I was in Niagara recently, driving past the house where I grew up. An elderly woman was sweeping the front walk. I pulled over and watched, remembered how on that very bit of pavement, next to the stone planter, I wore a bathrobe with pink rosebuds and corduroy slippers and a bowl haircut and wrote my name in sparklers one firecracker night while my dad—in a Hawaiian shirt, cigarette tucked into a wide smile, face tanned and dark hair falling forward a bit, Clark Gable style—scrunched down, arms around me, for a photo.
He built that planter, two of them in fact, from stones I helped him collect at the beach. I see that someone has knocked one of them down and put nothing in its place.
On a whim I get out the car, pace in front of the house. The sweeping woman doesn’t seem to notice but it occurs to me the pacing might look odd so I decide to walk over, tell her I’m not staking the place out; I explain that I used to live here, that my parents lived here forty something years. She asks if I’d like to see around. I wasn’t expecting that, but yes. The woman’s name is Minerva. She’s from Nova Scotia and she says Come along then, my dear.
We start in the backyard. My dad’s gardens, rockeries [more stones from the beach] are wildly overgrown. Trees and shrubs haven’t been trimmed for years, a rose bush has become a tree. The vegetable garden is gone, but the conch shells my parents brought back from Bermuda thirty years ago are still there in a small triangle of white stones beside the patio. I ask about the blackberries that grew on a trellis and she shows me through a forest of leaves that, yes, they’re still there. She says there’s not much fruit though. I don’t explain about pruning, how that increases yield. She’s smiling the whole time, proud, beaming, clearly in love with this mad wilderness.
We move inside where things are tidy with doilies on furniture, tea cups in a china cabinet. There are homemade quilts and afghans, newly stencilled walls. The bathroom is bright blue with a nautical theme, maybe for memories of Nova Scotia. A mural of flowers and trees is painted on the inside of the front window. She takes time finding the switch to turn on fairy lights woven among some branches in a large floor vase, a gift from her son. She likes to knit. She shows me a yellow dress for her granddaughter.
The whole time, I’m kind of listening, mostly remembering. She’s made changes, yes, but not as many as I imagined. (She kept a wall-sized mural of a beloved Bermuda beach scene that my dad painted a million years ago.) It’s different, definitely, yet absolutely familiar. We are everywhere here—my mum, my dad, my sister. And we are nowhere. They’re gone, it’s just me.
And her life in this house. Her son, her grandkids.
And it’s okay. It’s very good in fact. If anyone had to live here, I’m glad it’s her.
We’re oddly connected, all of us.
She tells me to come back anytime.
I couldn’t find that firecracker night picture, but here’s another. Five hundred years ago, the blackberry trellis in the background. He, wearing a sweater I gave him that my mum accidentally shrunk and that he would not let her throw out.