taboo subject

“Is it a bad sign when you start smelling things that aren’t there?” I ask my daughter. My daughter isn’t a doctor or anything like that; we’re just having a conversation while driving to a restaurant for supper.

“Uhhh,” she says, “why?” She turns her head to look at me and I wonder if a mother ever, ever feels comfortable being driven around in a car by her kid. I hold tighter to the door handle and will myself not to tell her to keep her eyes on the road.

“Oh nothing,” I say, “I just thought I read somewhere that people who have strokes start smelling smoke when there isn’t a fire. Or something like that. Smoke without fire—ha,” I bark out a sound that passes in my mind for a laugh, “that would be some kind of inverted pun or irony or something, wouldn’t it, the non-smoke indicating a stroke?” I am not entirely up on grammar or parts of speech or whatever puns and things like that are. The only thing I know for sure is similes—they have to have ‘like’ or ‘as’ in the sentence and these two small words and what they indicate have somehow clung to my many-years-past-high-school-English-class brain like…like a barnacle to a boat bottom (although I recently read in the Walrus magazine that marine paint now contains antibiotics to discourage barnacle growth and this is contributing to killing sea life as we know it. So maybe I’ll file that boat simile. It’s too disturbing to think about).

“Fire?” repeats my daughter. “You smell fire? Now?” She looks behind her at the car seat where my granddaughter is sleeping. I brace myself for a collision with oncoming traffic. “Here?” she asks, and her voice sounds a more than a trifle strained.

“No, no,” I hasten to say, “not here. Or I guess not only here.” I wave my hands about, indicating an expansive range. My nasal universe has no borders. “Everywhere,” I say. “I smell it everywhere I go.”

My daughter leaps backward into the conversation, neatly picking through the fog of dispensed-with words floating around the stuffy car interior like microbes in a drop of pond water (I can see that I’ll remain obsessed with that barnacle fact for a while yet. That’s how my brain works). “Stroke?” My daughter sticks in a thumb and pulls out a plum, “did you say stroke?”

“No, I mean yes, I mean yes I said stroke but I didn’t mean stroke,” I flounder. It’s difficult to have casual conversations about potentially deadly medical conditions without alarming loved ones. I know this. “I was just wondering aloud,” I say.

“About strokes?” my daughter says. “Are you trying to tell me you think you’ve had a stroke, because if you are—“

“No!” I say firmly. “No, I don’t know anything about strokes, or very little anyway, just a bit from when my uncle had all those strokes last summer and he had to have surgery to graft an artery—“

My daughter doesn’t like anything to do with blood: even the thought of it makes her feel nauseous. She stops me from going down that road, with another question. There are no flies on that cookie. She may be driving, at night, in the rain, with a kid in the back, and a flaky mother in the seat beside her, but she is listening. “So you smell smoke all the time?” she asks. “That can’t be good.”

“I know,” I say, “it’s weird. But it isn’t smoke, it’s kind of a perfume-smell and I keep smelling my clothes because I think it must be coming from them only I don’t use laundry soap with perfume in it and it doesn’t matter what I wear, or where I am. It’s a sweet smell, like my mother’s talcum powder. Or I think maybe she used a perfume that smelled like talcum powder, I think that’s what she used. After she died I took a bottle of it from her bathroom. It’s still in a cupboard at home.”

“What’s it called?” my daughter asks. I have successfully derailed the conversation; I feel some satisfaction in this.

“I don’t remember, I think it begins with a T,” I say. “I read in a book the other day something about a queen of England using a certain scent and I thought that was the same one. But I’m not sure—Taboo—that’s what it was called,” I exclaim with some excitement. I am impressed with myself for remembering this.

“The queen of England used a perfume called Taboo?” my daughter says with surprise. “That seems unlikely.”

“I know, maybe it wasn’t the same, maybe that’s the name of my mother’s perfume and not the queen of England’s perfume. Probably I’ve got it wrong. I’m terrible at remembering stuff like that,” I say.

My daughter remembers stuff better than I do and she has learned from a master (mistress? a.k.a. me) how to cling to a thought like a barnacle to a ship-bottom: “So you smell perfume all the time that isn’t there? How long has this been going on?”

But we have arrived at the restaurant and the next few minutes are busy waking up the toddler and paying for parking and by the time we are settled in our seats the conversation turns to more immediate concerns like who wants a mango lassi.

A week or so later I realise that my new mascara has perfume in it. I always use hypoallergenic cosmetics, because I have allergies, but this was a sample. And the package said, ‘ophthalmologist-tested’ so I thought that meant perfume-free. I threw the mascara out and since then I’ve stopped smelling smells that aren’t there.

This little narrative is my way of telling my daughter the true story of how I’m not having a stroke.


unrequited friendship

have you ever fallen for someone, a new acquaintance, a not-so new acquaintance, in a big way? in a head-over-heels, i adore this person from the bottom of my tiny heart i could sit at the feet of this person and gaze up adoringly and listen just listen to anything said and treasure any dew drops of attention paid my way–have you ever?

and not in that way, i mean not in the way of i want to marry you and have children with you and share a bed with you and grow old with you, no. i mean in the way of best friends. i want to be your best friend and share secrets and get into scrapes with you and tap all the wisdom of your experience and say oh so casually to people at a gathering: that person over there, the talented, beautiful, intelligent and competent one, that one, that person and i are friends. reaping vicarious fame and accomplishment. rubbing shirtsleeves with an admiring public. yes.

or no. because sometimes that’s just not how it turns out. sometimes the other just isn’t into you. not in that way. the other has other, better friends and no room for more. the other doesn’t admire you, perhaps, the adoration is not reciprocated.

and the desired intimate conversations over a glass of wine do not happen. the shared eyebrow-raising across a room–oh, oh can you believe what was just said, we know better than that, we share a smirk that needs no words. that connection that needs no explanation of why that is funny or why that is not–doesn’t precisely disconnect, no, it never actually hooks up at all. like a ditch dug for new fibre optic wires to link the neighbourhood to the world-wide-web but then money runs out and the cables are never laid and eventually the ditch fills with water in the rainy season and people start talking about hazards and pets and children and eventually no-one remembers the glorious potential that began the venture. nothing gained.

i am left with yearning for something that never happened. loss for something that, never begun, was more missed–like a bus or an opportunity–than lost. how can i mourn for something lost that i never had? it was that tantalizing glimpse of possibility. that dream friendship emerging from the mists of imagining. the smile, the first handshake. the voice and the shining intelligence and the taste in clothes and the political and intellectual priorities and…it didn’t pan out. i am left on the sidelines, an onlooker while others bask in the glory of being in the inner circle. occasional encounters are bittersweet. i wonder if it would be better to cut all ties? would i suffer less?

garage sale

“Oh look,” my mother says, pointing at a hand-lettered sign taped lop-sidedly to a telephone pole, “a garage sale.” She pauses – beat – beat – for the punchline: “Let’s go buy a garage,” she says, “It’s funny how many people are selling garages these days. Do you have room in your apartment for a garage?” She smiles happily at this witticism of hers, like the proud kid in the nursery rhyme who sticks his thumb in a pie and pulls out a plum.

It’s always the same routine: spring arrives, then summer, and the posters and placards sprout up from the boulevards, untidy and sprawling like the chickweed in my flower-pots. Look closely, though, and it’s possible to see astonishingly delicate white chickweed blossoms, smaller and more precious than I permit myself to admit — how, else, could I bring myself to yank them ruthlessly out of the soil? It’s like that with garage sales, I think, it’s the old adage about “my weeds are somebody else’s roses” (Is that how the saying goes? Somehow I think not. Mom would know).

My mother was invariable with her humour; like a recorded narrative that could be rewound or fast-forwarded to a cue, my mom could be relied on (or even prompted, if the devilry was in me) to come up with a (treasured!?) homily, adage, or corny joke. “Look, Mom,” I say, pointing. “Oh!” she says, smiling, delighted. She pauses, then releases her happy gift to the world: “A garage sale,” she says, “Let’s go buy a garage. The one we have at home is getting a bit shabby.”

As the days shorten into autumn, and the garage sales are becoming less frequent (in direct proportion to the number of rainy Sunday afternoons), I find myself going out of my way to read the signs — sometimes happily augmented with balloons like a birthday party; my mother would have liked that — and feeling a bit deflated if the advertisement is for a ‘yard sale’ rather than the old-school ‘garage sale.’ Although I suspect my mom might have liked to to buy a yard, given the opportunity.

Summer cleaning

How is this different from the proverbial spring cleaning? It definitely feels different, partly because of the heat, which saps my resolve, draws me with the slightest excuse down to the main floor where it’s cooler than the top floor of my 100+ year old row house. One tiny excuse more and I’m down in the basement where it’s actually cool enough to stop the sweat that makes my t-shirt stick to my skin like a grotesque piece of clinging, strangling, oh get this thing off of me, piece of over-sized seaweed. No exaggeration intended.


But the basement isn’t the summer cleaning target; I can meander down there quite legitimately from time to time to put on a load of laundry but then I have to go back up. And the heat hits me in the face so I feel like someone’s turned the pore-tap on and in less time than it takes to say, “this is ridiculous” I’m (re)covered in a most unbecoming sheen of sweat.


So what’s the urge for a cleaning now? Clearly it’s not for the fun of it. I think about this question as I take a much-deserved break from the action to flop into a chair on the back porch. And I see that it’s a double-bind thing, the lurching toward lethargy of hot summer days that leaves laundry folded but not put away, floors gritty but unswept, blueberries moldering in the fridge and never quite making their way into a pie. Now I can say lethargy has indeed arrived: messy build-up has relentlessly taken over the house. Languid summer swelter created this mess, and, from where I sit (on the porch, in the shade), it looks like it’ll probably remain status quo until autumn.


postcard story

today i received a postcard from a friend. in the mail. you know. the mail.

i don’t know how long it took to reach me. i wondered about that question for a moment, as i held the card in my hands, and it took me longer than i like to admit to remember that little old the thing, the postmark, that gets stamped on things that go through the mail, recording what day it was picked up by the post office from the mailbox (which may not be the same day it was put there, by the sender, particularly if it’s mailed from a rural location), and roughly where that mailbox was. or where the nearest post office to that mailbox was, or is, anyway.

so i ceased my bemused admiration of the picture of long grasses, a lake, and a sunset, and turned the postcard over. the postmark was no more than a smudge on the k.d. lang commemorative stamp. a big enough smudge to spoil the picture, but smudgy enough to be completely illegible. you wouldn’t actually know that something was supposed to be written there.

the post office appears to be determined to hang on to what little remains of its power over human communication, through the tool of mystification. i am barred from discovering, via crown corporation authority, the mailing date of this card.

but just so you know, my friend has been home from her holiday for more than a week.

so the postcard’s journey was…long.

this differs remarkably from the length of time it takes an email to reach me.

i’m just sayin’.

the message my dear friend chose to send me by this (what might appear to some to be grotesquely slow) method is this:

i wish you didn’t live so far away…”

this message, when i read it, made me laugh so loud that the dog woke from her nap and slunk out of the room with a most reproachful look on her face. at the same time, tears that were not laughter came into my eyes.

so close and yet so far away. the funny thing is, my friend lives very close to me; i could, if i wished, drive to her house right this minute and (assuming she is there) see her in less than 5 minutes. or maybe exactly 5 minutes. certainly a very few minutes. but at the time that she wrote the message on the postcard she was far away, in rural ontario. i was still where i always am, 5 minutes (or so) away from her house.

i wish you didn’t live so far away…”

…she writes, and i think, “i wish i didn’t, too.” and i don’t really know what i mean by that or what she meant by that, but it makes me feel sad.

one bucket at a time

it’s late at night, late summer; the temperature, even at this hour, is in the late 20s. 

it’s been hot and dry for days on end; here in the rainforest where i live this is a relatively rare thing.

i have complex system of watering thirsty plants that involves buckets in the sink to catch all the water from rinsing hands or potatoes or plates and i carry the buckets full of water out to the plants on the porch and in the yard. it’s time consuming. a hose would be faster and less tiring. but i am committed to my own little contrivance of water conservation.

one less litre of water down the drain. one more living growing plant in the city.

i call it my ‘grey water system’ because once at a fair–one of those big ones with livestock in barns and a building full of hawkers, “ladies come close, look at this cheese grater, have you seen a better one?” –there was a building, a really big one with a full-sized house in it, the house of the future and to show all its fabulous features the walls were clear plexiglass (i’m elaborating just a bit, to sound like i know what i’m talking about; i confess don’t know the type of plastic it was, something see-through. could be plexiglass, right? sounds good to me). the point of all this is that this house of the future featured a grey water system, meaning that water from the sinks was re-used in the toilet and laundry water was used on the garden. no buckets required; it was all accomplished with pipes connecting things together. i fell in love (or maybe it was lust).

not having the resources to re-pipe a house that i didn’t own anyway, i began the bucket odyssey.

my family resists it, i’m not sure why. i catch them washing lettuce and allowing the water to flow down the drain. they pour cooked pasta into the strainer and let the water escape. i think of my thirsty garden and wince, just a little. i avoid being obsessive or nagging, but just barely.

and now, late at night, a sudden downpour. water, water, everywhere. and lightning, and distant rumbling. i hear a girl shriek and run down the street outside, no doubt seeking cover.  i wonder where the dog is; she doesn’t like thunder.

but then it stops. it’s kind of weird, all that rattling, pattering, booming, roar of the rainstorm suddenly stops and the space it leaves takes a moment to fill. a moment before a helicopter growls its way overhead, a car hisses by on the wet street. and in through the window, the smell of wet. wet dust after days and days of heat and dryness. the smell of wet asphalt.  a surprisingly good smell. 


my mother and my grandmother shared a birthday.

i say shared but the family story is that Mid, my grandmother, did not like sharing her birthday with her daughter. it could be that she didn’t think that spending her birthday labouring and straining and finally in agony and shit and blood producing a squalling, dependent infant was much fun.

what, no cake?

the truth is, i don’t know what she really thought. was she sullen every time august 6th rolled around, knowing she’d have to produce some kind of kids’ party with balloons and hats and usually some hair-pulling over who got to ride the pony first (was there ever a pony?) and why must the cake be homemade in the heat of summer and look, oh great that kid in corner is barfing up, probably the cake. next year…next year she probably rolled up her sleeves and did it again.  put on a party for her daughter, i mean.

but Mid might have liked it, that’s possible too, family story not withstanding. it’s just possible that Mid said once in jest, oh i hate sharing my birthday with you, my daughter my love, and when she said it she swung her daughter high up in the air and then held her close in her arms and they both laughed and knew that Mid was joking. the best birthday present that Mid ever received was the gift of a daughter, delivered right on time, no ‘sorry i missed your birthday’ card was required. that might have been it.

but i’ll never know. Mid died before i was born, during the time my mother was pregnant with me, and my mother died 9 years ago. their stories are mostly gone.  i am left guessing, and remembering what i can.