One night, reaching for a shoe box on a closet shelf, her hand slipped. The box fell open and a spill of paper and cloth tumbled through her fingers – poppies, dozens of them, bleached from red to faded pink, blotched orange, greenish beige, almost sixty years of blossoms. The faint tackiness of mould clung briefly to her fingers as she stooped to pick them up; some crumbled, each broken flower an obscure rebuke. She knelt on the carpet for a long time, cupping the fragile petals in her palms.
In the end, she put a plastic bag of intact poppies into the safety deposit box with her father’s medals.
She shook her head to clear the memory, shifted her day pack and tried to concentrate on her surroundings.
Waterton Lake on a blue summer morning. The boat lolled in the water, small cobalt waves licking the white hull and high up, the stack, slick and bright as lipstick, jutted into a pastel sky. The crew, three men in cutoffs and limp ponytails, scurried over the deck, making last minute preparations for the cruise. There was a detached rhythm to their work, repeated daily throughout the season, Waterton to Goat Haunt, return.
She waited with the other passengers on the wharf, feeling slack with inertia, no where else to go, nothing else to do but anticipate the long ease of an August afternoon. Heat soothed the twinge of arthritis that threatened the joints in her fingers. A restful weekend was what she needed. The funeral was over, the contents of the small bungalow packed or disposed of and her father’s ashes placed at the crematorium.
Her thoughts snagged and caught on her daughter’s soft instruction, the daughter who had never really known her grandfather, urging her to take time to process what had happened, both death and discovery. What was this word, “process,” a euphemism for grief? Perhaps it was the only word.
A picture of a hand, gnarled and trembling, reaching for hers, intruded. Her father’s plaintive cry echoed – “ volunteered……. the bomb. The right thing?”
What? She had leaned close to understand the whispered words, the faint syllables separated by laboured breaths. “Bombing tables, bays, squads. Enola Gay, Little Boy, Fat man.” She had never heard those names from him before. She recoiled, sucking in her breath. She knew the names from long ago text books, historical names whose whimsy clouded her understanding of cataclysmic events. Staring down at the frail body, she tried to imagine the young man who served in the Pacific, a technician, working on equipment. That was all he’d ever said. A benign job, nothing to ask about. Now, at eighty eight, his memory forced the names from his mouth, defining the events that cleaved his youth, pushing aside his own approaching death, the death of his wife, of his son, her brother brought home from Saigon in a body bag. Clutching his hand, she knew he did not know her. It was the past that flickered behind his fading eyes, unreconciled.
Her eyes fell on a group of teenage Japanese girls, slim as saplings, not much older than her granddaughter. Filled with restless energy, they giggled, whispered and tossed back their hair, splashes of jet against the rippling water. Her eyes followed them as though to bind them with her line of sight as they flashed back and forth along the quay. Then her lids lowered, shutting out the present and she felt herself retreat into the place of the last week.
Mechanically, she had packed, allocated to the Salvation Army, cleaned, dealt with the real estate agent, Veterans Affairs and the awkward sympathies of the neighbours. When all was in order, the house bare, surfaces clean, she threw her own belongings haphazardly into her suitcase, feeling as though she had transferred the clutter of a lifetime into her own soul. She looked through the cab window only once on the trip to the airport. Clouds hung low, mushroom like, swollen with rain. She turned her head away.
Opening her eyes, she shifted her gaze to the other passengers who, like her, wilted in the harsh sunlight. They leaned against the pilings and sprawled on the margins of grass beside the wharf, faces glistening with sun block, a light breeze picking at their shorts and t-shirts. A couple, her age, dressed in slacks, long sleeves and carrying hiking sticks, sat in the shadow of the waste barrel next to the ticket office. The woman smiled at her and she smiled back. Perhaps she could join them on their intended walk at Goat Haunt. She had packed her hiking shoes and carried water.
In response to a signal she did not see, everyone began to move and straightened themselves into a meandering line. She moved with them up and onto the boat. The line broke and everyone hurried to scan the angle of the sun for the best vantage point, for view, for shade, for absence of wind. They reassembled onto chairs bolted to the deck, chairs thick with many coats of glossy paint, giving the illusion of cushioning where there was none. The breeze faltered and the waves smoothed to a flat satin surface. Sweaters and windbreakers were flung over the backs of the chairs, their weight too much for the laps that held them
Midway down the lake, the boat slowed, turned toward the shore and stopped. The engine’s dull throb fell silent and she felt a net of expectancy collect the attention of the seated crowd.
The captain, so called, stood up on bowed legs and pointed to a clearing in the forest. A plain, honey coloured plinth rose straight up from the dark shrubbery, marking the border between Canada and the United States. He spoke solemnly of the longest undefended border in the world. His voice took on an orator’s sonorous tone as he spoke of the friendship, the kinship between Canada and the US. A World Heritage Site, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, the two parks as one, protected and preserved by both countries. It was clear this was his moment and everyone stayed silent, even as they ceased to listen.
Copyright © Judy Galbraith, 2015