This email includes an inspiring story about a teacher of mine; And upcoming writing workshops.
The timing was all wrong. I couldn’t start a new friendship, not as I was about to leave the city and move to an island. My father had just died. I couldn’t stand the idea of getting close to an 89-year-old. What was the point of risking another heartache? I had seen Beth at social gatherings for years, yet why was I now deciding to get to know her? Her skin was rice-paper-thin, with eyelids so droopy; she often had to lift one of them up so she could see you. Then the one eye would twinkle when you came into focus.
Still living independently, Beth sat in the living room in a high-backed armchair with a mountain of books on the table beside her. A yellow light bulb in the reading light created a halo around her head.
Often, I dropped by on my way in or out of the city. Her door was always unlocked: I’d enter calling her name as not to startle her. As I’d near the chair, she’d pull up the skin of one eyelid and laugh: “No, I am not dead yet.” A Canadian through and through, there was a British air about her. She drank her afternoon tea in the good china and had hard biscuits to dunk. A volunteer for WREN in the Second World War, and when she came back worked as a nurse for KODAK. She had been in love with three women over the years. Not closeted, but from a generation that didn’t announce preferences, she would subtly reveal herself when she felt safe. When a mutual friend of ours thought it might be too late to pursue romance, Beth whispered,
“Always take the tarts when they get passed, you never know when the tray will be back around, dear.”
Since our visits were short and poignant, we dispensed with the niceties quickly and dove into the real issues of life. I had barely removed my overcoat when I asked,
“Do you love yourself, Beth?”
Her eyes crinkled up, and said, “I chip away at it.”
Then she got up to put on the kettle. Here was a woman coming up on 90 years of age and the idea that she was still chipping away at this thing called self-love gave me hope.
The kettle whistled, and as she got the milk from the fridge, she asked, “What are you chipping away at now, my dear?” The waterworks began to flow.
Although I loved that I had moved back to the country, I felt like an outsider. The idea that I was a freak had followed me around my whole life and had been forwarded to my new address. I was struggling to find a way to belong. There was country folk who didn’t like city folk and city folk who didn’t like country folk. I felt I had to choose which group to which I would belong. I loved both in their own right, but I didn’t fit exclusively in either tribe. My inner thighs were aching, trying to straddle both worlds.
Beth said, “Oh Darling, you must go out to the rocks and be a siren.”
“A siren? What? You mean, like one of those sexy ladies that used to nakedly lull sailors into the rocks?”
She poured the tea into a chipped china cup and handed it to me. “Exactly, you must stop running around trying to get to like you. Just sit on one of the rocks and wait for the right people to be brought to shore.”
All I could imagine was a hilarious image of me sitting on the South Shore naked, suddenly have grown long blonde hair over my languishing breasts, causing the men on the ferry to crash into the dock.
After I left, I didn’t stop auditioning for people to like me. Not right away. But I slowed the process of trying to fit in. I started letting things unfold to see who would be friends, acquaintances, or just a good neighbor.
Over the years, I took this experiment further. I began testing if the island would bring me not just friends, but things I needed on a daily basis. If I ran out of coffee, I’d ask neighbors if they had any. My mechanic on the island could fix anything, if I asked could also fix my dishwasher. A teenage friend of my daughter took care of my dog when I went away and then began coming to my house even when I didn’t need help. She said she loved being in the place, and I had cable. When I’d return from work some days, she’d be lying there, and we’d share a bowl of soup and a chat.
On snowy days, I’d call my dear artist friend Shirley on the Second Concession, and she would put on a pot of soup, and I’d sit in her big La-Z-Boy chair writing while she painted. I also tucked a half-knit pair of socks into my pack, so when we broke for lunch, she’d often correct all my mistakes made around the heels. Another neighbor at the east end of the island edited my first novel. She had Lyme disease so virulent that even washing my hands with soap could cause a reaction that made her ill for days. Fairweather or foul we sat outside and edited my book. Even on a winter day with snow blowing around us, with she decked out in a snowmobile suit and me wrapped in tarps from her garden we took our place and created.
I have undeniable proof life does bring us people, and necessities when we need them most.
(After all, hadn’t I stumbled across Beth’s wisdom quite by accident?)
It’s my interactive gratitude list with each day. Beth is long dead yet daily I remember a line she said in our year together. When asked how she coped in her later years, she said,
“I cope because I can’t stop seeing the wonder of it all.”
Eventually, I moved off the island, back to the city, to live in the Beaches area of Toronto. Most days, after I walk the boardwalk and I sit on a Muskoka chair at the edge of the lake. People on SUP boards paddle by. Sometimes they wave. Sometimes they don’t. People with dogs talk to me, or they don’t. I am fine either way. I a siren with a short bob. A siren, fully clothed. Next to me, I sense Beth sitting next to me, with one eye open, reading a book.
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