The fall my grandmother, Sara, was seventy-nine was the last year she spent time in her garden. She’d spent decades coaxing plants to grow on the cliff that overlooks the small coastal village of Lund, BC. Like every fall, she raked together the crisp detritus of summer, dried leaves, twigs, dead grass, scooped everything into a ring of stones and set the pile on fire. Only this time, as she stood in front of the flames under the twisted arms of an arbutus tree, she held a cardboard box filled with photographs. One by one, she tossed the pictures into the ring of stone and watched all her memories turn to ash.
She’d kept her memories in a cardboard box: sepia toned images of her father, her childhood nanny, her sister, pictures of her two daughters, her husband, their cabin on Vancouver Island, some taken before colour film was available. There were pictures that I would have recognized: my parent’s house in Campbell River; my mother with raven hair and red lips, holding me, a tiny bundle. Photos of her grandchildren, their children. In the space of ten minutes, she destroyed all her photographic records, as if that would erase something, us, or who she was, lift some kind of burden or staunch some kind of wound. She did it long before she died, so it wasn’t a last wish or a final stab. She erased years, extinguished people and memories, transformed time into smoke.
Most of us want some record of who we were. We keep notes, or diaries, use the word posterity, and hope that our children will care enough to treasure our mother’s tea set, our father’s tools, our own cache of books. Sara left only an empty frame.
She died in 2002, in a decent care home, in her sleep. She was ninety-two, tiny and had daily tested the nurses who looked after her. Sara had been so damned tenacious, an angry, pink-cheeked misery to the end but I loved her beyond reason, understood her deep offense at the world, and knew how much she cared about me. When I was small, she pinned brown tissue patterns to my overalls, draped silky fabric into necklines and skirts, made dresses that as a farm girl, I rarely wore. She poked, turned and prodded me, lips bristling with pins and objections, her hands firm and fragrant with the residue of lavender or rosemary.
Sara taught me that strident calls for fairness and logic in the world went unheeded when made in anger, her frustration so great that no one could rally around such negativity. I learned that growing flower gardens and pursuing an art, sewing for her and writing for me, were ways out of the traps of introspection and resentment. Few of her possessions are left to treasure, a thimble, a tattered quilt, and more than the shape of her face and her eyes, I’ve inherited her anger, the tendency to rail and carp when life gives me a hammering. But I don’t want to react in her way. I want to make more prudent choices, more active ones. I think of her as my very own cautionary tale, yet, in spite of this knowledge, I carry anger in my backpack, tend to dwell on the past, occasionally tell people I love dearly that they’re ridiculous.
Sara spent her final years in a care home with all her mental faculties intact. Arthritis cramped her fingers and seized her hips. Osteoporosis hunched her back. With her eyesight failing, she sat in a wheelchair among the suffering elderly, those with dementia or chronic pain, unable to thread a needle or work on her treasured embroidery.
In the common room of the care home, she pointed out the preacher who came on Sundays. “He’s a rat.” She said it with venom, mortally offended by this man, or more likely, by the promises of his faith that she couldn’t bring herself to believe. Was it death she was so set against, or resurrection? She seemed to prefer to worship at the altar of obliteration, hope that all traces of her life would be swept away in the next fall storm.
She found strength in anger, and used it as a weapon against the pain and frailties of love. Her traits skipped over my mother, a cheerful, social woman with a practical streak, and landed squarely on me. Knowing this I work daily to keep my heart open, my critiques constructive and my fingers buried deep in garden soil.
Kathryn Para is an award-winning, multi-genre writer with a MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have been published in Grain, Room of One’s Own, Geist, Sunstream, and Vancouver Review. She is the 2013 Winner of Mother Tongue Publishing's Search for the Great BC Novel Contest. Her novel Lucky has been shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. Her stage play, Honey, debuted in 2004. She has also written, directed and produced short films. She lives in Gibsons, BC.