All Along the Waterfront
Friday, March 9, 2007
We would go to visit her, maybe once every couple months, at a care home in
Burlington that was near Spencer Smith Park. Sometimes, just my dad would go in, and my mom would take us kids to play near the waves. Not too near though. Lake Ontario always left a foamy crust along its contact points with the cement barriers set up along the path. My brother and I would rollerblade, throwing rocks and sticks at each others’ wheels when my mother was engrossed in reading.
Other times, we went in with my dad.
My great-grandmother must’ve weighed about 85 pounds. Her movements were bird-like and her neck was a shock of white, stretching towards her collar. She had been graceful, we were told. In fact, my Grandma Esther had a portrait of her in profile, and I was said to look very much like her. I was her namesake, too.
Grandma Esther was a nurse. She moved my great-grandmother’s delicate body easily, turning her or propping her up, feeding her Caramilk pieces or little sips of brandy. I remember once, when I was about 9, Grandma Esther handed me the chocolate and made a small gesture.
My great-grandmother didn’t know us, or at least, couldn’t express that she did. Her eyes were somewhere else, maybe on the bonnie hills of England she had sung about when she was younger, only first starting to slide into a place where we could no longer connect with her easily.
I approached the bed, smiling cautiously. “Grandma?” I asked. “Would you like a chocolate?”
Her response was a little moan.
When I put the chocolate near her lips, her tongue came up to greet it. She pulled it into her mouth forcefully, with more strength than I’d given her credit for.
Moments later, she began to choke. Frozen to the parquet floor, I heard myself
start making aborted little calls. “Gr-gr-ee… gr-gr.”
Grandma Esther stepped in quickly, moving great-grandma in a practiced set of
movements--forward, forward. Great-grandma’s eyes were wide, blue and watery.
Someone had pressed the red button located at the head of her bed. A couple nurses rushed into the room, wearing prim blue skirts and little paper hats. But Grandma Esther had already dislodged the offending sweet; she held it in her palm, wet with saliva and melting away at the edges – I saw it briefly before she put it into the trash. I thought the nurses gave me disapproving looks as they left, back to changing bedpans or helping someone else’s grandmother to take her supper.
I couldn’t unstick myself from the diagonal pattern of the floor underneath me. I could see the waves of Lake Ontario through the window, grinding the retaining wall down by degrees.
Grandma Esther rested her hand on my shoulder as she spooned a little bit of brandy into my great-grandmother’s trusting, hungry mouth.
I was in university when my great-grandmother died; she was in her nineties and I hadn’t seen her in years.
By this time, my parents had divorced. My dad didn’t bother making my brother
dress up nicely, though I did out of strict and conditioned obedience to a code that was only loosely defined by our family anyways. Maybe I found the structure comforting.
We had a wake, not a funeral. We stood circled in my great-aunt’s home. The
preacher was a friend of the family with an open voice, an easy laugh, and a warm accent.
My great aunt’s just-so knick-knacks and lacy seat cushions mingled with the smell of my great uncle’s Jamaican cooking coming from the kitchen. We stood close, and went around the circle to give everyone a chance to speak. I don’t think I said anything, and neither did my brother. I felt guilty because my stomach was growling.
I remember that when I hugged Grandma Esther, her gold medallion necklace became entangled in my hair. When I pulled back, I asked her if she remembered the Caramilk and she started to cry.
After the wake, we went down to the lakeside to get some tea and ice cream. My brother and my dad and I followed the edge of Lake Ontario as the sun did on the other end of the horizon.
I was quiet, and too full of rice and peas to eat ice cream anyways. It ran down the sides of my fingers and dripped onto the asphalt.
At the end of the path, we stopped and sat on boulders. I watched the yearling
gulls along the water’s edge, pecking at crumbs and pebbles, their white throats bobbing down towards the ground.
My dad told us stories about staying with his grandmother on Saturdays.
“Teetotaler,” he said, “Wesleyan Methodist. Took brandy for strictly medicinal
purposes.” He laughed, steadying his tea.
My brother and I listened, comforted by his storytelling and the familiar paths it staked through our shared familial history.