She Means Well

Assignment 1: University of Iowa Free Online Course How Writers Write 

I offer her a cup of tea, because this is what her type expects. Of course, she refuses in the way that people do when they want something. There is more to language than words, so I pretend not to hear her “Don’t bother,” and push myself up from the sofa.

It’s hard to be dignified with a walker, but I think I mange quite well. Eyes forward, back straight; left foot in front of right. Remember not to trip on the carpet. Six steady steps to the kitchen, or six unsteady steps to the Care Home.

Being old is a lot like being young. A single mistake can cost so much.

My daughter-in-law’s watchful eyes keep me upright. It takes so much effort to propel myself forward that a part of me wants to give up, to crash to ground.

Like before. They all thought that when I broke my pelvis, they’d get their way, but here I am, back in my apartment. This is where I plan to die.

My daughter-in-law follows me to the kitchen, but there isn’t room for two, so she presses herself against the doorframe, arms folded across her chest. Her left hand is hidden, but the chewed nails on her right hand glare at me. She offers to put on the kettle, but I stop her. The truth is, I’d rather she does it, but I know she’ll just add that to catalogue of ‘Things I can’t do on my own.’

Like I said before, the spectrum narrows with age.

Her eyes monitor my every move. The effort it takes me to keep my hands steady as I pour the boiling water from the kettle into the teapot surprises me. Life lesson: there is no crime worse than putting a teabag in a mug. I learned that and then I rushed out and bought the chipped Brown Betty from the thrift store. I only use it when she is here.

Milk in the creamer, sugar in the sugar bowl, two past-due-date biscuits on the tray, before I shuffle past her back to the sofa. She trails behind me, tongue clicking as she clears the coffee table and puts the tray down. While we wait the requisite ten minutes for the tea to steep, (not nine or eleven) my daughter-in-law casts her eyes around the small room, finally settling 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.”

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. She slops milk into her tea and sips. “That hits the spot,” she says.

“Yes,” I say, even though it’s too hot and too strong and burns my tongue. “Wonderful.”

We didn’t drink tea at my house when I was a girl. My parents were coffee drinkers. Instant. Nowadays, the faintest wisp of Nescafe transports me to girlhood.

Before Papa went away, he and Mutter sipped their coffee together every morning before he started his work. After he left forever, but only four years, Mutter always made a cup of coffee for him, but she drank it herself. Still, she had no energy. It wasn’t decaffeinated either. They didn’t have that in those days.

By the time she’d finished her own steaming mug of coffee and moved on to Papa’s, it was cold. She hated cold coffee. She hated it so much It made her cry.

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 throws back like a shot of schnapps.

“Your eye.”

I don’t understand until she pushes a tissue toward me. “It’s leaking.” I take the tissue and press it to my eye. Thank God she can’t see my other leaking parts, because even this disgusts her. I can see it in her downturned lips and hear it in her sigh. “Stop scratching. It will just make it worse.”

I take a past-use date biscuit and bite into it, chewing carefully to protect the few teeth I still have.

“Those can’t be good,” my daughter-in-law picks one up, smells it and puts it back on the plate. That’s not manners, but I hold my tongue. Mutter would have never allowed such rudeness. Or wastefulness.

My daughter-in-law pulls her phone out of her pocket and looks at it. It’s a phone and a clock and camera and a music machine. I wait. Will she make a call, show me a photo or is she checking the time? The answer comes in the form of an eye roll. “Did you make me a shopping list? I have to go soon.”

How could I have forgotten to do that? “Yes.”

She shakes her head. Holds out her hand. Her wedding ring could do with some resizing, or she could eat a little less. “Can I have it?”

“It’s on the table, I think.”

While she searches through the debris on the table for the list that doesn’t exist, I shut my eyes. I’m tired, but I also need to get away from her for a bit.

It’s a trick I often witness Mutter do; close her eyes and shut out the world. Mutter teaches me important things. “It’s okay to lie sometimes. Sometimes you have to bend the truth. Sometimes it’s a matter of life and death.”

I am never allowed to speak German, even at home, even if Mutter 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.

In Germany, my dad wore a handsome uniform, but in Canada he wears an old suit they bought at the second hand store. “Papa is a financier.”

I know this is not a good job. Other children at school have fathers with good jobs. They work in shops and hotels and drive cabs. They always have nice clothes and new shoes. Papa works at home in the kitchen alcove. His notebook bursting with columns of numbers and letters.

We don’t have many visitors in our Bloor Street apartment, but when we do, Papa trusts me to take special care of his notebook. I put it under my pillow, then l lie on my bed, reading or daydreaming until the visitor leaves.

Usually, the visitor is the landlord. He announces himself with a loud rap on the door. “Hello, Mr. Clarkson. Please come in. It’s so nice to see you.” Mutter hates Mr. Clarkson, but she always greets him as a friend.

It is my job to turn the picture on the wall above the fireplace in the living room over when someone visits. “Make sure it’s not crooked,” Mutter tells me when I am learning how to do this quickly and efficiently.

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.

I long to go across the sea to the Fatherland where everything is better, but Mutter says we can’t go until we win the war.

After Papa left for four years (but it felt like forever), I didn’t turn the picture back for days and days and maybe even months, so I got to enjoy the fields and the trees and the river and the mountains whenever I felt like it.

I hoped Mutter wouldn’t notice, but one day I came home from school, and she’d done it herself. She wasn’t happy with me. “That is supposed to be your job. You’ve let your father down.”

“Where is Papa?”

“I told you. He is away on business.” Her voice shakes and I know she’s had too many coffees.

“Don’t cry, Mutter.”

“You must call me ‘Mama’ now.” She begins to leak out of her eyes.

“But you are Mutter.” My face stings from her slap. But not for long. A cold washcloth takes care of that. Inside it hurts more. It still hurts when I think about her anger over that stupid picture on the wall.

“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.”

Adults mean well when they hide things, but they usually get it wrong.

My daughter-in-law gives me that look she saves for 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.” She’s taken the tea tray back to the kitchen and the windowsill is damp from where she’s overfilled the flowerpots. “I’ll pick up some milk and a frozen dinner for you tonight; chicken, but find that list, or else you’ll starve and if you don’t eat… well, I’ve told you what will happen if you can’t look after yourself.”

Her lips brush my cheek. I know I’m rotting on the inside. I just didn’t realize she could smell decay on my skin. The thought makes me sad. I always take such pride in how I look and I never forget to splash Eau de Toilette over my in the morning. 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.

Mutter and I go together to find material for a new dress for me once every four months with the seasons. Spadina Street is rich in garment stores. We only buy fabric that is on sale. A week before Papa came home, Mutter splurged. She bought enough material for two dresses, blue with yellow flowers on it for her and pink with white stripes for me.

On the day before Papa came home after four years (that felt like forever), I helped Mutter clean the apartment. 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 moustache that looked like a toothbrush and the bleached dead eyes sparkled the day Papa came home from camp.

On the day that Papa came home for the first time in forever, Mutter didn’t have to drink cold coffee in the morning.

She didn’t cry, not even a single tear.

I must have stretched out, because when I wake up, I’m alone. “Mutter,” I call and then I remember.

The daughter-in-law has let herself out. And just like Mutter used to do, she’s thrown a soft blanket over me to keep me warm while I sleep.

I shouldn’t be so short with her. She means well.

Off Bowen Island

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