The Puzzle Jug

I arranged for the ambulance myself, breathlessly, simple as calling a taxi from a restaurant, though much more expensive, I expect, and only marginally faster. Downtown to see the pulmonary people again at St. Michael’s, the very place where I produced a couple of daughters many years ago and where I am now, dear God, having a last hurrah in these late, fine days of September.

Having the last word, anyway.

I won't see the autumn monkshood come up deep blue in my front garden at Thanksgiving. When I left the house the coneflowers -- in their underwhelming faded pink -- had been blooming for awhile in the heat.

I started to fall apart again around Labour Day, the old lung trouble, getting less air on the steamiest days and feeling increasingly lighter, as if I were on my third martini, which is an experience I can only barely summon up as evidence, and what a very great pity that is.

I feel now that I could simply disappear like the lost fellow out on the trapline who sinks into the snow -- not that I have anything to do with traplines, as you might imagine.

Let me be clear about how this will work: There will be no chatty family meetings, no bedside reunion. So I told the presumptuous young social worker, who looks like a fifteen-year-old boy and employed the vastly over-exposed term “closure” as if I had never heard it before, and her ally, the young woman who looks after my lungs, who rattled on about the process of healing having several possible meanings.

My vocabulary has always been excellent, I assured them; as a child I was a precocious reader and the gift of perfect spelling has always been mine. I have reams of poetry by heart. I also have excellent penmanship.

I suspect that they are in my house now, the girls, to gather “necessities” for my hospital stay. But I don’t need anything now that I have my own room -- privacy, thank God -- other than a rapid improvement in attitude from last night’s stroppy nurse. I will say no more.

Now I can almost see them, my two girls, their old housekeys in hand, the keys I did not think to ask them to return to me some time ago when I could have done so.

Oh my! Not a scrap of physical grace between them despite every lesson imaginable, and never the right shade of lipstick, the one whey-faced and picking at her cuticles, the other wearing, when I last saw her, horizontal stripes! It pains me to admit that both ought to lose some weight.

I have always stayed lean and was, I must point out, a very accomplished ice-skater. Swam in all weathers. At summer camp, for years, a leader in canoeing skills.

My God, are they wringing their hands, covering the mirrors?

(No. Some other people cover mirrors. Not our sort of Anglicans. But who? Usually I enjoy very good recollection of facts.)

They are peering into my tidy bankers’ boxes. Those boxes interest me so much more than the petty trials of my daughters. I don’t want to hear about their feelings, ever, or to think about why they no longer interest me enough for a conversation.

No, I have instead spent a great deal of time in those boxes of late, cataloguing my father’s wartime correspondence, noting his many promotions and meetings with Prime Minister King, to late 1944. I have much to do yet but I won’t get there.

Father should not have have left us to go overseas; he did not have to. His second war, for God’s sake. In our reduced circumstances -- on his reduced pay -- I gave up my horse. Mother had dental problems she could barely afford to fix. She was so happy to have him back -- “My Best Darling, My Own Good Girl” he began his letters home -- but I never forgave him. Still, I took great care with his letters, strictly for the historical record. My archival skills could have been so much better appreciated.

The thought of my files bundled into grocery store cartons labeled Double Rolls Extra Soft Tissue -- shifted to who knows where, forgotten? -- is almost enough to propel me down in the lift, through the gusty revolving door, out onto Queen St. and straight home -- if only my breath were not catching like skin on splinters.

God, I barely know downtown. Once, the newspaper Father ran was around the corner at Bay at Melinda. On a fine day the windows would be raised and you could hear from the sidewalk the typewriters chattering. Is the King Edward still a few blocks away? Is the lobby still grand?

Father took me to the big dining room there when I was cross and would not speak to him. Lamb kidneys in cream, throat achy with tears I would not allow. Oh, my goodness.

The girls will wonder: Where is everything? They’ll mourn not me, heavens no, but my tastefully-patterned Birks silver, the heavy Scandinavian stoneware I collected, quite ahead  of my time, the insipid bridal-registry china, the creamy tablecloths -- that fussy one that was the dickens to iron, just bloody impossible. And the oval mahogany dining room table embossed with their carelessness, their ballpoint pens: Put something under your homework before you start it, for heaven's sake, I said one too many times, let me tell you. Long gone, that table.

The care I took with my house! This was the one before my current post-divorce “heritage” cottage in a perennially marginal neighbourhood, overdue for repairs from foundation to roof. I have come down in the world once again.

In my day I could upholster anything, paint, curtain and fit out a room, ready it for a dinner party in a jiffy. I have read, somewhere, that home renovations are a popular television entertainment. I could have been a useful consultant, drawing on my own experience. Or perhaps I could have directed. I have always had a good eye.

At any rate, we chose the art for that other, better house when we were newly and tumultuously married. We started with clever little collages from a gallery the city flattened while tearing down Gerrard Village for parking lots. I had got myself a newspaperman, a man from Father’s newsroom, and he left me on my own with those girls for long night shifts and during endless political campaigns. He was fighting the Spadina Expressway with outraged columns, I remember, when we chose the pair of French oils of fierce, sienna-toned roosters. Best of all our purchases -- so exciting they were! -- was a vast, bright view of a near-northern Ontario waterfall, naïve in style, its foreground peopled cheerfully with hatted, spatted, parasolled figures. Quite remarkable.

When we divided our things I wouldn’t let him have that painting because he loved it. Sold it right out from under his nose.

For the record, again: He became not only my ex-spouse but my late ex-spouse. The girls stood by him; we have never discussed his death. Popped his clogs, as they say, before I will. I have, so far, won.

Most of the photos are gone too. I have always felt that a display of family snapshots in the home is both vulgar and self-indulgent. I do not see the point of baby pictures; babies all look the same, namely, not at their best. I did, however, hold onto a few proper portraits: We are rather fortunate that a couple of family members were photographed by Mr. Karsh.

I have saved the girls many hours of toil, I am sure. What is left of my wardrobe went into the bin quite recently. There is almost nothing left of me; hospital gowns are quite appalling but they are also -- how clever! -- adjustable when one has grown reedy. And I will not need winter boots or summer sandals again. Purses, hats. Gone, gone.

I did it for them: hopeless, tender, limited. They always took affront so easily. Can’t imagine why. And they could not organize their way out of a paper bag.

The rest of it, the records of the savings I put by in case I needed private care one day, and the bonds -- I made a little heap in the kitchen sink long before I called that ambulance and I set the heap alight.

Let the girls figure it out. I pride myself on owing nothing to anyone.

There is one thing I simply could not bear to part with. I left it on a high shelf in the back bedroom. It’s a puzzle jug, precisely the sort of thing thing of which I was an astute collector for some time. 

Quirky, the girls used to call it (silly word.) A puzzle jug -- this one is English, a century and a half old, patterned splendidly in blue and white -- is a perforated pottery vessel, a tavern amusement.

To drink from it you must find its leaks, its gaps, and cover them, or you will be soaked. A puzzle jug will make a fool of you.

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