About me and this blog

I was born on a native reserve in Ontario, grew up on the west coast of Vancouver Island (as far west as you can go without running out of Canada), came of age in Mexico City. Between times, I lived in the Fraser Valley, Texas, Seattle, Oklahoma, Bella Coola, on the BC north coast, and the Fraser River Delta, just south of Vancouver. For now, I'm "settled" in Campbell River, on Vancouver Island.

I have a boatload of stories to tell. These are some of them.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Dressing for Don Pedro, Part II

(continued from Part I)

And so the battle lines were drawn, so long ago, it seemed to Lupe now, standing between her weeping aunts, as the padre intoned Latin - Rest in Peace, Lupe translated. Peace! Nana had found it now, after all those months of watchfulness; Aunt Dora and Aunt Mercy, each trying to outmaneuver the other, Aunt Mercy fawning, honey-tongued; Aunt Dora too proud to stoop to flattery, but newly showing a dutiful respect, a daughterly attention to Nana's needs; soups and atoles, clean laundry and warm blankets for her knees, a caring belied by the unveiled hate in her eyes when she thought herself unobserved.

But Lupe had seen, and most devotedly guarded her Nana; first up in the morning, tapping at Nana's door, hearing her ragged breathing falter, strengthen, become a voice - "Yes?" - entering the darkened room full of the heavy odors of sleep and spikenard, and drawing back the curtains to flood the face on the pillow with sunlight, to see the faded brown eyes, awake and smiling: everything is all right. Early home from school, dashing breathless up the stairs and into that open door, patient through the long, slow afternoons with embroidery and school books, the drowsy evenings, before the final kiss on Nana's forehead, scanty hair tumbling over the pillow, teeth in the glass beside the bed.

"Night, Nana."

"Night, child."

Nana was finishing her pillow, filling in the last green petal with a tidy satin stitch, when Lupe pushed aside her Physics textbook, her assignment postponed for now, and said, "Nana, tell me about Great-Grandfather and you. When you were young. When you got married; what was it like?"

"Ah, child, what's there to tell?" Nana put her embroidery hoop down on her lap. "A girl, a man. Like always."

"How old were you, Nana?"

"I was fourteen, my Pedro was twenty-three. He had a good job at the bakery, and his own house - two rooms, child, it was a long time ago. He used to sing to me, nonsense about my eyes; I would pretend not to notice him until he got permission from my father, but I couldn't sleep for dreaming about him. And then we had to wait to get married until my clothes were done, the best my father could afford."

"Great-Grandfather didn't buy them, then?"

"No, that's the Spanish style. We went by the old customs: I wore all my wealth, although Pedro said I was beautiful the way he'd first seen me, barefoot and dusty from the road, carrying the corn to the molino." Nana picked up her fabric and made a few more stitches, running the final one under the length of the petal, then snipped her thread. "There, that's done."

"Now you tell me, Lupe. Are you going to marry Alexander?"

"No, Nana."

Lupe had never told Nana about Alexander, how had she known? But it was nothing serious, or so she had believed; a few evenings at the movies, a dance and a kiss or two at parties, talking over coffee after classes, at least until she had started to come straight home to Nana. Now he was meeting her every day for lunch, quite insistent that they get married as soon as she graduated.

Aunt Dora would be glad to be shut of her: Lupe had long ago overheard Aunt Dora explaining to a visitor that it was only because the old lady insisted that Lupe was tolerated in the house, bastard child of a servant girl that she was, said Aunt Dora, "gotten on her by my nephew, the slut claimed, but these girls will say anything, and if he agreed, well more fool him. At least he never legally adopted the brat, just foisted her off on his grandmother to raise. She'll be lucky to get a man from a decent family," Aunt Dora had said, "she should grab him before he thinks better of it." Yes, Aunt Dora would be glad to see her married. But no.

"No, Nana," she repeated. "I'm going to go on to University. I'm going to be an architect."


"Lupe," Nana said a few evenings later, "I need your help."

"Yes, Nana?" scrambling off the bed, ready to thread another embroidery needle.

"No, not now. Tomorrow. Can you come shopping with me?"

So Lupe had missed her classes (and lunch with Alex) and joined Nana in the back seat of a green taxi, surprising a driver by now accustomed to his lone passenger and apparently to her routine, for, without more instructions than "the bank, Carlos," he deposited them on the steps of a stone and glass building where a dapper little man, grey-haired but spry as a twenty-year-old, dashed across the sidewalk to open the door of the car. "My lawyer," murmured Nana.

Inside the bank, the manager, clearly expecting them, met them halfway across the lobby and escorted them to his office, where three chairs were already set out. The lawyer introduced himself - Mr. Lopez - and the bank manager - Mr. Sotelo - both men rising again from their chairs to shake Lupe's hand formally, before he snapped open his briefcase and handed a sheaf of paper to Nana, who nodded briskly and began to read.

The others waited silently. Lupe sat rigid on the front of her chair; she didn't know what to do with her hands. A truck rattled by on the street outside. In the room, the pages rustled as Nana laid them one by one on the desk in front of her, face down. Finally, she nodded once more to Mr. Lopez. "Good," she said, and, "Now, child," turning slightly in her chair.

"Yes, Nana?"

"Lupe, I've brought you here today because I'm going to die soon."

"No, Nana, not yet..."

"Silence, child. I'm going to die with my affairs in order. No wills for your Aunts to contest, saying that I was old and didn't know what I was doing, no court cases to make Mr. Lopez here rich, no digging up old stories, nothing. Mr. Lopez?" stretching out a hand, palm up, in his direction.

"Your great-grandmother," said Mr. Lopez, "has the house and bakery in trust. It was to go to your uncle, and now will pass to his widow. Besides that, your great-grandmother owns and has the disposal of her savings -"

"I've got my own use for that," said Nana.

"...considerable savings; I would still recommend a will," he continued.

"No need," said Nana.

"...and the house in Mexico City. This she wishes to give to you."

"It was to go to your father, Lupe."

"She feels that her daughter-in-law, your aunt, would find reasons to contest this item,"

"Hold it up for years," said Nana.

"...so she wants you to have it now."

"If you're careful, child, the rent will pay your way through University."

"Nana, I..."

"Silence, child. Now, where do I sign?"

So the deed was signed over and locked away in a safety deposit box, arrangements were made for rents to be paid into Lupe's account, hands were shaken all around, the bank manager declared himself delighted to have been of service, and Mr. Lopez escorted the women out to the sidewalk and the waiting taxi, still remonstrating with Nana about the need for a will, even as he shook her hand once more through the window of the car. They had lunch in a quiet restaurant just off the main plaza, where Nana talked about the city as it had been fifty years ago and refused to discuss the morning's business: "Silence, child," she repeated. Later they walked down the block to a dry-goods store where Nana bought wool yarn in red and burgundy and a deep red-black; then Carlos was back with the taxi to drive them home, Nana cat-napping in the back seat, Lupe carrying Nana's shopping bag and, clutched tightly, her old leather purse, now enriched by an envelope containing a bank book and the key to a safety-deposit box.

The work on the quechemetl started the next morning; when Lupe came home she found Nana framed by tall stalks of white flowers next to the window, her red and burgundy wools glowing jewel-like in the shaft of afternoon sunlight. In the centre front of the white cotton cape, a double-headed bird was taking birth, beaks pointing east and west, wings outstretched. Nana looked up, smiling, as Lupe dropped her school bag on the bed. "See, Lupe," she said, "it won't be too plain, after all."

Nana worked from no visible pattern, her needles following sure-footed a trail blazed in long-abandoned memory, day by day discovering a magical landscape where many-antlered deer cavorted next to self-absorbed swans, where vermilion rabbits and peacocks paraded among improbable flowers, and sleepless owls glared at chattering doves. She was tiring now; she slept often, needle and fabric slipping from her hands, losing themselves among the cushions of her chair. The wools tore at her fingertips until they were raw, as red themselves as the merry fauna of her paradise. But she held herself to her toil, morning and night. "I don't have time, child," she said when Lupe suggested a rest to let her fingers heal. "My Pedro is waiting."

For Lupe, also, time was short. Before the quechemetl was finished, summer had come, and Lupe was preparing for her final exams, studying long into the nights. At lunch with Alexander, her eyes strayed to her notes while he talked about his job prospects. She was pale; there were purple circles under her eyes. Her neck was stiff.

"You walk like an old lady, like your Nana," grumbled Alex. "You're studying too hard, Lupe. Why? Ruining your beauty, and what for, my life? What for? You don't need to go to University; I'll have a good job, I'll take care of you. Marry me, Lupe, and forget all this."

But Lupe went back to her old lady, her Nana, and helped her put on her heavy wool skirt, folding the nine pleats in front as she had been taught, and winding the belt tight around the waist.

"Now, Lupe, pin all the pleats down, top and bottom, and mark the limits of the fold in back," Nana said, and when the pins were in place, securely inserted through all three layers of fabric, "Now, undo the belt and help me out, but carefully, carefully."

The skirt was laid out on the bed and Lupe went back to redden her eyes over her textbooks, while Nana basted the pleats. They both went to bed very late that night.

Aunt Mercy's voice, raised in saccharine reproaches, was echoing down the stairway when Lupe came home the next afternoon. "...never saying a word, and dear Dora so worried; anything could happen to you, out all alone..." Aunt Mercy said, and "Ah, Lupe, here you are," as Lupe dropped her bag on the bed and went to kiss her Nana's downturned forehead.

"Your Nana has been very naughty today," Aunt Mercy said. "A taxi brought her home, sound asleep. She couldn't even tell the driver where she wanted to go, just stumbled into the back seat and fell asleep with the door open. Alone, downtown, and us here..."

"Wise of her to always take the same taxi, isn't it?" interrupted Lupe.

"But Dora and I; I would be glad..."

"Mercedes, I won't go out again." Nana's voice was submissive enough, but her eyes challenged, waved banners, triumphed. "You can tell Dora," she said, "I'll stay home now. Until they carry me out in that," waving carelessly in the direction of her coffin.

"Well!" huffed Aunt Mercy, then partially recovering, "That's good; I mean, you'll be safe, here at home, I mean; I'll tell Dora," extricating herself, escaping those sardonic eyes.

"Child," said Nana, after a pause, "can you thread a needle for me? I've got work to do."

"Yes, Nana." Lupe took the needle and the length of black thread from Nana's hand, and held them up to the window. She poked the end of thread at the gleam of light in the eye of the needle, and missed, twice. Her hand was shaking. She rested it on the window sill, and turned back.


"Yes, child?"

"Nana, I..." hesitating, then bursting out; "It's not fair! You don't have to stay home just because my aunts scold! Don't listen to them, Nana!"

"Don't fret, child. I finished what I had to do. Their scolding?" Nana shooed away an imaginary fly. She grinned suddenly, a wicked, little-girl grin, full of mischief. Lupe had a sudden vision of her, fourteen years old, barefoot, hands on black-skirted hips, tongue stuck out at a tormentor; just so her Pedro, a young man himself, must have seen her and loved her; just so she must have said, "Let them scold! If they only knew!" The grin faded, and Nana was her Nana again, saying more soberly, "I closed out my account at the bank today. And paid my lawyer. I'm finished everything but the skirt."

"What do you have to do to the skirt, Nana? I know how to put it on you."

"I'm going to sew down the pleats and line them with paper so they hold their shape, lying down. It has to be perfect for my Pedro, Lupe."

"I'll help, Nana. I can do that."

"No, child. My own hands. All my wealth. My own...hands." Nana's head slumped forward. She was asleep.
Lupe threaded the needle finally, jabbed it into Nana's green velvet pincushion, and took out her books. She had a Math exam in the morning.

Nana didn't go to Lupe's graduation. She was too sleepy, she said. She was very happy, very proud, she said, but too tired. She set Lupe burrowing deep into the top shelf of her wardrobe, propelling the scent of mothballs into the room to vie for dominance with the spikenard, searching for a carved wooden box, which found, brought down and opened, disclosed a set of ornate silver earrings, black with the tarnish of many years. "My Pedro gave them to me," said Nana. "Wear them for me."

Polished, the earrings, while not in style, suited Lupe's face; with her hair smoothed up for the academic cap, they danced in incongruous light-heartedness, eliciting a sour grimace from Aunt Dora. "Entirely inappropriate," was her verdict, but Lupe tossed her head to hear the jingle of silver birds, and went off to catch a taxi.

After the ceremonies, Lupe walked in the park with Alex, taking the long way home, for once. It was quiet under the trees after the babel of voices at school and the roar and hooting of traffic; here the leaves whispered in the wind, birds twittered, feet crunched softly on crushed lava walks. The wind smelled of new-mown grass. Alex swept fallen leaves off a bench with the side of his hand. They sat.

"So what's your decision?" Alex said.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, you're finished. You've graduated. Now, can we get married?"

"I'm going to University, Alex."

"But why? I love you the way you are."

"Alex." How could she explain this? She spoke slowly, weighing the words as they came to her. "You only see part of me. The schoolgirl. The woman, maybe. The architect I will become is another part. When I marry, I want to bring everything, all of me, into it. If you want me, you'll have to wait."

"But I want you now."

"No, Alex."

The letter from the University came two weeks later. Lupe was accepted into the School of Architecture. She went into Mexico City to pre-register, and to find a place to stay; she rented a room in a private house near University City, almost walking distance, with meals included for a price she could afford. She went home and packed her suitcases. She wouldn't be taking much; a dozen or so books, a few clothes, a keepsake or two. Her school uniforms and textbooks she gave away.

All too soon, she was ready. But now she doubted. She sat one long evening in Nana's room, pretending to read a magazine, watching Nana's fingers push and pull the needle through the black wool. The pleats were all firmly in place, now, the triple fold in back tacked down top and bottom, and Nana had cut the skirt all the way up the centre back; so it could be wrapped around her easily, she said. Now she was blanket-stitching the cut edge, nodding off at intervals, waking soon to pick up her needle again. In the coffin, the pillow lay at the head, the quechemetl folded beside it, the belt rolled in a spiral on top.

Nana was cold, these days, in spite of the mid-summer heat, and the windows were kept tightly closed. The mixed odors of wood, wool, spikenard and mothballs, with no way to escape, became a concentrated essence of deathwatch, permeating the whole house, clinging to Lupe's hair and skin, infecting her dreams.


"Yes, child?"

"I don't think I should go, after all, Nana. I don't like to think of leaving you alone here. With Aunt Dora. I want to stay with you."

"Nonsense, my Lupe. Look; I'm almost finished! Less than half a seam to go." She held it up, measuring it against her arm, fingertip to elbow. "Oh, and Lupe..."

"Yes, Nana?"

"When you lay me out, remember: my feet should be bare; don't make me wear these old shoes for all those years."

"No, Nana."

"And weave wool into my braid. There's enough left from the quechemetl."

"Yes, Nana."

"And Lupe, don't look so mournful. I've had a good life, and you to cheer my last days. And my Pedro waiting for me. Be happy for me, Lupe."

"Yes, Nana." But a chill finger had brushed her cheek. She shivered in the heat. Nana was asleep again, and Lupe slid off the bed and stole from the room.

The next morning the skirt was finished. Lupe folded it neatly and added it to the collection in the coffin. She cut two lengths of burgundy wool for Nana's braid and laid them on the pillow.

Two nights later, Nana died in her sleep.


It was early afternoon and Lupe was dressing her Nana for visitors. The doctor had come and gone, the windows had been thrown open, the spikenard removed to the living room, where the coffin would soon be carried. Aunt Dora had shut herself in her room with the telephone. Lupe was alone with her Nana for the last time.

She worked quickly, washing, combing, clipping nails; doing for Nana what she could no longer do for herself. Then the clothes: Nana's best pink blouse, buttoned up to the neck for warmth; the quechemetl; a silky half-slip, Lupe's, actually, because the wool skirt would be itchy. The hair: Lupe brushed it gently back, careful not to pull, and made a long, thick braid in back, burgundy and grey twined together and draped forwards over the left shoulder.

Now she lifted her Nana, so light, like a corncob doll, and moved her to her silk-lined box, positioned her head comfortably on the pillow, straightened her limbs, bare feet together, hands for now at her sides.

The skirt was next; Lupe unfolded it, brushing away the beginnings of a crease, feeling the weight; no wonder Nana had been tired! At the top of one of the pleats, several stitches had pulled, no doubt due to a faulty knot Nana had not seen, black on black as it was. An edge of white paper was visible; it would have to be covered. Lupe pushed at it with a fingertip, then pulled instead. This was good, white, heavy paper; why did Nana not use brown wrapping paper?

She had to pull out a few more stitches, but she winkled the paper rapidly out of its sheath and unfolded it. And gasped. "Pay to the Bearer," it read. The sum would buy Lupe a good car. She calculated quickly: nine pleats, nine bearer bonds; the price of a house!

And now she understood. Nana's voice came back to her; "All my wealth," she had said, "I wore all my wealth." And again, "If only they knew! How they would scold!"

Lupe chuckled then, and quickly refolded the bond and inserted it into its pleat. A few stitches, and it was safely hidden. She smoothed the skirt around Nana's hips, tugged it straight at the hemline, snapped the belt around the waist, adjusted the point of the quechemetl, and stepped back to admire her handiwork.

Nana was beautiful, she thought, so peaceful, so - was that a hint of a grin on those still lips? - yes, so satisfied.

"Wait, Nana! You forgot something!" Lupe said, and ran to her room, returning with a small framed photo of herself. She arranged it in Nana's hands, now clasped under the quechemetl. "Give my love to Great-Grandfather," she said, bending to kiss Nana's forehead one last time.

She went to find Aunt Dora. "Nana's ready to go now," she said.


The diggers were working now, shoveling clods rapidly into the grave. At first, stones had drummed hollowly on the wooden coffin, but now the only sound was the rhythmic chick-shud, chick-shud, shovel and clod. Lupe stood watching the dirt creep up the sides of the hole. A hand touched her elbow. Alexander.

"Are you coming? We're waiting for you," he said.

At the entrance to the cemetery, the last of the mourners slammed a car door. A window rolled down, and a black-gloved hand beckoned impatiently.

"Do me a favour, Alex?" Lupe said. "Tell them to go without me. And call me a taxi. I have to take my suitcases to the bus depot."

Halfway back to the gate, Lupe turned to wave, one last wave. Above the eucalyptus, the vultures were circling.


Stories of Mexico
© Susannah Anderson, 1999

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Dressing for Don Pedro

When the funeral procession rolled through the graveyard gates, the vultures took to the air, wheeling with raucous grumblings around the giant eucalyptus, finally settling in the highest branches. Their scabrous wings made irregular clapping sounds, perfunctory and belated applause for the corpse in her casket, the eulogy, perhaps for the amateur theatrics of the mourners below.

Aunt Dora stumbled as she stepped out of the lead car, and Lupe hurried around to take her arm, steadying her across the uneven ground. Aunt Dora, of course, could barely see, blinded as she was by tears, and by the scrap of black lace she was using as a handkerchief. Raspy black lace, inabsorbent, more suited to irritate, to sandpaper those drowning eyes, to redden the puffy lids.

Behind them, looking like a salesman in a black suit and tie, Alexander murmured encouraging words to Aunt Mercedes, who strode along ignoring him angrily, Lupe could see when she looked back; furious, probably at having had to cede first place in the procession to Aunt Dora, who was, after all, the widow of the defunct's son, not just a second cousin, like Mercedes.

It was Aunt Mercy's voice, though, Lupe was sure, that she heard whispering in the kitchen last night, while Lupe sat silently in the living room, watching the last candle guttering out at the head of the coffin, her great-grandmother lying serene now, triumphant in all her finery. And the whispers in the kitchen, murmurs rising and falling, respects paid, condolences offered, muted sobs, and then a new voice, more penetrating, though still sibilant: "My dear Dora! Such a tragedy! How terrible for you!" A murmur of assent, then: "Yes, we'll miss her. But what a job she has left you! That room! All that stuff to clean out! It's too much for you, my dear Dora; I'll come and help you. No," after a protesting mumble from Aunt Dora, "no, I insist!"

She would, Lupe had thought, she wants to be there when they go through Nana's room, to be present when the deeds are found, the deeds to the house and the bakery, the house in Mexico City. She wants to be the first to find the cash hidden under the mattress; don't all old people hide money there? And the key to the safety deposit box. And most of all, a new will, she's sure there must be one, hidden between the pages of the missal or secreted among the folds of long unused tablecloths, starched and ironed and folded in tissue in eternal readiness for guests that would never again sit at a table. Surely a will would be found there, surely Aunt Mercy's assiduous visits over the last year, her frequent little gifts; "...just brought you a teeny bunch of grapes, look how luscious, a dab of lotion for your hands in this dry weather, a drop of wine for the cold, my dear Nana," surely they must have paid off!


Lupe knew they hadn't: Nana wasn't blind, or the doddering old fool that Aunt Dora said she was, after she fell down the stairs: "Was pushed," said Nana, "Dora pushed me" but Aunt Dora had been away at the other end of the house in her bedroom at the time, a fact attested to by the maid, who had heard Dora open her door and rush out, after the clatter on the staircase, after that terrible wail from the old lady. "Was pushed," insisted Nana, but the doctor agreed with Aunt Dora; after all, Nana was over ninety, unsteady on her feet and easily confused. It was a miracle she survived, so fragile and yet back on her feet the next day, albeit with a splint on her thumb and a large purple bruise on her cheek, still faintly discernible, even as they shut the lid on her coffin, almost a year later.

At the gravesite, a rectangular pit had been prepared to the left of Great-grandfather's headstone, the clay still damp at the bottom, baked dry on the mound alongside. The pall-bearers, Aunt Dora's two sons, two of Mercy's, lowered the coffin onto its trestle, hands involuntarily straying to middle-aged backs. The flowers were removed, laid out on the mound, the movement sending waves of cloying scent into the dusty air, spikenard and roses drawing an invisible curtain, enclosing the graves, the coffin, the mound and the mourners in their secret woe.

Lupe remembered the day she had come home from school, sunburned , eyes smarting from dust and glare and exhaust fumes, opening the street door, relaxing in the flow of cool air dropping down the staircase in its rush for the exit she had provided, tensing again as she identified the aroma it carried; spikenard, the flower of death. She had rushed up the stairs then, abandoning her school bag in the open doorway, tumbling breathless into Nana's room, to find Nana sitting tranquilly in her stiff-backed chair between the bed and the coffin, now buried in a great heap of spikenard.

"Nana! Are you all right?"

"Of course I'm all right, child. Now go down and shut that door," voice strong and confident, eyes bright, still in command of herself and her household.

Aunt Dora, of course, had her own opinion: "The woman is crazy!" she exclaimed down in the bakery for all to hear; "Last month saying she was pushed downstairs, next ordering her own coffin and having it delivered and set up in her bedroom -in her bedroom, if you can believe it! - now the flowers, spikenard ordered for every day until she dies! It's not to be tolerated!"; this last pressing her left hand to her forehead, elbow high, right hand flung outward; a flamboyant gesture of despair, wilting suddenly as she turned and saw her niece. Lupe, holding a tray half-filled with golden rolls, stood startled into stillness, the tongs poised over the bin, forgotten now in her sudden alarm and doubt.

From then on, Lupe took to sitting evenings in Nana's room, cross-legged on the foot of the bed with her books spread around her or piled on the floor, studying diligently, but every now and again glancing up, sometimes feeling alert eyes drawing her, at times made uneasy by a change in Nana's breathing, looking up to see the grey head drooping, chin on chest, that chest still rising and falling gently in this room where Nana waited for death.

But not yet. For now there was a new purpose in her step, an interest in life that had been missing since Great-Grandfather had been gone. The next morning, while Lupe was at school and Aunt Dora had gone to the market for the day's fresh vegetables, Nana phoned for a taxi; the cashier in the bakery had seen her through the window, the driver solicitously helping her into the back seat, settling her bag and her cane, seeing that her skirt was inside before shutting the door on her and driving her away. And she was not to be found; though Aunt Dora had phoned every member of the family, and all her friends, not one had seen her, until there she was in the early afternoon, in the same taxi, and obviously much pleased with herself, but so tired that she fell asleep in the midst of Aunt Dora's vehement scolding.

Nana would not say where she had been, not for Aunt Dora's threats, nor Aunt Mercy's coaxing, nor even Lupe's wide-eyed interest, limiting herself to quiet, inward focused smiles, and when much pressed, an announcement that she was going to bed early tonight, and would they all please get out of her bedroom, so she could undress.

And three days later, she went out again. This time she brought back purchases; a meter of heavy satin, creamy white to match the lining of her coffin, embroidery threads, new needles, "Something to keep me out of trouble," she said, and retired to her room to trace out flower patterns.

"What is it going to be, Nana?" asked Lupe that evening, as they sat companionably together, both working.

"A pillow for my head. In the coffin." And Lupe was suddenly embarrassed, not knowing what to say, not willing to say anything that would acknowledge the presence of that wood and chrome box, the flowers at its head and feet, the lid now thrown open to expose the place where Nana would one day lie. Lupe bent over her books, flipped pages, scribbled down frantic notes, looking up finally to Nana's amused glance.

"It's a long time to sleep without a pillow, child," she said. "A long, long time."

A week later, a peasant woman, strayed somehow from the Friday market, with a large bundle wrapped in a reboso on her back, and a grimy toddler clinging to her apron, rang the downstairs doorbell, asking for the "señora". When Aunt Dora, not a little annoyed at the interruption, went down to get rid of her, it was found that the woman had a package for "the older one, the very old señora," and Aunt Dora had to stomp back up to notify Nana, then down and up again, a double trip made necessary by her distrust of anyone in plastic shoes and wool-woven braids; how else could she be sure that the person didn't just pretend to shut the door, leaving it ajar for every thief and ruffian to come in?

The bundle, unwrapped, disclosed a length of hand-loomed black wool, still carrying the odor of the sheep it came from, blanket-stitched into a large circle: the traditional skirt of the tribal people of the area. With it was a narrow belt, woven in an elaborate design of stylized flowers and geometric figures, maybe birds, the warp a pinkish white, the woof in deep burgundy and red, knotted into a fringe at both ends. Nana would not be satisfied until she had tried it on, with the assistance of the weaver and Lupe, and had been instructed in the proper manner of forming the triple fold of fabric at the back, the nine deep pleats across the front: "Watch carefully, Lupe, you'll have to help me later," said Nana. Then with the skirt held in place - this took three hands, at first, until - "Ah! I remember now!" said Nana, holding the belt in one loop around her waist with the left hand and awkwardly reforming the pleats with the other; "Now bring the belt around once more, child, and pull it tight." Another loop, and the ends were tucked in, hands were removed, and the skirt held. "Now the quechemetl, did you bring it?" asked Nana, and the peasant woman dug once more into her reboso, producing a small white cotton cape, unadorned, which was slipped over Nana's head. The points were adjusted to hang centre front and back, just below the belt line. "Perfect!" said Nana.

"But, Nana..."

"Hush, child. Later."

And they helped her out of the skirt and cape, set her down, somewhat breathless, to recover in her solid chair, while the woman re-folded the clothes, and Lupe went to bring Nana's purse from the wardrobe.

"But, Nana," Lupe repeated, coming back into the room after escorting the weaver downstairs.

"Yes, child?"

"But the cape is so plain, Nana. And did you wear those clothes before? Why did you buy them? They're too heavy for you!"

"One thing at a time, my Lupe! Yes, I wore a skirt like this one, many many years ago, forty at least. Dora will remember. I wore the skirt the day I married, Dora won't remember that, a new skirt and quechemetl, especially made for my wedding day, very beautiful I was, and my Pedro - your great-grandfather - so handsome!"

"But why now, Nana?"

"Now? My Pedro is gone, but I will be joining him soon. I want to meet him in my bridal outfit. He'll remember."

"But the cape..."

"Child, child, so many questions! Wait and see. Just wait."

"It's indecent!" stormed Aunt Dora, at supper the next evening; "A wedding dress for her burial! The idea! And then, a native costume! Does she want to shame the whole family?" All this addressed to Aunt Mercy, who was visiting, Aunt Dora being by now beyond speaking to Nana, or even to Lupe, whom she plainly regarded as an accomplice.

But Aunt Mercy, playing out her new role as loving niece, supported Nana: "But, Dora, if it's her last wish? Everyone is entitled to last wishes! And besides, it's not as if she will be seen, with the lid..."

"Open casket," said Nana. "I've already instructed my lawyer." And she returned her attention to her bowl of soup, the clink of her spoon against the china the only sound now in the room.

Aunt Dora sat with her cup half way to her lips, eyes widened; Lupe read consternation on her face, consternation and wrath, blazing momentarily, then quickly hooded. Then the cup chunked on the table, too hard; coffee slopped over on the tablecloth, and dripped on the floor. "She went out again today," Aunt Dora said.

Lupe got up and went to the kitchen for a cloth to mop up with. When she returned, Aunt Mercy was discussing the price of vegetables in the market - outrageous, she declared, simply outrageous!


To be continued ...

Stories of Mexico
© Susannah Anderson, 1999

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Fish Story

This is a true story, insofar as I am reporting what I saw and what was told to me. For the part that is hearsay, you will have to judge for yourself.

I was thirteen or thereabouts. We were living in one of the two houses belonging to a long-abandoned cannery, on our own island across the channel from Nootka Island. Our only neighbours were the Randalls next door, with their two little boys, and the Augusts in a floathouse moored on the beach; they had three girls. Total population: 14.

The “town” was crammed into a dimple in the coastline: a small flat area between two creeks, the cannery on pilings over the water, the dock enclosing a harbour barely big enough for our pair of boats. A rocky cliff shielded the bay from the north; beyond was a smaller inlet with its own few yards of beach and a mossy bank. We children sometimes scrambled through the bush to picnic there.

To the south there was nothing. Mountainsides plunging into the sea. Douglas fir cut off abruptly at the high-tide line. Spray hissing over black rocks. Perilous waters, impassible forests. No place for humans.

One Saturday afternoon Mom took the canoe out alone and went south. I didn’t see her go, but I remember how I looked up from catching crabs on the beach and saw her coming home. First, the prow of the canoe appearing from beyond the promontory, a green triangle with a tiny bow wave, then Mom kneeling amidships, back straight, paddling fast. When she rounded the end of the wharf and saw me watching, she raised her paddle high in the air. I waved back, and she dipped the paddle again and spun in to her landing. I went back to my rock-turning.

When I went into the house later, Dad was in the kitchen gutting a large salmon, and Mom was leaning over the counter, talking excitedly. This is her tale:

She had gone out for a quiet paddle, heading straight out across the channel, but once she was beyond the shelter of the bay, she saw a pod of seals just off the coast to the south. She turned and went towards them. As she approached, she saw that they were playing; climbing onto the rocks and diving off, leaping and cavorting in the water. They didn’t seem to notice Mom in the canoe.

She drew closer, paddling as quietly as she was able. The seals ignored her. They were throwing something repeatedly into the air; it looked like a kids’ game of catch. Mom held her paddle still, just steering as she drifted closer. Occasionally, she took a small stroke, a slow, gentle push in the right direction.

The game went on. Now Mom could see that the seals were throwing fish, flipping the live salmon out of the water, snatching them before they escaped, tossing them into the air again. Mom eased in closer, almost holding her breath. The seals made way for the canoe until she was right in the centre of the pod. And the game went on.

How long she floated there, she wasn’t sure. The seals barked and splashed, dove under the canoe and came up on the other side, curved and danced around her. Salmon flew.

And then – thud! – a fish landed in the canoe and writhed between the ribs. The seals stopped their play. They looked at Mom; she looked back at them. Nobody moved. After a while, Mom said, “Thank you,” turned and paddled out of the circle. When she glanced back, the water was empty; the seals were gone.

Mom told us – she swore it – that the salmon was a gift. It didn’t land in her canoe by accident, she said; she was convinced that the seals knew what they were doing. It was a good salmon, too; firm, pink meat, shiny scales. And not a tooth mark on it.

Fishermen are notorious for stretching the truth. But Mom was no fisherman; as far as I know, she had never even baited a hook. You may believe her story or not, as you like. I know what I know: I ate my share of the salmon.

Stories of childhood
© Susannah Anderson, 2004

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Listen up, Oso Bear!

(Since it's Easter, I'm posting a poem written for my grandson, Erik, who was 5 years old at the time. "Oso" means "bear", and Oso Bear was his teddy.)

What's this I'm hearing,
    Oso Bear?
Such behaviour,
    Oso Bear!
What Erik tells me - is it true?
Is this something bears should do?
Is your mother proud of you,
    Oso Bear?

You've been nibbling - did you dare?
Chocolate candies in your lair.
Easter eggs that Mommy hid,
Chocolate bunnies for a kid,
You've been biting - Yes, you did!
    Oso Bear.

Good bears eat berries,
    Oso Bear,
From the forest,
    Oso Bear.
Blackberries with purple juice,
Strawberries, or you can choose
Thimble, huckle, logan, goose,
    Oso Bear.

Your big cousin, grizzly bear,
Flips a salmon in the air,
Shimmery trout from quiet pools,
Oolichan that swim in schools.
Bears eat fish, if they aren't fools,
    Oso Bear.

What's that you tell me,
    Oso Bear?
Don't like seafood,
    Oso Bear?
But chocolate eggs are just no good-
For bears, that is; I think you should
Try ants or termites. Sure you could,
    Oso Bear!

Have you tried honey,
    Oso Bear?
Bears love honey,
    Oso Bear.
Sweet and fragrant, gooey; plus,
Eat it all; no-one will fuss.
Just leave the Easter eggs for us,
    Oso Bear!