that, you don’t understand. She doesn’t care about me. She always makes the tea too hot and it burns my tongue. Too hot and too strong.
Of course I don’t complain. It’s wonderful, I say while the scalding liquid burns the inside of my mouth and scorches my throat.
Wonderful says my daughter-in-law. I let her pour the tea. It’s a small concession, but I won’t risk a life sentence in a care home over Earl Grey. “That hits the spot,” she says.
She tricked me though. She gave me my tea and it was cold. I spat it out. You know she pretended it hadn’t happened at all. Sorry is what she said, as if it had been an accident. I didn’t want you to burn your mouth.
I pretended not to hear her, just like I did if I heard people speaking German on the streets in Toronto. Muter said never let anyone know that you speak German. I am never allowed to speak German, even at home, even if Muter and Papa whisper to each other in the old tongue, when they think I can’t hear them. Walls are thin when ears are young. MuterPapaWhereismySonandwhatisthisfatgirldoinginmylivingroomwedidintdrinkteawhenIwasagirlwedrankcoffee.
Get your hands off me I told her. She said I was slurring my words and that she was concerned about me. Ha. Any excuse to shuffle me off to a home. Why are you areyou wearing a uniform?
Papa loved his Instant coffee. Here, Papa. Nescafe. Drink it while it’s hot. Papa why did you go away for four years that seemed like forever?
My daughter-in-law doesn’t drink Instant. She has a bad-tempered machine that spits out droplets of dark coffee into tiny cups, that she throw back like a shot of schnapps.
I caught her wiping my face as if I were a child. I pushed her hand way. Don’t touch me. Then there is a teardrop on my face. I’m leaking. Everywhere. But I hide the private leaks. A grown woman shouldn’t be in diapers.
Will you have a biscuit? Chew carefully. I miss teeth. What, it’s not old. Those past due dates mean nothing. You know, she smells her food before she puts it in her mouth, as if I’m going to poison her. Muter would have never allowed such rudeness.
They all throw out food, that generation. Even my son. Dear boy. Mutter did not approve of wasting food. What’s that thing? It doesn’t look much like a phone to me. My daughter-in-law has one. Is yours a cameral too? Did you now that she can tell the time and take pictures with hers?
The shopping list? It’s on the table. That’s what I said, even though it wasn’t. Even though I’d forgot to make one. I don’t care. Things are missing. Like my taste buds, but don’t tell her. Don’t tell anyone.
Secret: I was relieved when Papa went away forfouryearsthatfeltlikeforever. He wears an old suit Mutter found in the second hand store. It smells like mothballs. I know they are lying when they tell me that Papa is a financier.
Wash out mouth with soap. Never say that word. I spy with my little eye. I can’t play that game because I can’t say that word. No wonder the other kids don’t like me. I wish we were like them.
You! You there! Where is Papa’s special book? You can’t touch it. It belongs under my pillow. PAPA TRUSTS ME TO TAKE CARE OF HIS NOTEBOOK.
I’m not shouting, you silly girl. Take your hands off me.
Where am I? It doesn’t matter. Where was I? Ah. I remember. Back then.
Mutter can be bossy. When someone does come over, I have to flip the picture of the funny, mean little man over. “Make sure it’s not crooked,” Mutter tells me. “Be quick about it.”
I am happy to turn it over because I prefer the picture on the reverse side. A tall, leafless tree stands in the middle of field of flowers. A wide river flows beside it and in the distance gentle slopes roll into tall mountains. A lone bird soars in the blue, cloudless sky.
Mutter cut it out of a magazine. She says the original is even more beautiful, but I can’t believe that. She says it hangs in a gallery in Dresden, across the sea and maybe one day she will take me to see it.
Thank goodness Papa is gone for fouryearsthatseemlikeforever.
No more Hitler. Oops. I didn’t say that. Sorry.
Did I tell you that my Papa is away? Yes, he’s away on business.
Where is Papa?
I told you. He is away on business. ARE YOU DEAF?
My daughter-in-law’s voice voice shakes and I know she’s had too many coffees. No. Wrong. She drinks tea. It’s Mutter.
Don’t cry, Mutter.
“You must call me ‘Mama’ now.”
But you are Mutter. Even if you hit me, I will never think of you as Mama.
Wake up! I open my eyes. Mutter. I know you wanted to protect me, but you should have told me. I know who that man in the picture was.
My daughter-in-law hates it when I get mixed up in time. As if it’s a crime to go backwards now and again. “I wasn’t asleep.”
“No matter. I can’t find the list and I have to go.” Gibberish.
Her lips brush my cheek. She winces. I know I’m rotting on the inside. She smells the rot. Mutter taught me to be clean. She taught me to sew when she found out that the girls at school teased me about my clothes.
Do you remember your mother?
Ah, we used to go to the stores on Spadina. Oh, if you could have seen the fabrics. We bought special material for when Papa came home. Mutter made a dress for me and a dress for her. Blue with yellow flowers for her and pink with white stripes for me. On the day that Papa came home forthefirst time in forever, Mutter didn’t have to drink cold coffee in the morning. I never saw her cry again.
The day before Papacamehome after fouryearsthatfeltlike FOREVER, I dusted the picture that hung on the wall over the fireplace and Mutter gave me a cloth soaked in vinegar to clean the glass. Even the man in the picture with the funny mustache that looked like a toothbrush and the bleached dead eyes sparkled the day Papa came home from camp.
You know who that was, right?
How was my mum today?
Drifting in and out. Lot’s of talk about her past and her parents. I hardly understood a word she said.
Thanks for visiting her.
It’s okay. I like your mother. But you know, it’s you who she would’ve like to have seen. Not me.
There is lots of time for that. I’ll try and go next week.
The daughter-in-in-law nodded. The daughter-in-law even smiled.
She’d covered the Old Biddy with a blanket before she left. Then she’d realized her mistake and taken it off. She’d hoped her husband would be the one to find her. But
a week was a long time for a body to laze at the foot of the stairs.
The daughter-in-law said,
Don’t worry, Honey. I’ll pop in and see her in a few days. In the meantime, how about a glass of wine?