There’s a dime on my desk, sitting on the book proposal I’ve been struggling to finish. I asked my daughter, who was working at my desk last night, if she had put it there.
“No”, looking at me in that special way only a 14-year-old can. A look that says, “Hey crazy lady, what are you talking about?”
The dime is here though, Bluenose side up.
A gift from my father.
A former Navy stoker, who apparently, has been sending me dimes for a few years now. When a psychic told me to expect these gifts from the other side I was skeptical, even perplexed. In January, as I prepared to move my Mom and sell the family home, I mentioned the sign of the dimes to my brother and sister. Strangely enough, they’d been finding them too.
This dime drew my attention to a project I had been eager to finish six months ago, a cheerful tome on aging. (Take time for yourself! Embrace change!) What it’s evolving into is something deeper, more complex, something that cannot be finished until I process everything that has been unearthed over the past six months.
Having arrived in her new home on the bonus day of a magical leap year, my Mom is tentatively making friends with her walker and other residents. She’s uneasy though, as if it could all be gone tomorrow. And in a way, she’s right. The nest egg needs to be liquidated. There’s an urgency in fixing up and selling her house.
Her home-made home is crumbling, and the inspector we hired confirmed it. You can see it from the outside, tumbling bricks, a crooked Dr. Seuss esthetic with a sidewalk so uneven, so cracked, you can’t help but break your mother’s back. The front lawn, never properly seeded, dips and rises with only the hardiest of prairie weeds taking root. Curb appeal is decidedly lacking. There is a serious list of must do’s two pages long: shoddy electrical and leaking plumbing, ceiling repair, improper venting. Faulty flooring with carpets stapled directly onto particleboard.
The plan is to rip most of it out, taking it down to the bones and then back up again. In the city I live in, real estate is plummeting, as is the price of oil. A quick sale to catch the market means a blistering time line with a work back schedule more challenging than any “real” project I have managed.
Rod the Cheerful is my right hand handyman. Quotes appear, are approved, we write the first cheque. Et voila! Frenchy and his colourful crew arrive, along with two large bins. The demolition of the basement is underway. They smash down walls and rip up carpet, toting up a toilet, tub and ancient deep-freeze into the backyard. Upstairs I sort my Mother’s left behind life into piles: for auction, Goodwill, the dump. I discover a radio that, when turns on, needs to warm up before broadcasting CBC. Downstairs, the demo crew blasts Classic Rock.
Occasionally our paths intersect. Frenchy helps me move my Nan-Nan’s favorite reading chair, a tapestry covered wing back willed to my father, to the backyard. It’s on its way out of this world. The crew spends their breaks in and around it, smoking and swearing in both official languages. For the five days we share the house, I pack up and throw out, they smash and saw, releasing clouds of dust and the odd memory. I check the progress of the basement at least once a day, pretending it’s the dust and debris that are getting in my eyes. The guy they call Sideshow holds up a photo. Me, another lifetime, late 1980s, Thailand. “You like to travel?” he asks. I nod. “Me too.”
I keep the windows open, eavesdropping on their backyard breaks. The language and stories are colourful: growing up in New Brunswick, epic parties, the deal that almost was, love, betrayal and heartbreak. The wingback chair is joined by a paint pail, a stepladder, a rusty lawn chair; an unlikely living room amidst an overgrown 50-foot lot.
The spring after my father died my mother laid down roots here. Digging holes with an ancient shovel, its wooden handle shedding splinters, she planted an apple tree, crabapple, chokecherry, and bush cranberry. Against the fence she feathered a bed for the hardy and familiar: rhubarb, lilies of the valley and delphinium. And near her back door, by the clothesline, two peonies.
They bloomed every year near my birthday and for years she gifted me buckets full: petal pink, fragrant, like a Manet painting. Cut at the end of the day, she’d leave them near the back door overnight, so the ants could make a run for it. “You know they need the ants, right”? explaining the symbiotic relationship between insect and flower. The ants working to eat the waxy coating of the buds, freeing the flowers to bloom.
Despite her efforts, the Birthday peonies always Trojan horsed a few ants, but it didn’t matter. For a week at the end of June, my home was as fragrant as a French garden, heavy headed flowers so beautiful, so gorgeous, they remain my search image for summer.
As she grew older, the trees grew into unruly eye pokers. Jurassic sized rhubarb and delphinium worked to free themselves from warped wooden boxes. But the peonies! The peonies continued strong, feral and fecund. Even, now, in the unusually early spring, they push up from the ground, angry and determined. Me too.
When Frenchy and his crew depart the backyard, taking the living room with them, a quiet Master Electrician whose tastes run to talk radio and solitude occupies the basement. He works in the now skeletal and dusty rooms, rethreading impossible wiring. I move outside to dig up the peonies.
The soil is like concrete; I dig and jab, and grunt (a charming new habit picked up in middle age), attracting the attention of Dan the Original Neighbour. The first one to buy on the crescent, he has become the de facto historian, teller of tales, curator, curious. He and my mother have had little interaction in the years since my father died. The fence that had separated them for three decades is down, the new one is scheduled to go up on Saturday. There’s an opening and he takes it.
“Need a hand”? He asks, as I struggle with the granite like soil. I grunt and shake my head no. He stares for a moment, then ambles away, returning with his own shovel. Together we work to remove tree like pieces of peony.
30 years ago, my sister and I were the only teenagers in a new neighbourhood lousy with toddlers. We built a small babysitting empire at five dollars an hour; money for wide leg jeans, the new Blondie album, a private land line. I babysat often for Dan and his then wife. His son and daughter, once argumentative pre-teens are adults now, the daughter married, with children he babysits.
Dan the grandfather and I dig together in the strange heat of this early spring, removing the biggest peony root, and its subsequent offshoots. We get most of it but one stubborn wooden horn resists. It will stay with the house, the lasting legacy of an old lady garden.
We’re both sweating, lost in thought and hard work. “It’s almost time for a beer.” I offer.
Dan shakes his head, says he’s never been a drinker. His father had a problem with alcohol and he didn’t want to model that for his kids.
“I saw what went on over here,” he nods toward the back door. “I know it was hard for you.”
Then, “tell your Mom I’ll come by to see her once she’s settled in the new place.”
He puts a hand on my shoulder for just a second, and then ambles across the fence line to his garage.
I blink back tears, and load the bucket of peony root into my car. With the fence down there are, apparently, no boundaries.
When the electrician leaves and the lights go back on, Arpad, the handsome carpet man arrives to measure the house. I am wearing the same black turtleneck and yoga pants I have been wearing for almost two months, eating instant soup from a cup.
“Your Mom, she was Ukrainian?” he asks. When I say yes, he tells me he’s from Romania, a border city that was once part of Ukraine. He’s thoughtful, possibly missing his own family. He’s also handsome, politician charming, a flirt, and compliments my decidedly Eastern European cheekbones. Emboldened, I give him my most winning Canadian smile and say thanks. At the end of the day, after loading my car, I check the mirror and discover rehydrated tomato skins stuck between my front teeth.
It’s surprising how easy it is to let go of most things; furniture, photos, Ukrainian Easter eggs. Once or twice sentiment sneaks up and surprises me. I tell Rod, who reminds me to keep on letting go.
We share impromptu coffee breaks, discussing the renovation, our families, and the secret to a strong fence.
“You have to dig the post holes in deep, really deep,” he explains as he and his apprentice Young Jordie adjust thick fence posts into new holes. “No cement, it doesn’t allow the wood to cure.”
The fence retraces the path of the old gap toothed one, running along the back alley and between my Mom’s house and Dan’s. Rod claims this fence will last 50 years. Jordie, likely the only one of us to be around in 50 years, says he will let us know.
On Friday afternoon Rod shows me the new gate, he’s been working on, getting it right, straight, true. It’s a point of pride for him.
“Better than that other gate, eh?” We smile, remembering my Father’s makeshift plywood version that scraped a trench when pushed open or pulled closed.
He closes this new gate; there is no trench, rather a most satisfying click as it locked into the latch. Opening and closing the gate , hearing that click, makes Rod so very happy.
His work is wrapping up here, mine too. The listing day is just over a week. I load a shopvac into the car and dedicate the day to the detritus of the basement. It’s the place I like the least, cold and spooky, littered with nails and drywall chunks and ghosts. Even taken back to the studs the basement feels full. The shopvac isn’t going to get rid of everything.
On the recommendation of a friend, I call Joan; an energy worker and horse whisperer who, apparently, can help me clean whatever is lingering here. We book a house clearing Sunday at 10; the carpet layers are not due until noon so we’ll have two hours.
I arrive around 9, light a candle, and review the list of things yet to be done. It’s only a week until the photographer comes to take pictures, ten days until our listing goes live. The painter has been missing in action for five days, so flooring has had to move ahead. Carpet under pad goes in at noon today, new lighting this week, two low flow toilets (a rebate!) a new vanity and windows cleaned inside and out. Time passes. Stands still. Speeds up.
Joan calls at ten and is lost; she says the spirits don’t want her to come. I tell her I do. Two more phone calls and a long conversation to guide her to the house. It’s 10:40.
Joan sheds her knitted cape, and places a Mary Poppins-esqe bag on the plywood floor. It contains a beautiful abalone shell, bundle of sage, eagle feather, matches and a very large candle which she lights and sets up on the fireplace mantle. The sage she ignites from the candle flame. It takes several tries before it fires, but when it does, it burns with gusto and thick, pungent smoke fills the air. I slide open dirty windows. “Your neighbours are going to think you’re smoking something else in here!”
Joan smudges the sage over and around her body, cleansing herself with the smoke. She motions me over and waves the smoky torch over my head and up and down my body, releasing any negative energy before we begin. We are heading toward the kitchen when there is the click of a key in the lock and the front door opens. Carl, Arpad’s carpet underlay expert is here (surprise! early!) to get started. He stands uncertainly in the open doorway, the air thick with tension. And smoke.
“Um. Hi Carl. We’re just doing a house clearing and…”
“Praying!” Joan interrupts, “We’re just saying a prayer here. For the house. Can you come back in about half an hour?”
“Right, praying,” I echo weakly. House clearing? Smudging, candles? This is an ad for Modern Witch.
We might not be burned at the stake, but we could put the entire flooring schedule behind if Carl walks out.
“I’ll wait in my car Mrs.”, he says. And backs out of the house, closing the door as he exits.
“Well that’s just great”, Joan says shaking more smoke, “Now we’re going to have to clear Carl too.”
Joan leads the way through the house my family once lived in, offering the occasional insight. “Oh your Mom loved this kitchen. The new people will too.” Or “this was your room? I can sense how trapped you felt here.” Bathroom to bedrooms we work the first floor, leaving a pungent trail in our wake. As we descend into the basement she pauses, “There’s a lot going on here.” True, the gutted basement still felt like the intersection of Relic and Dark.
“Ohhh.” Joan moves ahead now and offers hum like prayers out loud, into the far back corners where the ancient and enormous deep freeze used to stand. Back around to where the homemade sauna and bathroom were, more prayers, more smoke.
“Your father was so unhappy here. Just so unhappy”.
I blamed him for years, the adult, alleged role model, mentor and parent, falling down, literally, figuratively. How must it have felt to live in a world you loathed, hiding in the basement of a home you probably never liked, building things not meant to last.
“Over here, it feels like this is where he hid things, do you know what I am talking about?”
Joan is in the area under the stairs, once crammed with treasures plucked from back alleys and garage sales. I had watched Frenchy and Rod pull out old fishing rods and reels, ancient tools, vintage coffee and tobacco tins. One man’s trash. As kids, this lair under the stairs was also where we’d find dozens of empty vodka bottles. Toward the end of his life our 5’6” father would daily down an entire 26 ounces. My sister and I had long ago given up replacing alcohol with water, long ago abandoned the dream of helping him. Saving him. Saving us.
“There’s a lot of it here here, so much sadness.” She starts to cry and I do too, overcome as memories once dealt with and filed away, come back up for air. Whatever we are doing here is stirring more than ghosts, it’s bringing up memories.
Telling the truth clearing the past, releasing the ghosts of our childhood is part of growing up.
When the work in the basement is done, at least for now, I fetch Carl from his van, music playing loud enough that I have to knock twice. He rolls the window down and I lean in “Hey Carl, we’re done now. At least…well my friend Joan needs to pray for you, if that is OK?”
He turns off the car and follows me back into the house. “I never thought I would be doing this today!” he shakes his head and laughs.
Monday, everyone comments on how great the house is coming along, suddenly how bright it is, that it will sell quickly, now everything is to code. Everyone is in high spirits and high gear, except the painter, who is still incredibly, missing in action.
I could say more about the procrastinating painter, his deadline driven madness that sees him emerging from the garage on the last moment of the last day, shrouded in paint fog, goggles and beard sprayed white, like a character from Mad Max. But I won’t. He got the job done.
The photos are amazing. I wait for the offers to pour in and call the auction house.
Everything has sold….for a handful of beans.
All our modest family treasures: the dining room suite, a gift from my grandfather to my mother before he died, my fathers collection of old and exquisite cameras, two complete and very different sets of grandma china (maternal and paternal), my mother’s collection of strange and delicate Faberge inspired eggs, the china teapot from Britain that played Barbara Allen…all the knack a brac unearthed during the first quarter of this year, sold on a Wednesday night. Things which we had attached meaning and value in the end, had little.
The auction house did not have a certain air of decorum, numbered paddles or pedigreed buyers. A strip mall warehouse with a flea market feel, it did, however, have plenty of parking. The elusive owner, a man I will call Rusty, was coarse and entirely without sentiment as he wrote out two cheques with a ballpoint pen. “I get truckloads of this stuff every day. What did you expect?”
Everything we had sent there, certain it would get top dollar in the hands of professionals, was sold to the fastest Fagan. Bedroom suites for 50 dollars, the never to be replaced dining room, sold for 300.00. In all we barely made a thousand dollars, less Rusty’s 30 percent off the top. The cow for a handful of beans. How ashamed Jack must have felt.
In the end, the house did sell. Other cheques, the ones that matter, were deposited. My Mom can relax into her Act Four.
The world is full of aging parents and children who will help them. Full of stories of birthday dinners at dining room tables. Of broken families, new families, friend families, of love and not-love.
Real life happens and plans change. There will be other dreams, ideas and (hopefully) other days. There won’t be another mother. Or daughter. Another me. Another you.
Thank you for reading.