We were driving to Edmonton because my Granny was dying and we wanted to say good bye.
So we drove all day from the west coast, heading towards Edmonton. I forget sometimes how big and unpopulated Canada really is because I am a city girl, born and raised and forever amen. But when we hit the highways north and we drive for hours and hours without seeing a gas station, surrounded only by trees and silence, it sinks in. There is wide open space on the other side of our comfortable orbits.
We ate at an old Husky station with an attached restaurant, I had an open face roast beef sandwich and I still think about it, it was so regular and good. The sign said “Last Gas or Food for 200 kms” or something like that so we filled up on gas and cheezies and pop, all the essentials because I was five months pregnant. It was my fourth pregnancy but for the first time, it seemed that we were really going to bring home a baby this time so Brian and I were giddy and young and hopeful at our core as we drove with my sister and her husband and her dog through the mountains as they began to appear out of the distance.
The family was gathering at the old hospital to be together. My uncles were driving in, my parents had flown ahead of us, my auntie and her girls and their families were already there. We came from the east and the west and the north. She was dying, there were only days left, and we were coming to bear witness, to sit the vigil, to tell stories, to hold each other as much as hold her.
The early days of April in British Columbia are filled with flowers and beauty, green growth and warm days. As we drove north east into Alberta, the green receded and the temperature dropped steadily. But there were small hints of spring here and there – buds on trees, crocuses in the ditches, and at that Husky station there were bedding plants for sale even though it was way too soon for planting – that’s what May long weekend is for, after all. I stood in front of the too-early flower display and called my husband over, “Look, pansies,” I said because purple pansies with gold hearts are my Granny’s favourite flower, they’re her icon, and we were driving to her. We climbed back in the Chevy and kept going, clicking off kilometres through the hours. I carried the sight of those flowers with me.
Years ago, when my grandfather was still alive and they lived in a trailer park community just outside of Regina, there was a playground of old tractor tires at the end of the dirt road and I can still smell it, the mix of hot melting rubber in the Saskatchewan heat and the faint smell of urine from within them because little boys would pee in them, everyone knew that. The faint rumble from the highway across the fields and the dull hot buzz of grasshoppers. We would pick dandelions from the fields and play in the blinding sunshine, turning brown as beans. We ran home, dusty, to drink out of the hose and the grown-ups sat in the living room visiting. We would eat humbug candy or licorice all-sorts out of my grandpa’s candy dish. He smelled like rum and coke with cigarettes and the smell is still a comfort to me because I had never known this tall man with a gravelled voice as anything but laconic and loving. Granny always had purple pansies in the flower beds or the pots, the royal purple ones with a darker purple hue near the centre and then the fleck of gold right at the heart. They were beautiful but ordinary, everyone’s granny had pansies.
It strikes me as an odd flower to choose as your icon. After all, most people love roses or daisies, even sweet peas for their beautiful sweet smell or lilacs for their heavy beauty or wild roses for their untamed beauty. But this ordinary bedding plan, a basic beauty easily available at Canadian Tire, was her favourite and we all knew it so we loved it, too.
We spent a couple of days at the hospital with our family. We visited and even laughed, we lifted her oxygen mask to kiss her before replacing it carefully. I sat in the corner of the room, watching my mother and her sister hold vigil, each of them holding her hands, but holding each other’s eyes. Fifteen years ago, they had done this holy work for their father. There’s an unspoken liturgy to dying, it’s the work of the people. Someone had brought a pot of pansies and it sat on the window sill right beside them. The room was old and small, the chairs were scratchy, the window faced only the early spring streets of Edmonton with winter’s left behind gravel piled in the gutters.
She died on April 9, she loved deeply and was loved deeply in return, what more could we say about a life? My cousin tattooed the image of pansies onto her skin soon after that. In August of that year, I gave birth to our first daughter.
Five years later, on April 9th, I gave birth to Evelynn Joan in our living room. She looks a lot like my Granny to me somehow: I think it’s the shape of their faces and their smiles, but maybe it’s something more in the heart or spirit, who knows. Evelynn has my mother’s eyes and her golden brown hair but with my father’s curls. She reminds some people of Brian but other people swear she looks like me. She’s a patchwork quilt of love, like we all are, I guess – it’s what makes us feel immortal.
Evie won’t ever know my Granny but we tell her stories like we tell stories of my father’s parents and we spin the yarn of their family stories so that they feel like they belong, like they know their place in the story, so they know it didn’t start with them, it won’t end with them, and there is a kind of love that doesn’t show up in the movies.
As poet Nayyirah Waheed said, “My mother was my first country, the first place I ever lived.” Every year on April 9th, there is an undercurrent of bittersweet because we are celebrating a small girl who has no concept of death or sorrow or suffering – as it should be. And yet I know my mother misses her mother: when something happens, silly or small or monumental, she still thinks, “I can’t wait to tell mum about this!” and then she remembers. Death sinks into our lives, it slowly becomes accepted reality but we always carry a homesickness for the ones we have loved, the ones who created us in a million ways. She calls her sister to talk about their mum; my sister and I call her to tell her we remember and that we will always remember.
Evelynn turned four years old last week. My mother took her to Build-a-Bear for a fun morning; Maggie Love and I tagged along. For her celebration, we had a cake with pink icing and sprinkles, she brought cupcakes to her preschool friends, we decorated the house with Frozen birthday banners and pink-blue-white balloons. Her favourite meal is sandwiches so we had cold-meat buns for her birthday feast. My sister’s family gave her a new bathing suit for the summer fun ahead and a stuffie. We got her a scooter for playing outside with all the kids. The house was filled with the noise of children from outside – they all ran out right after the party to play. After the party, my mother bathed our new baby gently and slowly, I call it Granny’s Ministry of Bathtime. I carried around a cold cup of tea and picked up bits of wrapping paper from the floor, my sister’s girls played fairies, my husband stood in the garage with my father talking about the real estate market right now.
It’s all so regular, so ordinary, so beautiful.
And sitting on the mantle there was one last gift from my mother for my little middle daughter: an ordinary pot of purple pansies.