His father had been in the hospital, so he had come home for a visit, to see how the old man had fared with his bout of hospital grub. The father had come home after a five-day ordeal of poking and prodding and suffering all manner of indignities at the hands of an overburdened health care system. He was well enough, the son knew that, but he still thought a visit was in order.
So he'd closed up his little business at noon on Friday and departed for his old hometown, the place where he had been born and come of age. And it was pleasant just to know that he was escaping his usual responsibilities as he headed out onto the open road, but to know that he was again going home made it feel all that much more so. Because no matter where he'd gone in his life, and no matter what had become of him, he'd always been able to find his way home. And that place was most important to him, almost as if he must visit it again every so often or be robbed of his spiritual strength.
And so he again came home, and he found his parents together, as they'd always been, seemingly since the beginning of time. He sat with them and they watched television and bantered back and forth, and it was good to be together again. But he was anxious also to see what had become of the old hometown since his last trip home, so that after he had visited with his parents for a reasonable length of time, he donned his coat and went out into the night. He made the usual rounds, but discovered there was no one of his acquaintance in any of the downtown establishments, so he stopped only briefly for a cup of tea, before again walking the familiar route home. He'd not been gone long, so he suspected his parents would still be up when he got back. He came in through the kitchen door, the way he'd always entered back when he was a boy, and was surprised to see his mother sitting at the kitchen table, surrounded only by her scrapbooks, his father nowhere to be seen.
"Where's Dad?" he asked, as he hung his coat on a hook behind the door. "Oh, he's still not feeling right after the hospital," his mother answered, glancing up only briefly from the task she was involved in. "He was tired so he went to bed." "I'm a little tired myself," he said, making his way across the kitchen where he filled the kettle with water and placed it on the stove to boil. "But I think I'll have a cup of tea before bed." There was a silence as his mother continued to work on the scrapbooks, and he fussed about fixing his tea. "What are you doing?" he finally asked, as he stood waiting on the kettle. "Oh, I'm just trying to catch up putting some of this stuff into the scrapbooks," she answered. "I've got to try to keep up with it, or it gets to be too much to do all at once." The water boiled and he made the tea. "You know, we're really lucky that you take such an interest in family affairs," he said. "If it wasn't for you, all of this stuff would be lost." He gestured toward the scrapbooks. "I think it's important that somebody does it," his mother answered, "but I worry about what will happen to it when something happens to me. Who would want all this old junk? Most of it wouldn't even mean anything to most people." There was a seriousness to her voice so that it sounded almost in earnest. "Don't you worry, Mom, we'll look after it," he assured her, feeling it was what was expected of him, but also not sure he meant it. And he took his tea and headed into the living room to watch a little TV. "I hope so," his mother answered, as he left her. "I hope so," he heard her repeat, as he switched on the television.
The following afternoon, he found himself unoccupied. His plans to visit an old friend had fallen through, and his parents had gone out, so he was alone. He sat and watched TV for a while, and he browsed through several magazines, but he felt restless. Finally, he went into the kitchen to make himself a cup of tea. As he stood waiting for the kettle to boil, he noticed that his mother had left a couple of her scrapbooks on the counter, obviously not having finished bringing them up to date. He went over to them and regarded them. He had long known his mother maintained the family albums and scrapbooks, because he'd watched her working over them when he'd been a boy. She had often spent a quiet evening toiling over her extended family's history, as her own tiny part of that family were involved in other activities throughout the house. And each time there was a birth or death or some other significant life event, even of the most obscure relative, she scurried uptown to get a copy of the local paper so she could clip the notice and dutifully tape it into the appropriate scrapbook. And at every family gathering, she could be seen, camera in hand, photographing this and that and all manner of things, just to be sure there was a record of the event. But in all these years, he'd never even looked into one of his mother's books, and had never even given them much of a thought. It was like he didn't really care what was in them -- why should he? After all, he didn't even know most of the people whose lives were recorded on their pages. Now, though, as he stood waiting for the kettle to boil, he lifted the cover of one of the books that was sitting on the counter.
The first thing he saw was a black and white picture of a boy in a Boy Scout uniform, standing at attention, erect and tall, a bugle to his lips. It was his Dad. He searched his memory to try to remember how old he'd been when he'd been in Scouts himself. Thirteen maybe fourteen. He studied the photo and saw his father as a young boy, proud and filled with the cockiness of youth. He looked into the background in the picture, wanting to know more about the circumstances surrounding its taking. What had the weather been like on that day? Who had taken it? Where was his father going? What was he thinking? The questions coursed through his mind. He turned to the second page of the scrapbook, and saw a photo of a little girl, bundled up against the cold, sitting in a child's sleigh with snow piled high all around. He was sure the little girl was his mother. Again, he wondered about the circumstances surrounding the taking of the picture. He wondered what life had been like back in those other, olden days. He slowly turned the pages as he sipped his tea. He didn't know most of the people in the photos during the early going. But, finally, he came across the section where his own history began -- photos from his first birthday, an early Christmas, and other highlights of his early life. He continued to turn the pages and watched as he and his brother and sisters passed through the early years of their lives. Almost every significant event in their childhood had been carefully documented in the scrapbooks. He felt some emotion as he gazed upon the photos, and saw what had once been, but was no more. He felt strangely sentimental. But he shook it off. That kind of stuff isn't for me. That's what he thought.
Finally, he finished the tea and decided on a walk uptown. He walked quickly as if he had a purpose, which he really didn't, so that he ended up walking uptown in short order. He found his way into a main street cafe, although he hesitated to think of it as a cafe because that term elicited images of establishments located in the trendy areas of trendy towns and cities, and he certainly had no illusions that this particular town, where he had come into being, was in any way trendy. Still, the sign said it was a cafe. The place was crowded, but he waded in and was soon standing, holding the fixin's for a cup of tea, looking about for somewhere to sit. There were few empty seats, but he was gradually able to make his way to one in a far-off corner, sitting heavily in a heap as he came to rest. And even as he sat, he became immediately aware of another, who was sitting across the table from him.
He looked up to see an older woman, probably about his mother's age, purse clutched tightly on her lap. She watched him through thick, heavy glasses. At first, he tried to evade her stare, but it was difficult because of their close proximity. Then, as he sat and regarded his tea, the only place he felt he could comfortably look, he thought he heard her stifle what might have been a sob. He surreptitiously watched her out of the corner of his eye, as she produced a Kleenex from her purse and dabbed at her face. Obviously, it was a private moment for her and he felt he was intruding into it. But it seemed there was no way he could easily withdraw. "Are you okay, ma'am?" he asked, after a couple of moments made long by the awkwardness of the situation. He also finally looked straight at her, no longer trying to avoid her. "Are you okay?" he repeated. She looked back at him, sadness in her face, although he had seen no trace of it earlier when he'd first sat down. She continued to apply the tissue to her face. "Are you okay?" he asked again. "Yes," she answered. "I'm just being a foolish, old woman." "What makes you say that?" he asked, more out of politeness than from sincere desire to know.
"I was sitting here watching you make your tea -- you know the way you make it in the pot, instead of the cup like most people," she said. "My friend, Edie, made it that way. It made me think of her. That's all." "Your friend, ma'am?" he asked, surprised that he did. "Yes......Edie," she replied, and it was obvious that she experienced another moment of reflectful unhappiness at the remembrance. "She died?" he asked uncertainly, not sure if he should. "No," she answered with quivering lips. "Oh, no," she sobbed. "She's in the Home. She's in the home, the poor dear." He wasn't sure he understood, felt like he was missing something. "In the home?" he asked. She seemed to see that he was confused. "The Nursing Home," she said. "My poor Edie's in the Nursing Home. She broke her hip -- she's had brittle bones for some time now -- it's a disease -- and her family clapped her in that place faster than you could say I don't know what." He sat quietly, unsure what to say, seeing that her talking seemed to calm her. "We went to grade school together," the old woman continued.
"Edie and I were best friends way back when. We married and buried our husbands together -- got married in a double ceremony because it was cheaper back then -- and the both of those men, why their hearts gave out within six months of each other. Lived in the same neighborhood. Why, there hasn't been one important thing in all of sixty years that I haven't talked to my Edie about. But I haven't seen her once these last six months, except when they had her birthday at the church, and I was too ashamed to even say hello that time." "Can't she have visitors?" he asked innocently. "You could go and visit her," he suggested. The old woman shrank back into her seat as if he had said something she found offensive. The tears started to return. "I'm sorry," he offered, feeling that perhaps he should make his exit and leave her to her troubles; that perhaps he had already said more than he should. She dabbed at her face, up under the heavy, thick glasses, trying to get at the tears before they traced their way down her face. "I can't visit," she said quietly. "Why?" he asked. Her weeping subsided somewhat. "I just can't go in that place," she said, and her voice remained quiet and unsure.
He didn't say anything. Took a sip of his now cold tea. "There's too much death," she said. "My father ended up in a place like that and it was sad to watch him go. They're places where the old go to die and there's no other reason for them. They can call them what they like. Sunnybrook Haven -- and it might just as well be Heaven. They're filled with suffering and sorrow and I can't watch Edie in such a place." He sat in quiet, listening as it poured out of her -- the pent-up feelings she held toward the nursing home gushing out, spilling over and showing how she truly felt. "Darned that Edie," the old woman hissed through tightly clenched teeth. "She always had to be firsting me at everything in life, but I'd hoped to first her here. Now she's gone and left me. All alone. All alone." And there was another outpouring of grief. "It's hard," he murmured, knowing she did not hear, and saying the words more for his own benefit. He watched her wallow in true misery, unable to find her way back to normal emotion. He found he reached out over the table and took her hand, giving it a gentle squeeze.
Finally, the old woman seemed somewhat comforted, so that her weeping subsided, not that it had ever been anything but a slight sobbing that had not distracted those others who were at their coffee and muffins. "Listen, young man, you're very kind to pay attention to the mutterings of this old fool," she said, "but you should know that it happens so very fast." "What?" he asked. "What happens so fast?" "It's as if one moment you're walking in the meadow with your beau, and there's been a gentle summer rain, and you're young and strong," she said quietly but firmly. "Then, quick as a wink, you're gnarled and old, and the summer has turned to fall, and there's more than a hint of winter in the air, and with winter comes death. It happens so very fast. You must know that." He looked up to see the old woman, and it was as if she was all wisdom and knowledge, and gone was the sobbing, old wretch from just a few moments past. She was noble and grand for the time he regarded her, and had perhaps delivered her purpose in life in that one tiny kernel of truth.
He said nothing, but finally looked away. And when he looked back, she was again who she had been and was caught up in trying to return her Kleenex to her purse. "I really must go," she said, and she was again uncertain and seemingly unnerved by all that surrounded her. "I really must go," she repeated, pulling her coat about her, and rising to her feet, almost taking the table cloth with her. He reached forward and steadied the table, holding it for her while she maneuvered out from behind it. "Thank you, young man," she said, as she passed to exit the place. "I'm afraid I wasn't much help," he answered. "I should perhaps thank you." "You were all the help I needed," she said. "A shoulder to cry on."
And so it was that she left the small town cafe and he was left to contemplate his tea and to wonder at what she had said. He wondered what it must be like to have reached such an age where you know that the reaper stalks you on a nearly daily basis, and there is nowhere to hide from his awful gaze and he waits for a hip to break or contentment to disburse, so that he can take you while you are down and he knows you will not fight so hard to hold tight to life even realizing it for what it is. He thought of the woman's dilemma at not being able to visit her lifelong friend because she could not face the death that also resided at her accommodation. He got up from the table in a sober and serious mood, and he found that he was anxious for the outside air. He gulped in huge lungfuls of the stuff and the winter's cold made him cough and sputter slightly.
He made his way back home. Into the bosom of his family. Later that night, he and his Dad were immersed in watching the season's sports offering on television. It was a rare visit home when there wasn't the ritual of watching a sporting event on the tube with his father while his mother slept in the rocking chair. On this night, however, he had other plans. He disappeared out into the night during a break in the game, and soon re-appeared carrying his camera case. He set it down, and withdrew his camera from it. His father looked on, a puzzled expression on his face. He put his finger to his lips, indicating that the old man should wait and see what might happen. He attached the camera's flash unit to it, and focused in on his sleeping mother. His father gave him a queer look, but said nothing. He clicked the shutter, causing the flash to explode and fill the living room with brilliant light. His mother awoke, startled.
"What are you doing?" she asked, pulling her housecoat closer up around her. "Taking your picture," he answered, smiling. "Why?" she asked, but she also smiled. "Why are you taking a picture of me sleeping in the chair?" "It's for the scrapbook," he answered. "The scrapbook?" she asked. "Yes," he answered. "It's one of my memories of you. I want a picture of it in the scrapbook." "Since when do you care what's in the scrapbooks?" she asked. "Just since," he answered. "Thank you," she said quietly. "You should go to bed," his father told her. "No, I'm comfortable right here," she said, and she offered another glimpse of her warm smile. "She'll have a sore neck in the morning," his father warned -- and probably she would.
But maybe it wouldn't matter. Maybe she had found a new keeper of the scrapbook. She might wonder why and even he might wonder why, because there was no certain answer. Whether the scrapbooks or the old woman or whatever, he now sensed his mortality. And what did that mean but that he would try to live his life more carefully and to study it more closely so as to overlook nothing. It turned out his mother was able to identify the old woman he'd met uptown in the cafe fairly easily. He explained to his mother the good woman's difficulty at not being able to visit her lifelong friend in the nursing home, and before you could say 'how about a little neighborly help', the Ladies' Aid had sprung into action, and regular visits away from the home were arranged. It was a blessing, the old woman said -- truly a blessing.
So, he got to feel good as he settled back into his usual routine upon his return home -- albeit a few days late. He thought he had done something positive on the visit. And that must count for something. Mustn't it?
John Gardiner is a Canadian short story writer who believes strongly in the goodness of art. He writes "adult fables" that try to make the reader feel more strongly for the people around them in life, and to think about how they live. He has self-published four collections of short stories, including "Memories for Sale", and has had work featured in a variety of Canadian dead tree literary mags. He has freelanced work onto Canadian public radio (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and into many newspapers. Since going on-line three years ago, John has published a great many of his short stories in electronic magazines, including "Richmond Review," "Oyster Boy Review" and "Southern Ocean Review." His first novel is currently being serialized on-line in the "Seeker Magazine" and his stories have twice been nominated for "Best on the Net" awards.
Once Upon a Visit|
Age of Interconnectedness
Paris A La Fantastique
|The Ten Commandments
of Creative Women