“Rory was six foot two and thin as a rail.” This isn’t what she wants. She can determine that much from the pictures that gradually yellow in our photo albums. Nia asks about a man she’s never met. We’ve had similar conversations before. Rory’s story starts and restarts, but it’s never finished. Sixteen when we first got together, twenty-two when he left me, I’ve been practising this scene for half of my life and I still can’t get it right. Every portrait is marred by the photographer’s thumb on the lens, my own experiences rising up through my memories of him like a kite. Always and forevermore, his story is married to mine if I am the one to tell it.
This time she’s fifteen and she asks so her friend can hear about her father, as if having a witness could make him more real. Holly was born in the same month but a full year after Nia. They’ve got the same taste in music, the same penchant for junk food and Dr. Martens boots with extra-long laces wrapped around the calf. They’ve even reworked the cut of their clothes and hair with rough scissor cuts. But this list is not the only evidence of their synchronicity. Holly is the oldest daughter of another single parent mother in our housing co-op. Like Nia, her older brother was also given up for adoption. Their laugh turns into snickering, as they tell me they’re twins who managed to be born in different homes.
I resign myself to rattling off Rory’s description. “He was red. Actually, that’s what his name means. He had ringlets down to there.” I indicate a point halfway between shoulder and elbow but they are unfazed, so I start again. “This was 1972, remember. Men weren’t considered men, in those days, if their hair was longer than an inch.” They’re still unstirred. “Rory made me think of a Leo. He loped like a cat when he walked, had that incredible red mane and almond-shaped eyes, but he was actually a Sagittarius. His nose had been broken and shipped to the left, he had virtually no chin…”
This captures Holly’s attention. “What happened to his nose?”
“He told me he’d slipped coming home tipsy one night and hit it on a bottle in some gutter. But Noel, his best friend, said Rory’s father punched him out and knocked him down the stairs for coming home drunk. I could never decide which of them to believe. Especially because Rory seemed so forthright in talking about the reason for all of the other scars on his body, including being born with club feet.”
“Eee-eww !” Their two voices rise in unison to a high note that is pure performance. I give them my version of the evil eye to show I don’t approve of their antics. But I am thinking, Rory offered this part of his story to me himself, using it for its shock value, when he and I were about their age.
I continue, “The bones of his heels were in his arch but they put the operation to correct this off until he was five.” The girls roll their eyes now, suppressing a grimace. “Plus, he had scars on his legs and backside because of an accident when he was twelve. He was run over on his bicycle by a dump truck and his legs got the brunt of it.” They are truly attentive now. “The doctors fixed the bones with pins but his muscles were full of bone slivers…so they transferred muscle to his legs from his gluteus maximus.”
“His what?” They’re all ears now.
“They took fresh muscle for his legs out of his ass.” I shake my head, remembering that Rory’s body was a road map of scars. “He always said the part that bothered him the most was the fact he had to learn to walk three separate times. First, as a toddler, next because of the operation on his feet, and finally, after that road accident.”
“Jee-zus!” Nia shivers, “This is too much information,” she says, and switches topics. The girls begin talking about the music they want to download on their iPods as they get up and leave the room.
Once again, a curtain has dropped over my window to the past. Rory’s story remains unfinished, interrupted. I feel for Nia but I’m almost unable to help her. How can you pull together an image of the father your daughter has never met when all you have are the bits and pieces of memory? I’m her mainline for information, but she wants to know him as a father. The fact is that I can’t give her that because he never accepted that role in her life.
What I remember is the young man of twenty-one who left us. My attempts to pull together his portrait remind me of the jigsaw puzzles my aunt put on her dining room table; always there, always inviting assembly. It was difficult enough to find the corner pieces and begin. Hundreds of others were scattered until a central image began to emerge from the disorder. For weeks a puzzle of clouded sky and snow-capped mountains occupied every moment she could spare from the day-to-day running of a household. She siphoned twenty minutes toward the jigsaw while the washing machine was chugging, she grabbed three minutes in the commercial breaks from her favourite soap opera. Yet, the jigsaw surprised us at times, a piece of blue sky suddenly finding its place just as we were passing by.
* * *
“Tell me how you met my dad.”
Perhaps it’s part of the human condition to revisit the critical moments that led up to our conception. Nia is helping me with the dishes now. Thinking out my answer, I finish the plate I’m washing, dip it to rinse, and set it in the rack. These days, it takes me a little longer to get back to my teen years.
“Your Uncle Behn met him first. He was a friend of a friend. After our first meeting, we always seemed to end up at parties together.”
I turn to look at my child, taller than me by inches at sixteen. Her eyes are blue and almond-shaped, her chestnut hair turns in ringlets, she has a modest chin. In some ways, I’m still living with a toned-down version of Rory through our daughter. The best of himself left behind, I think, abandoned.
“I wasn’t impressed at first,” I tell her. There’s no sense in doing this if I can’t be honest. “He wasn’t very sociable. His head was always buried in some book or another. Usually it was a book about painters. I was actually drawn to his girlfriend far more than I was to him.”
“That’s creepy. Is there something I should know?” she says, with a sarcastic tone.
I ignore this jibe. “I’m giving you my honest first impressions. I was fifteen, just beginning to notice boys. They looked like the opposites to girls and I couldn’t understand why any female should like them. I certainly didn’t have any wonderful models of men at home. Enid was half his height, with dark hair and caramel-coloured skin, intelligent and outspoken. I couldn’t figure out what she was doing with this tall, gangly guy who rarely shared a word with anyone else. Take away his copper hair and he wasn’t attractive at all.”
Nia has a haughty air now. “Oh! Well, you obviously found out why she was with him soon enough!”
Her smile is almost cruel, definitely inappropriate. I don’t like where this is going.
“I didn’t steal him if that’s what you are implying, and you’re being disrespectful.”
She drops the haughty air, apologizing, and I continue.
“I think I was too inexperienced with people at that point in my life to understand what was going on. I’d led a really sheltered childhood. What I remember is that Enid’s father hated Rory with a passion. Actually, he hated all of us because we took her attention. He was a nasty-tempered brute toward all of her friends. Enid would just smile and say this just proved she had his attention. But it was weird.”
“Weird?” Nia is stacking plates in the cupboard now.
“Yeah. Well, Enid was always full of surprises. One day she answered her door when I knocked and her face was all blotched from crying. She said that she and Rory had just broken up and she sent me on a mission. She wanted me to find him, and she gave me a big brown paper bag filled with everything he’d ever given to her.”
“‘Tell him I don’t want these any more,’ she said. ‘Tell him I can’t stand to look at them.’ Then, as I was moving down the sidewalk, she called out, ‘You two would make a better pair.’ I just shook my head, thinking that was so unlikely.”
My hands hang motionless in the sink among the plates and cutlery as I turn to her.
“I didn’t think very well of myself, for one thing. Plus, from the point I’d first met those two, it seemed they were inseparable.”
I applied my attention to washing the dishes again.
“Anyway, I found him just where she said he’d be at the high school. He had a special arrangement with his Art teacher because his mom wouldn’t let him paint in the house. She hated the smell of turpentine.”
“He was painting back in high school? I thought he started after you were together.”
“Yes and no. He became truly serious about his painting when we were together. But his high school Art teacher was very encouraging. He let him stay a few hours after school most days. He was just beginning to discover his passion for painting. He had this crazy idea that he should experience painting in every medium, even egg tempera and fresco, trying the full gamut of mediums developed for painting before he decided on his favourite. He wanted to understand what the early masters had learned by redoing their experiments, training himself through re-experiencing the evolution of their techniques himself.”
She nods her head, taking this in.
“Anyway, when I found him he was working on this disturbing portrait of King Arthur’s wizard in egg tempera. It was a gigantic blue Merlin that managed to be comic and demonic at the same time. I gave him Enid’s package but he set it on a side counter and returned to his painting, didn’t even look in the bag. I stood watching, fascinated. At that point I was working in oil on a canvas in my own bedroom, but I was having a lot of trouble transferring the power of the sketch to double the scale on canvas. I kept losing the perspective. It was a technical issue. He worked from a smaller sketch, too, so I asked him how he’d managed to maintain the perspective.
“Is that when you started dating?”
She’s impatient, feeling that I’ve missed the point of her questions. I’m thinking, there are no short answers.
“It wasn’t as simple as that, Nia. No, we didn’t start dating then. It’s just that, this was the first time we’d ever really spoken to each other, except in passing at a party. I don’t think either one of us was thinking about dating then. We were just talking about painting.”
She laughs, apparently thinking this is false modesty.
“Seriously, teenagers these days might not understand because you skip past so many of the steps that boys and girls took in getting to know each other back in my time. I was the one who attended a special school with an art program that included live models but I lived too far away to meet up with classmates. He attended his local high school and no one else was interested in painting like him except for Noel. We just appreciated the fact we could talk to each other about painting.”
I know she won’t fathom this but I’m compelled to explain.
“It probably sounds unbelievable to you, but I was the typical sweet sixteen and never been kissed. Girls like Enid were really popular with the boys, but most people – even many of the boys – considered them too wild. Some boys shied away from the popular girls because their behaviour attracted the wrong sort of attention. But that’s only part of it. Girls like me felt the popular girls’ territory was just not our territory. I didn’t have the nerve to approach a boy who already had experience with someone as popular and pretty as Enid.”
She is really smirking at me now.
“I’m not joking. Things really were different when I was a teenager. Besides, we all had such early curfews. In fact, the entire town had a 10 PM curfew in 1972.”
This brings her into outright laughter and I decide that she needs a history lesson.
“You laugh, but whenever the Police saw anyone who looked eighteen or younger out walking after 10 PM., they’d stop them for an I.D. check. If you were under eighteen, you couldn’t be out, so they piled you into the back of their cruiser and drove you home. That’s how strict it was. Boys and girls were a lot slower about everything back then…or a lot more circumspect.”
She is challenging me now. “Well, if you didn’t date, and you took things so slow, how did you end up living with him at sixteen?”
“I know, it doesn’t seem to make sense, but, it got really crazy at home for all of us. Rory, Noel, and Behn got a flat downtown in order to strike out, away from the parents. Behn had already been living in a room that Mom and Dad paid for, but the year they had committed to was up and living with Noel and Rory was cheaper than taking a room. One night, it got so violent between me and your Grandma that I just had to leave. Life with her is another story, but I honestly thought she’d kill me that night. So, I took off. I didn’t have anywhere else to go, so I knocked on their door, knowing my brother wouldn’t turn me away. It was dark out, I think it was raining too. It turned out they all understood I couldn’t go home, but Behn had his girlfriend there and so did Noel. Rory told me I could use his bed. Then he took a quilt to roll up in and slept in the bathtub.”
“What?” She’s laughing again, not believing me.
“That’s what I mean,” I say. “Maybe you just can’t understand how different things were between people of my generation. Before all of this transpired, Rory and I had just one date. It was about a week before all of this happened. All we did was walk to a restaurant downtown for a milkshake. It wasn’t until we were walking back to my house that he even got the nerve to take my hand. We were both so nervous we hadn’t even kissed, so nothing was assumed between us. Certainly, neither one of us planned to live together before all of this happened. In a way, the situation was forced on us.”
She’s silent when I stop talking. I’m thinking, she doesn’t need to know how truly crazy it got. My parents wanted to charge Rory with statutory rape until they discovered it didn’t apply to sixteen-year-olds who had consented. But the true irony was that we slept beside each other in his bed after that first night, but we were only kissing for the first three weeks. My own father had already done far more to me than Rory when they talked about laying those charges against him.
“It was on the second day of living there that we had our first kiss,” I reveal to his daughter. “This was months after he and Enid had broken up. But somehow Enid appeared on the third day, saying she’d changed her mind and wanted to get back together with Rory.”
She didn’t need every detail, but without these points the story of my difficult beginning with Rory was so incomplete it would be untrue. He had sent her away that time, but Enid kept arriving in the grey hours of morning, time after time, for months. Behn kept forgetting to lock the door as he went out to work, so she’d let herself in and come to sit beside Rory on the edge of the bed where we two were sleeping. I’d wake to hear her crying, begging Rory to let her be the one to have his child.
* * *
The truth is, both Nia and I were better off without those complications. Living without a father hurt Nia much less for the seven years before her sister arrived. Having a sister set up unavoidable comparisons as we witnessed Dylan’s effort to be a father during Ava’s first two years. But the contrast hit hardest as Nia blossomed in puberty, needing to understand the estrangement of her father even as she was developing her own interest in boys. There were so many influences upon her confusion – peer pressure, the social norms of the day, hormones – but it was the older boyfriend she hooked up with in grade nine that really tipped the scales. Ten years older, a skinhead dressed in leather and tattoos, she kept him a secret for months while he delighted in playing games with her head.
They say hindsight is 20/20. But that boyfriend was a secret, something I couldn’t address until I discovered he’d broken her heart. After weeks of skipping everything but her Art classes and English, weeks of receiving no calls from the school because she’d always sign in for homeroom, Nia started skipping the whole day. Suddenly the school was concerned. The day I received the first call about her attendance she made a suicide pact with her boyfriend’s brother, a kid who was much closer to her own age.
Someone told her that forty Gravol would stop her heart. Nia took forty-three. Perhaps she pictured her suicide as a neat trick, like banner headlines arriving on her boyfriend’s doorstep to show him how deeply she cared. She soon discovered that getting high on Gravol was far less pretty and there were no the banner headlines. It was a truly gritty experience that brought her to the brink of her own ending.
The boyfriend’s mother called me from the hospital, already there because her youngest son had stumbled home to get them some help. We two mothers stayed up all night, each of us tied to our own child’s bedside, neither one of them able to recognize us. We were serving duty for the hospital because our children needed a 24-hour watch. We had to ensure they didn’t sleep and coax them to drink a lot of thick, black, liquid charcoal to capture and draw out the toxins. That liquid charcoal was really hard to swallow. All night, we watched readouts on the monitors of strangers who looked like our own flesh and blood but responded like they were other people’s kids. It was like science fiction to talk to Nia in this state, a child familiar enough to set me on edge about all of the differences that I had suddenly realised in her.
Those were the days of great battles between mother and daughter for us. Days when she pelted me with name-calling, spitting, scratching and biting. As the skinny girl in a hospital gown asked me to help her to the bathroom, I remember thinking, So this is her true character, the one that’s hidden under her prickly exterior. At heart, she is this waif who apologizes for burping loudly after her charcoal drink. Inside of her, when all the artifice of teenage angst was pulled away, there was no raging spew of profanity or screaming about the various ways that I had failed her. Inside, she was this truly beautiful kid with great manners, who kept apologizing that she didn’t recognise me and told me I was a nice lady.
* * *
Nia pulled through the crisis with the Gravol that night, but her depression was like a weed with a long taproot reaching down to the absence of her father. For months, I couldn’t get her out of bed to attend school. Eventually, she decided to drop out of school altogether, but she left home for the Queen Street hotels and Toronto’s underground community. I reported her to a Justice of the Peace as a missing person, but for three months I had no idea where she was. I didn’t even know if she was alive or dead. I closed the door on her room at her sister Ava’s request, so we could go on with our lives, pretending that she was just sleeping in.
Then I came home from school to find an abrupt message on the answering machine.
“Someone told me I should let you know I was alive,” Nia’s voice was flat, without emotion. “Well, I’m alive.” Then there was a click followed by the sound of a live phone signal.
I wasn’t sure this had helped me at all. It left me wondering how she could have become so spiteful, that she couldn’t see she was hurting her sister as well as me. Surely she had not lost all love for her family?
The Police called about a week later. They’d found her in a vacant building owned by the town hospital, with her skinhead boyfriend and a case of beer.
“I want to see that man charged with statutory rape,” I said, picturing this scene.
“Well, Ma’am, she’s fourteen,” the officer paused, then added, “which is the age of consent.”
“Consent? Since when? Fourteen is still a child! She hasn’t got a clue about what it means to give consent!”
I began to cry, feeling the ground shake under me. Consent was sixteen when I was a kid, and most of our parents had considered that age too young to start seeing boys.
“How can you call it consent, even when he’s plying her with alcohol? This is insane. It’s against the law to feed alcohol to a minor. Surely you can charge him with that?”
The officer was placating. “I understand, Ma’am.”
“Well, if you can’t charge him, can you at least bring her home? I registered her as a missing person.”
“I would bring her home,” he said, “but her street friends have already clued her in. She told me she’ll just walk away from your door, if I bring her to you. I know you reported her missing, but even with us still sitting in the cruiser to write up the report, we’d need a brand new order to stop her from leaving again.”
Straight talking. This was his best attempt to be helpful. At the time, I couldn’t get past the thought that I’d already lost her, still unsure whether she was blaming me for too little or too much attention.
“What can I do?” I sighed, hearing the note of desperation that crept into my own voice.
“Well, Ma’am, I hate to say it like this, but we know the people she’s running with pretty well. They have a long history.” He drops his next point like a bomb. It was worse than I feared. “This guy she’s with is one of the ringleaders. I think you just have to hope that your daughter gets hurt bad enough that she decides to come home, but not so bad that she can’t come home.”
My heart stopped for a moment, I swear. I had no options as her parent then, except prayer. After I hung up, I fell to my knees, crying and praying to whatever greater power there was guiding the universe to save her.
* * *
I start to notice that she’s visiting home shortly after that awful phone call, the one that told me she was alive. Food disappeared from the refrigerator. Tins disappeared from the cupboard. We’d go short on toilet paper more quickly than we should have. All of this put a strain on my limited household budget. Living on student loans meant I had little money to spare. I didn’t begrudge her, but I did resent the fact that anything she took was shared with her boyfriend. Still, her whole next year was hand to mouth and on the streets. Literally.
She starts to call once a month, leaving similarly abrupt messages on the answering machine at first. I finally catch her on the line and she begins to talk to me. She doesn’t share much about her experiences. Then, out of the blue, she asks if she and her boyfriend can come home for dinner at Easter. I decide to bless the stars that she wants to visit. At least we are talking…sometimes.
* * *
One day, Nia is sitting on the doorstep when I arrive home from shopping. She has a four-page proposal in her hand and she asks me to read it. I open the door and we sit on the couch, letting the groceries sit in their bags on the floor around us. She has outlined a list of commitments to chores and even set her own curfew at 11 PM. She was asking to come home. I had never dared to pray for a day like this one.
On her visits over the past year, she’s teased me with the darkness of my imagination, showing me the business card of some guy who said he wanted to put her in movies. She didn’t read that card the way that I did, though it glared Fresh Flesh in lurid script, with just his first name and a cell phone number. Maybe she hadn’t really considered it, was just taunting me with the dangers she had faced down. I held back tears of relief she hadn’t become meat in the porno trade, remembering my own offer to be photographed for Playboy when I was eighteen and working for a freelance photographer.
I was glad I’d told her that story, what I had realised about where it would lead. He was a friend of my boss, who’d already informed me he was one of Playboy’s top five photographers.
“It’ll be a private photo session,” he said. “Or you can bring the boss’s girlfriend, if it makes you feel better.”
“No thanks.” I’d lived with my own father and younger brother, after all. This photographer couldn’t believe that a teenager was turning down $10,000 in 1974.
“You wouldn’t have another worry with that much money,” he said.
He couldn’t have known how the stacks of girlie magazines my father left around the house affected me. He didn’t understand I already knew how distant from art his work was, once it fell into the hands of other men.
Nia knew I’d kept her room waiting. She asked to come home but she’d assumed my answer.
“Your room is still the same. I haven’t touched it except to vacuum. You know you are always welcome.”
She thanked me, asked if she could take a bath, and climbed the stairs to run the water. Her bath took a long time. Going upstairs to carry Ava’s sweater back to her room, I caught Nia by surprise as she emerged from the bathroom draped in a towel. There was dark bruising on the inside of both her legs. She had an arrangement of bruises like hand prints in blue and purple, on both of her upper arms.
I caught my breath. “Do you want to talk about what happened to you?” I said, biting down on articulating my worst fears.
Her face was stony. “Not really.”
I bowed my head and she passed into her old room. Just as she reached to close the door, I said, “I’m here to listen, if you ever change your mind.”
Nia stopped, turned back, and looked me straight in the eye. “I know you are.”
She closed the door then, and found her recuperation in sleep.
* * *
The light coming through the window falls across her shoulders and the form she’s filling out as she sits at the dining table. These days, the bruising is long gone. She’s found work as a full-time nanny, but she’s grousing because they’ve asked her to fill out the forms for her Social Insurance Number so they can make proper income deductions.
“I hate this. Why do they need my mother and father’s names to give me a stupid Social Insurance Number?”
“With your parents’ names on record, you won’t be mixed up with another person of the same name,” I say.
She casts a grimace my way. “That’s pretty far from likely.”
She resents her name, thinking she’d rather blend in than stand out. When she was seven she decided she wanted to be called Joanna, the name of the company that made several of her shirts. Ironically, so many of the things she does are part of her resistance to blending in.
After a week of working, she shared information about her new employment with me. The father was a professional photographer, the mother worked in the film industry. They had two cars, two incomes, and a fully renovated townhouse. She says she can really talk to them, that they know her history and don’t judge her. I want to resent how she shares her life with others and leaves me in the dark, but instead I am grateful. I know how close I came to losing her altogether.
Just now, Nia has returned to the form, asking for her father’s middle name and his parents’ names. Her hair falls past her shoulders, glinting auburn in the sunlight from the window. I’m striving to remember what distinguished Rory from her uncles, her grandfather, and the other men she’s known. At the same time, I’m wondering if I’ll ever rediscover my sense of humour.
“Where was Rory born?”
“Really?” She writes it down.
I can give her some of the answers to her questions but I want to be able to talk about things that truly matter. I want her to let me in the way she has revealed herself to complete strangers who pay her wages.
“He said he came from a family of ship-builders.” I recall. “I remember a series of paintings he did. The sun was an orange globe behind dark skeletons, the ships by the docks looking like the carcasses of beached whales.”
“Cool. Did he talk with an accent?”
“Not really. He came over here when he was eight. He could put one on when he wanted to tease me, though. ‘Auk, what a moon ya have lassie,’ he’d say. That meant ‘what a face’. But it was his diet that seemed really alien.”
She smiles, waiting for me to continue.
“He insisted on fried potatoes and kippers or smelt for breakfast. Kippers are fish,” I say, to answer the question knitting between her brows. “It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it was hard to get used to. When I was a kid, we had toast sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon or oatmeal porridge with maple syrup for our breakfast.”
She nods her head with a smile of recognition for these sweet and starchy breakfasts.
“Oh, and he introduced me to fried green tomatoes.” This prompts her to stick out her tongue. “Well, maybe you don’t like them, but we did. Actually, Rory was the one who taught me to make omelettes, too. My mother never fussed with her eggs; they were served boiled, fried or scrambled. But your father even loved them pickled, like his herring rolls.”
She’s leaning into the conversation now, though I’m still the only one talking. Ironically, this is what she’s been after all along. Verbal snapshots to paste in her personal family album. She knows that she’s good in the kitchen. From her expression, she’s thinking this is one place where his genes are making the difference. So, I tell her how he relished tripe soup and blood pudding, how he teased my weak stomach by pouring the reddish ink from tinned squid onto his white French bread.
I’m trying to ignore the cryptic voice in my head which is protesting, ‘Never mind that I had her heating soup and cooking macaroni when she was four, or that I taught her to make cookies from scratch for her lemonade stands. Never mind that she baked cakes to earn pocket money whenever we worked the community craft sales.’ But it’s this voice that gets me thinking about her interests; her love of music, her drawing, her passion for the history of famous painters. The same passions that both Rory and I had at that age. But then, Nia’s not looking for me. ‘Keep talking, I tell myself. She’s too young to understand she’s really looking for herself.’
* * *
Home for just four months now, but finally there’s some flesh clinging to her bones. Nia is feeling the disadvantage in her decision to quit school. Two years behind, working as a nanny, she is struggling to catch up through correspondence courses. She’s feeling discouraged about relationships, frightened by the potential for violence. Her last boyfriend kept her in forcible confinement. She says she’ll never be with a man again, that they’re all pigs. She’s grown up so fast, taking out a restraining order on this last brute when he started to stalk her.
“You’re so much further ahead than I was at your age, Nia. Don’t forget that you knew enough to say no, despite the violence your boyfriend subjected you to. Some girls, me for example, couldn’t figure out how to end it. You’re only sixteen. What do you expect from yourself? No mistakes?”
“Oh Mom,” she moans, as if to resist my lecture. But there’s a difference to her tone. She’s been making faces, trying to convince me she’s a failure, a wash-up.
“I just realised something,” I say. “You’re a few months younger now than I was, when I first moved in with your father.”
She puts her hands over her ears.
“No, listen,” I insist. “I want you to know what I’m seeing. It isn’t just your age and maturity, you’re so much more balanced than I was ‒ even in my twenties ‒ and I was already a mother to you. You’ve got a sense of yourself as a person if you can say no to a man. You have to remember I experienced some of the things you went through on the street. No stability, no idea where the next meal would come from. In between rented rooms, Rory and I slept in a field on top of cardboard boxes. When we had to, we stole food from back yard gardens or the grocery store. We even stole most of his paints and turpentine. I hated all of that, but I didn’t know how to refuse the kind of life I’d stumbled into. We did have principles, though. We only stole the basics to survive. And if we hadn’t thought that his art was contributing something to society in the long run, we wouldn’t have stolen for it. We did our best with poor circumstances.
“He didn’t come from a wonderful background, either, but there was always something wrong with the mix of him and me. We were like fire and air, which was good for the art, but your dad was working with a different set of tools when it came to women.”
She looks up with this, letting her hands fall into her lap. “What do you mean, tools?”
“I just mean…” It’s too difficult to phrase as I had started. I stop and start over. “At times I feel bad about my anger toward him, for leaving us like he did. I mean, Rory never hit me, he never squandered our little bit of money on drink or drugs. He showed me what it meant to have a focus for your life, to hold onto a dream of becoming something. It’s just that he never sorted out what it meant to be a man in his own time. He was still working with his father’s model for a man, even though he resisted it.”
This doesn’t make sense to her. She’s shaking her head. I wonder if I can really explain it.
“Well, he thought out the whys and wherefores of almost everything else, but he accepted the standard cultural notions about the roles of men, women, and children. Do you know why they call it a man’s world? That’s rooted in the idea that it’s the strong who survive, by whatever means, and that their survival proves the natural order of things. But it isn’t really the weightlifters or construction workers of the world who decide the state of the world, is it? It isn’t the men who have strong bodies who lead us. It’s the men in politics, the men who have learned to manipulate others with their money and their strong ideas.”
She bows her head as she takes this in, considering what I’m saying. She’s not looking for a rebuke of her father. I have to own my part in things, just as she does, but hindsight should offer us some balance.
“He took advantage of my attitude, the idea of women’s role in the home that I had been raised to. But it was my mistake to wrap my own art up in his dreams. I mean, I was seventeen, but I saw myself as his lifelong partner, you know? The other half of an artist is his model. I gave up my own drawing and painting because I was good enough that it threatened him. I guess I expected some kind of loyalty in exchange. After all, he’d learned to draw using my body. Sometimes I sat for eight hours a day. He didn’t have a real sense of line before that. Yet, when he left, he took every one of his drawings and paintings. Even when I asked for something to remember him by. He said that I had no part in them. I cried for months, feeling those paintings and drawings were my art, too. It felt like he’d taken my children from me.”
I reach out to smooth her hair away from her face. “But he hadn’t, after all.”
* * *
Nia and I are browsing in a bargain book store on Danforth Avenue. Ava is in school and this is one of Nia’s rare days off from her job as a barista. I look up to see her leafing through a thick book on the Dutchman, heavy with its colour plates, and I go to stand by her shoulder.
“Your Dad loved Vincent.” She looks up, smiling at me and I continue. “He loved his passion for yellow sunlight and deep Prussian shadows.”
“Yes,” she breathes.
She can see how her father would appreciate him, but that’s not what she’s saying. She’s taken up her own study of light and shadow again, filling spiral sketch books with her pencil drawings. She has her own appreciation for van Gogh. Still, it’s clear she thinks that Rory’s genes are behind this. ‘Give her that,’ the voice in my head warns me. ‘She’ll discover soon enough that this is her own talent.’
“We used to climb into bed and read aloud from the biographies of painters,” I continue. “First I’d read a chapter, then he’d read one. We were crazy for Manet, Cezanne, van Gogh, Picasso. But we started out with much earlier art: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Titian, Rembrandt, Dürer. He was teaching himself to paint, rediscovering pointillism, madder washes, the titanium tints, sculpting the paint as it came straight out of the tube, using dots of pure colour.”
“He couldn’t draw at first and that crazed him. It meant that I was always posing. In the beginning, I was acrobatic as I draped across the bed like Walter Gramatté’s nudes. Then he asked for some standing poses; so with both arms above my head, I became Rodin’s The Age of Bronze with breasts. Other times, I’d recline, half-dressed like Matisse’s Odalisques. Seven days a week; posing and drawing, posing and painting, he was really starting to discover his own hand by the time we got to the pregnant nudes.”
Nia shuffles to the next table even as I’m speaking, burying her head in other books, with safer titles. That’s when I realise she’s been embarrassed by my nudity in front of strangers, though it is only a model’s reminisce and no one in the crowd was listening. I shiver, chilled by my child’s unspoken rebuke.
Neither one of us understands why his story is so difficult. For years, Rory moved behind my eyes like a backlit shadow on sheets. In the early years I daydreamed, planning a perfectly paced account with careful emphasis on each moment of greater meaning. Stories like this one are meant to be told, to be passed on. I thought it would be as simple as reviewing, me and Rory within the framework of our chronology. I’ve come to realise I can’t accomplish the tale as she wants it, unsure of where my craft has failed me. I only know that I’ve nothing else to offer and she still feels cheated.
* * *
Nia is on her back, full-length on the couch, the music on the radio a review of the top forty hits from my own teen years. She rolls to her side.
“What music did you and Dad listen to?”
I begin to list: “The Doors, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin. But so did everybody else in my generation.” I sing a few lines of a Doors tune to prove my memory.
She rolls her eyes towards the ceiling. Once again, her mother intrudes on her sojourn down memory lane.
“Oh, you want to know what he listened to, not me,” I tease.
Her expression is almost a challenge, one that says she’s annoyed by my bluntness. But despite this, she nods.
“He nearly drove me nuts over Led Zeppelin. He’d spin that same circle of vinyl on the player twenty times a day, those same riffs climbing the Stairway to Heaven. I thought that I’d go crazy, he played it so much. It got to the point that I’d beg him not to play it, and just break down crying when he did.”
She ignores the way I’ve brought myself into the account again, but I don’t know how to avoid it.
“Shit, I love ‘Stairway to Heaven’! That’s wicked. So did you guys go to any of the big concerts? Did you make it to Woodstock?”
I almost laugh out loud. That weekend on Yasgur’s farm rises as a landmark for my whole generation. How can she understand that most of us missed it and were content to see the movie? Why does simple truth have to feel like an apology?
“No. For one thing, that concert happened in the United States. Besides, Rory and I were both fourteen that summer. We were minding our curfews.” She’s disappointed. “You have to remember, Nia, Woodstock happened in 1969. Your Dad and I lived in small town Ontario and the world was a much smaller place for us than it is for you. There was no global village for us, no internet. We watched a whole lot less television. I didn’t even hear about Woodstock until one of my friends got the album in the mid-1970s. Woodstock was old news by the time your dad and I got together.”
She pouts, wanting to know, but resenting my part in the account. She wants to step back in time, but it rankles her that she can only manage that journey through my eyes. It’s not a lover but a father that she is searching for. The trouble is, that’s a role I can’t see him accepting. That’s a man I never knew because he left when I decided to keep her. I almost can’t help her.
* * *
Nia has taken up a piece of plasticine her younger sister’s playing with. They’re watching Saturday morning cartoons, Nia on the couch, Ava kneeling on the floor to play. Nia pinches the red stuff between her fingers, then she rolls it in her palms, the heat of friction making it more pliable. I watch her long-fingered hands as she creates a red sausage dog, thinking, they’re so much like his hands, those long fingers.
“Your Dad used to roll wax like that,” I offer, “when he was making his little statues. Did I ever tell you about the statues?”
She turns from the cartoons to study me as I lay an armload of towels that need folding on the dining table. She shakes her head. Taking this for an invitation, I transfer the towels to the couch between us and begin to fold them.
“It was Noel who started the whole thing. They both painted. They both had problems with their drawings, but Noel’s girlfriend refused to pose for him. So he decided making statues would help him understand the three-dimensional form.”
Pulling from her side, both of us begin to work on the pile between us.
“One day I came in from shopping to find Noel and Rory in the kitchen. They were trying to saw through this big, flat, brown brick that was almost as large as a patio stone. They had an old bread knife but it was really dull. The brick was hard, and their efforts looked really comical. The whole table rocked under the pressure they put on the knife. They had to keep taking turns to saw as their wrists wore out.
“‘What’s that?’ I asked, as they finally broke a small piece off the block.
“‘Elephant ear wax,’ Rory told me, trying to squeeze it between his fingers.
“‘No, soften it in hot water first,’ Noel told him before he went back to sawing another piece off the block. So Rory turned the hot water on in the sink, filled a bowl with it, then plopped this brown chunk in. It floated on top of the water just like a turd.”
Nia is snickering, envisioning this.
“Anyway, Rory kept poking at it, making the thing bob, and we’re all laughing because it looks so gross. It got lighter in the thin spots as it warmed up, and we all laughed over that, too. Warmed up, it looked even more like a turd. Finally, Rory takes the chunk out of the water, dried it with a tea towel and started to massage it. He’s working and working it, pinching it between his fingers. It gets softer and softer, and he starts rolling it between his palms the way you were just rolling that plasticine, making a sausage. Just as the wax seemed to be taking the heat of his hands, he started to shape it.
“I was seventeen,” I remind her. “At that age, I took everything at face value. Rory told me it was elephant ear wax, and I believed him. I mean, it sounded gross, but I could imagine how it would be possible.”
Nia throws her head back now, openly laughing and pointing a finger at me.
“No, I am serious! I’d seen this documentary film about domestic elephants in India and their trainers. They showed the coolies riding their necks, their legs falling behind the elephants’ ears. These men were completely dwarfed by their animals, but it was amazing because they were still in charge.”
“Elephant ear wax!” She’s really got the giggles now and it’s contagious, my own laughter rising as I continue with my story.
“Yes! I’m trying to explain! You see, every day, they take their elephants down to the river to bathe them. They actually use stiff brushes with long handles to scrub their hides, washing behind their ears and everything. The film kept stressing the trust that was built between the coolie and his elephant, how they became interdependent. They called it a ‘machine of cooperation’. Anyway, the coolie never stops talking to his elephant, spooning out praise and encouragement. A good coolie can train his elephant to draw logs out of the forests the way we used horses to draw out the logs in North America. Shit, a good trainer can make them balance on a barrel.”
Nia is rolling with hysterical laughter now. It’s infectious. I can barely continue.
“So it seemed to make sense, you know, that a good coolie could make his elephant kneel down, and that they could harvest the wax from his ears.”
We’re both laughing so hard that tears have sprung to our eyes.
“Oh, come on!” I manage to say between howls. “It doesn’t sound half as stupid as tapping rubber out of trees, but that really does happen!”
This is it, I’m thinking, as we rock and wheeze with our laughter. This is what I wanted her to know. We were young, we were hungry and inexperienced, but we had a kind of joy in our lives. We didn’t fit the standard moulds, but it wasn’t because we designed to be different. It never occurred to us to aspire to someone else’s standard. We were still developing our own sense of the world and of our part in it. We believed our work in painting and sculpture could make a difference, but we had enough humility to laugh at ourselves. We also knew we had to work hard at our goals. Still, my internal editor is a hard critic, reminding me that whatever Rory and Noel knew of the world, before I left home the universe was confined to my mother’s jealousy over my father’s hands on me in all the wrong places. Sometimes Rory and Noel would tease me about my innocence, it was so broad. I had been raised in a fundamentalist religious household which meant that, in many regards, I was raised culturally deprived.
“Anyway,” I say to Nia, “I caught this look on Rory’s face that told me he was teasing, so I pleaded with him to tell me what this brown stuff really was.
“‘Petroleum wax,’ he said.”
Clearly that doesn’t sound any more believable than elephant ear wax. “Petroleum is fuel, right?” she asks, implying I have gotten this wrong.
“Yes. Noel told me it burns away completely, without dripping, and I began to understand.
“‘They call it the lost-wax process,’ he says, and he points at Rory with the bread knife, using the nickname he’s come up with to tease him. ‘So, Rodin and I are going to make ourselves some little statues cast in lead.’
“That’s when I notice that Rory has already coaxed this stuff the colour of shit into a vaguely human form. Suddenly he’s holding the torso of a woman, twisting at the waist. It was like he’d performed magic before my eyes. He made the little statue pirouette on his palm.
“‘We’ll sink our wax sculptures into plaster of Paris to make a mould,’ Rory told me. ‘Then, after the wax is burned out, we’ll pour melted metal into the hole and cast our little statues.’
I pause to emphasize the next point in my story. “I’m objecting to the feasibility of this, saying, ‘Metal melts at a high heat,’ but he smiles.
“‘You’ll see,’ he says. ‘Lead melts at a low enough temperature, we can do it in the back yard.’ Then he starts to snicker. ‘I just hope my dad checks his tackle box before he goes fishing again,’ he says. ‘I took all of his lead sinkers.’
“God,” I tell Nia, “things like that made me really believe in Rory, in his purpose. I mean, there were times when it seemed that everything that he put his hands on responded to make art.”
Still, there are other things I can’t tell her about Rory and his hands. I can’t tell her it was Rory’s hands that taught me the fluidity of skin and brought me through the first stage in my healing after I escaped my father’s attention. For two months, I lay frozen beside him, only able to kiss though we were nearly naked under sheets because of the summer heat. It was night breezes and Rory’s hands that dared to suggest more. He waited for me. Eventually, I warmed beneath his hands, my body like that hard wax that softened in his fingers, responding to his patience. His daughter didn’t need to hear this said outright. Besides, by this time the narrator had become somewhat redundant, the story itself taking over in its telling.
* * *
Nia calls from the living room, “How did they cast them? Those little statues, I mean.”
She’s had her head buried in art books all day, concentrating on the biography of Rodin. It goes like that, the sleuth in her draws leads out of our conversations and she follows those leads like the clues in an Agatha Christie mystery that casts her father as the body in the library.
I heard her, but I’m annoyed. I’ve got my hands inside of a chicken, finishing up what the butcher started. Besides, I shouldn’t have to explain her father to her. He should never have abandoned us both, travelling oceans to put distance between us.
“Come here to talk to me, so we don’t have to shout at each other.”
She comes, obediently.
“The statues…you said, they cast them in lead.”
I roll the whole chicken around in a bowl filled with two beaten eggs, coating its pimpled skin.
“Hold that grocery bag open for me, will you? My hands are such a mess from this chicken.”
I have put flour, coarse cornmeal, and a strong measure of spices, predominated by ground ginger, curry powder, paprika, cinnamon and garlic, in a plastic grocery bag. She opens the top of the bag and waits, holding the chicken in the bag while I wash my hands and dry them. Then I take the bag and twist the top closed. I turn it, head over end, back and forth, to spread the coating over the skin of the naked bird inside.
“It was so stupid,” I say, pulling the breaded chicken out of its bag and setting it in an open roasting pan. “They were worried the landlord wouldn’t like what they were doing, so they waited until after dark to set up at the back of the yard. Then they could barely see to work. All they had was a Coleman camp stove for their forge.”
“Yeah. Hey, peel the carrots while I make up a salad, will you?”
I put the chicken into the oven, set the temperature, and turn back to telling the story just as we finish that stage in preparing our supper.
“You know, a forge is the fire pit where the blacksmith melts metal to forge swords or horseshoes. Anyway, we all went out to the back yard and set up this makeshift forge, wearing nothing but our T-shirts, blue jeans, and canvas sneakers. They set the stove on a couple of concrete bricks to raise it off the grass. There was just the pitch black of night and the dome of stars above us, and then there was the blue propane flame in the rings on the stove. The summer heat was sweltering, the air so thick and muggy we could hardly breathe, but there we were with two rings of fire.
“I remember thinking we looked like someone’s nightmare, like Shakespeare’s witches at their cauldron or some scene out of history. Even in hindsight, it’s like time took a loop and dropped us back in the Middle Ages. It was so dark, all I could see was Rory’s thin silhouette and Noel’s thicker one against the light from the camp stove, like they were dancing in front of the flames. I was really worried about the risk of their plaster moulds exploding and molten metal splashing on them. They’d sunk their wax statues into cardboard milk cartons filled with plaster of Paris, and they put one on its end over the second propane flame to burn out the wax. How strong can a plaster of Paris mould be?”
She’s knit her brows again, thinking about the scene I was describing.
“So they set the wax on fire, to literally burn it out of the mould, leaving them with a hollowed out plaster block. Then, they poured the melted lead into that hole in the plaster block. All we had was a flashlight with weak batteries to see what we were doing. It was eerie. At the same time, it felt like they were working the most beautiful magic under the stars that night. When the orange flames shooting out from the mouth of the first mould quit, they figured the wax was burned out.
“Their flashlight showed us a deep, dark cavern in the mould. It was strange to look at the torso of a woman from the inside out like that. It turns your head to see things from a different angle, makes you think about why things are the way they are. Anyway, they lifted that first block away, turning it out on the grass to cool, and put on a fresh block to burn out the petroleum wax. They had an old pot on one of the burners, melting the lead sinkers down into a thick silver syrup.
“The scariest part was when Noel wrapped the first block in a towel and steadied it so Rory could pour molten lead into the tiny opening where the wax had burned away. I held the flashlight so they could see what they were doing, but we all prayed Rory wouldn’t miss, or splash hot lead on Noel’s hands. I don’t know how they managed without an accident, but by the end of the evening we had four little moulds filled with lead.”
Nia is listening, but it’s obvious from the dreamy look on her face that this time the story has turned her inward on her search.
“We must have looked really comical, nursing those plaster moulds through their cooling on the grass like a trio of hens roosting rectangular eggs. We were all so impatient for the great unveiling. When we finally did crack the plaster moulds, it was like witnessing birth. Those little statues were like chicks emerging from eggs, or butterflies coming out of their cocoons. I’ll never forget the power in that metamorphosis. Inside the first block was that first little torso Rory had made, crusted in all of its crevices with plaster, looking dull and lifeless. Then he started to rub her all over with the towel. That was when the second miracle took place. She seemed to come alive then, burnished by your father’s hands. He rubbed and rubbed until the little figure he’d shaped in wax turned into silver and she was so fluid she seemed to move, coming alive in his hands under starlight.”
* * *
Three times, Rory and I started life, and three times he left me. Sometimes her questions receive blunt answers. I cannot solve her issues or second-guess them. The first time was a brother I was convinced to give up for adoption. He deserved a better chance in life than I could have offered him then. Next was my assisted miscarriage. That was the one he really wanted, bringing home gifts for the baby even in the first few months. But it was a troubled pregnancy, the placenta covering the mouth of my cervix and heavy bleeding when it pulled away. The baby didn’t survive. He pleaded we should try again.
“I can’t deny my part,” I tell her. “I mean, I refused to have another child and he left for a month, abandoned me. When he returned, I just took him back. Christ! I used to think he was my sun, moon, and stars all rolled into one. My whole life was eclipsed by Rory and his art.”
I can’t tell her the rest. She wouldn’t want to hear about it. He tricked me into the third pregnancy, pricking a condom with a needle. When I found out, I realised Rory only wanted to know that he could do it, to prove that he was a man. Clearly, he didn’t want a man’s responsibilities because he said I should give the child up for adoption. That was when I understood what he was really after. To paint like the masters, yes, but to repeat history and move beyond its reach as he did so. That was his failing, too, believing that any artist can be unencumbered by his own creations.
The one time he did visit after she was born, Rory refused to acknowledge what he’d done, accusing me of sleeping around though he knew how unlikely that was.
“She could be anyone’s baby,” he said, defiance caught in his eye.
Later, when she was four, Nia would pull out the photo albums to stare at images of this tall, lean man she’d never met. She’d sigh, ‘I love my Daddy,’ and my heart would skip a beat.
* * *
It hurts her most when Ava’s father, Dylan, takes his child for a weekend. Nia says she doesn’t want to go, and I believe that. Going or not going isn’t the point. She’s eighteen and her own father has never crossed our doorstep to her knowledge. What is she to understand from that sharp contrast to Dylan’s dedication to Ava?
“It’s his loss, you know.”
Nia slumps on the couch, hugging a cushion to her chest with both arms. “Yeah, right! Don’t even tell me.”
“I mean it. He had it all wrong. He said, ‘An artist’s studio is no place for a baby.’ Think about that for a minute. How can you bar life from an artist’s studio? ‘Tell that to Picasso,’ I told him. Nia, he didn’t leave you. He didn’t even know you! He didn’t even leave me. What he left was a situation, the idea of having a pregnant girlfriend and his own responsibility for his child.”
She’s silent for so long it’s scary.
“Do you know what else? He doesn’t have the least clue about what he’s missed. The delight of watching your child grow into a beautiful woman.”
She’s leaning back on the couch, face turned towards the window as if she’s studying clouds. I’m thinking, the fathers of my children have done it both ways, and neither one of them got it right. There’s no getting past the fact that every child wants to have their father living in their own home. Ava’s been inventing new relationships for all of us lately, trying to convince her father, his girlfriend, and me that having three adults and two children in one house is the perfect combination. Sometimes I think it would have been easier if they’d both left us flat, so neither one of their children had to steer around this wall of estrangement.
“Come on, just think about this, Nia. All the time that he’s been striving to create something, to bring things into the world that will make a difference…As far as I’m concerned, turning his back on you is the same as walking out on his gift. Besides, if he felt that way and stuck around, what good would he have been to you?”
I can see it now. I’ll never be able to give her what she wants. My daughter’s mother keeps getting in the way of her ability to know her father. The man who left her is always turning out to belong to another woman. The real pisser is I couldn’t hold onto him for either one of us.
* * *
We are sitting out on the front steps. Holly and Nia are smoking a cigarette with their first coffee of the day, and I’m having lunch. They’re talking about the poltergeist movie they watched until the early hours and the dreams they each had afterwards, trying to make up their minds about the paranormal. I decide to tell them about the ghosts I’ve seen.
“Do you remember I told you about the flat where your Dad and I lived with Noel and Uncle Behn, Nia?” She nods, and they both draw on their cigarettes. “Well, it wasn’t long before we knew we were living with a poltergeist.”
“Right,” she scoffs, thinking that I’m pulling her leg.
“No, I’m serious. They say poltergeists usually haunt adolescents. There’s a kinetic energy rooted in adolescent frustrations, and the experts all say this energy spills over to feed the poltergeist. Well, we had plenty of adolescent frustration, especially during the first few months when we were living away from home. And don’t forget there were four of us. No money, no food, no focus except for Rory and Noel’s painting and Behn and my poetry. We couldn’t manage living week to week, only day to day as our hunger set in. Besides, we thought we were the new bohemians, eating air when we couldn’t get tomatoes, beets, carrots, and beans from the neighbours’ back yard gardens.”
“There’s nothing new about being hungry, Mom. No big insight there.”
“No, don’t jump the gun. What I’m trying to say is, there’s a way that one hunger will feed on another. Here we were, longing for our vision as artists, but what we asked for, really, was a revisiting. I mean, that’s the way your Dad had approached his art. At night we’d read to each other from the biographies of other painters, throwing ourselves into associations, not just with their painting but with their lifestyles. It wasn’t hard. It seemed like so many of the artists we were reading about were misunderstood, cold, and hungry in their own time.
“That first summer we were together seemed so ripe with the possibilities for paintings. We’d found the abandoned flower fields behind the old town nursery. Poppies, daffodils, irises and tulips grew up through the tall grasses with wild hemp, vetch and daisies. It was unbelievably beautiful in those fields. A little creek curled along the edge, running with tadpoles and minnows. By day, I gathered flowers on Renoir’s Path Leading through Tall Grass leading towards that creek. I always wore long skirts in the summer back then. Rory and Noel sat on the grass in plein air. Some days your father was Cézanne, with no figures in the drawing, just a landscape on a two-foot square of canvas. He carried a six-quart basket of paints, a jar of turpentine and brushes along with us. And Noel called these studies his postage stamp art. In sunlight, we were always finding our way to the golden light and violet shadows of Argenteuil.”
Nia and Holly are both stretching out in the warm summer sun, sipping their coffee. They look up when I pause. They turn back to gaze at the yard, bare toes curled around the lip of warm cement steps, as I continue.
“You see, everywhere we went, our landscape was from another era. We walked for hours under the moon’s light too. We’d sit on the street curb while he sketched the old Gothic mansions in our sleeping town. After a while, we noticed that the doors of those houses started to open as we were passing. There was this section that the town history identified as the Old Market Square. One night, it filled with the noise of the crowds who peddled their wares in days long past. We could hear them from a block away, but when we got there the square was dark and deserted. It was so bizarre, we’d both heard it.”
They are looking at each other now, trying to assess what the other one is thinking about the story I am telling, but neither one says anything.
“There was something different about the town we grew up in. The last hanging in the district took place in that same town square. There were three of them; two horse thieves and a woman whose neighbours reported she was a witch. Your Uncle Behn borrowed this grey-blue, cloth-covered, town history from the library. It was recorded in that book. The house we lived in at that time was owned by a retired doctor who could only manage to get around with his walker. He was as ancient as his house. Our place was upstairs, with our bedroom in the back, so the window looked out on a cobbled courtyard between the house and an old coach house. In the old part of town, there were lots of garages and coach houses by a back lane.
“One day, we heard horses whinny, their hooves clicking on the cobblestones in that yard. Rory and I got to the window just in time to see a young man rush into a coach pulled by two horses. I turned to speak to Rory just as a pillow flew across the room at us, from the bed. But there was no one there. We looked back and there was no carriage in the yard either. Still, we both knew what we had seen.”
“Weird,” Holly says, with a sceptical shiver. “But you were just hallucinating, right? Because you weren’t eating, right?”
She’s remembering the other stories I’ve told them, and the theory I’d offered about why we had some of our other visions.
“Maybe, but I think this was something else. I think we were trying so hard to reach back and see the world through the eyes of the Impressionists that, for minutes at a time, we actually slipped onto another temporal plane. Or maybe, we were witness to an echo of things gone by in another age. That makes as much sense as having hunger hallucinations, doesn’t it? I mean, scientists have said that time loops, that it isn’t really linear.”
Nia shakes her head. She doesn’t accept this talk of ghosts and being transported to eras gone by. This is my sensible child of the cool blood, the one who nurses a passion for Gothic fiction but doesn’t buy into any of the theories advanced by scientists in that period. Her room is a library of King, Koontz, and Rice. Holly is clearly less sceptical, and what I say next has both of them looking at me differently.
“One day, I walked down the hall in that flat, preoccupied with something that I was reading, and I stepped around a figure on the edge of my vision. I excused myself and took a few more steps before I remembered that I was home alone. You can call it anything you want. I’ll say that I saw an apparition. Almost without knowing it, I’d been contacted by some soul who was lost on the path towards his final destination.
“I turned back, shivering but curious. The figure seemed preoccupied with other things, so I decided to ignore it and occupy my thoughts by reading. I’d judge whether this was real or not by waiting to see what Rory noticed when he returned home. I heard him come in about a half-hour later, breathless from a long bike ride to visit his parents. He came to the door of our room to tell me about the sardines and beans he’d pilfered from their cupboards. I made a point of keeping my eyes on my book. He stopped, mid-sentence and I looked up. He was staring at the ghost standing by the window on the other side of the room. He turned to look at me, then back to the ghost, then back to me.
“‘Is he friendly?’ he asked.
“I shrugged my shoulders. ‘So far,’ I replied.”
The girls are silent, taking in my point. If what I had experienced was a hallucination, how come we both saw the same thing?
“After that, whatever we did, whatever Rory painted in that apartment, we couldn’t shake free of Joachim. We had figured out his name by trying to talk to him and then looking up who had lived in the house through history. It turned out that he was a Hungarian farmer. He seemed to want us to do something, but he talked in a language we couldn’t understand. It wasn’t long before we gave up and tried to ignore him. Boy, we frustrated that ghost! In the end, Joachim chased us from our daydreams.”
The girls start to snicker.
“I’m serious. I saw Joachim pick up a tin of turpentine and hurl it across the room at Rory when he was raging about some mistake he’d made in a canvas. Soon, he started pulling prank after prank. Once, after eating lunch in the kitchen, we found animal footprints of aquamarine and ochre tracked all around the canvas that Rory had been working on. The footprints were still wet to the touch, but the tubes were all closed and those colours were also dry on the palette. Another time, we heard a bang and ran back to the studio to find a wet painting had been turned face down on the floor.”
Nia is watching me steadily, waiting for my summation. Holly is looking a little bit queasy.
“Life seemed so surreal then. It was all adolescent fury and anxiety. It reminded me so much me of the things my Irish granny used to say. ‘Be careful when you speak about your frustrations or the Brownies will hear. Then you’ll get what you’ve asked for without realising it’.”
* * *
Nia no longer lives at home, but she visits often. There is a story between us which is perpetually beginning, always attempting to explain or sort out the details. It jigsaws together, a piece here, another piece there, until it begins to suggest the whole figure. She’s twenty and hasn’t had a boyfriend in a year. One day she said she can’t trust men. She’s seen too many leave her girlfriends, sometimes with children to raise on their own. She doesn’t want to live through what I have suffered. I am touched that she is looking at me, for once, but that’s not what I want for her either.
“You won’t see it this way, but leaving me was the greatest gift that Rory ever gave to me…outside of you.”
She is startled and looks up quickly from stirring honey into her tea.
“Don’t you see?” I continue. “We had to separate. We were locked in such an unhealthy obsession. I wanted to be everything; Artist, Model, Writer, Historian, Lover, Wife, and Mother. He wanted to be the Artist unencumbered. Besides, everything I wrote or painted drew a smile of indulgence from him.”
“He said, ‘The muse is female. That’s why the only good women writers are lesbian. That’s why Berthe Morisot and other women painters could only show promise and never accomplish true art’.”
There’s a pucker in the middle of my daughter’s forehead, the frown that is code for I smell something rotten. She cocks her head to indicate she’s still listening.
“I’d hear this sort of thing, again and again. At first, I thought he said it because he was jealous. He knew that I’d sacrificed my drawing for his ego’s sake. I’d had the advantage of life drawing classes, so I knew the remedy for his stiff hand, how to help him become a better draughtsman. That’s another story though. All my life I’d been smoothing ruffled feathers. For Rory, I thought his art was worth doing anything for, so I took off my clothes and I posed for him. I had bruises from sitting in the same position so long, my feet gone to pins and needles, all of my blood circulation arrested. He drew and drew, until he had it right. That’s how hard we worked to bring his statues to life. I say we because, for him, I did what I’d never do again.”
Nia interrupts, suddenly understanding. “The reverse of Pygmalion?”
“You’ve got it!” I say, nodding. “But what I’m really saying is, that it’s our own ideas and choices that shape us, not just our beginnings in our family home or the collection of our experiences. You have to throw free will into the balance and consider that every human being is gifted with the ability to make choices about their actions. Rory put everything he had into his art, keeping very little to share with other people. He was also a man shaped by his upbringing and his time. You have some hard choices to make, too. Just as your Dad did. Just as I did.”
Nia wears an expression that says she needs more explanation.
“Okay, I’ll give you another example. Years later, long after I’d become a well- published author, I met this short, silver-haired tornado of Canadian poetry. He was truly revered as a poet. ‘You’ve got to make up your mind whether you’re going to be a good writer or a beautiful woman,’ he told me, ‘because you can’t be both.’“
“What?” She’s leaning forward in her chair now, incensed by this.
“God’s truth, I swear.” I raise my hand by my shoulder. “He told me that I couldn’t be both, and if I tried I’d only achieve mediocrity.”
Nia’s nostrils flare. Whatever my child will achieve, it is something both her father and that inferno of poetry denied. How can either of those men understand the full gift of creation with such a narrow vision of their own place in the crafting of beautiful art? In rejecting the traditional forge and finding our own muses, the power of that denial gives Nia and I a reason to work toward our own transcendence.
My daughter has begun to understand herself through the thousand and one pieces of her father’s story, and mine, as they jigsaw together with her own. Hard wax or lead can be transformed in the hands of mere mortals. Knowing it has already been done, she will believe in her own power to initiate a metamorphosis. Sometimes the story begins again, just where it ended. The same statue cracks through its shell and comes to life under a starry dome. Once, she thought she drew because her father was an artist. These days, she’s beginning to discover she has her own hand for drawing and painting.
Suddenly, she smiles and nods. I know now that my girl will be alright. She understands what she’s looking for. She’s jigsawed it together.
Sharon Berg writes poetry, story, book reviews and nonfiction that focuses on First Nations education and history. She will release a collection of short fiction, Naming the Shadows, which includes the story in this publication, with The Porcupine’s Quill (Fall 2019). Her previous book publications include two poetry books [The Body Labyrinth, Coach House Press (1984) and To a Young Horse, Borealis Press (1979)], a book of children’s verse and songs [Pineapple Cheese, One Finger Press (1984)], two performance audio cassettes [Tape 5, Gallery 101 Productions (1985) and Black Moths, Public Energies (1986)], a CD [Sharon Berg: the recordings, Big Pond Rumours Press (2006)], and three poetry chapbooks from Big Pond Rumours Press [Black Moths (2006), The Great Hoop Dance (2016), The Odyssey and Other Poems (2017)]. Included in her academic writing, she has a chapter on Wandering Spirit Survival School in Alternative Schooling and Student Engagement, Palgrave/Macmillan (2017).