Where do the memories go?

Last Friday involved a lot of heavy lifting. (Not for me, of course. There’s to be no heavy lifting with my right lymph node-less arm, but for Zsolt and my father.) We were collecting the last of the furniture from my grandmother’s old apartment in Montreal.

It is so strange to see the place empty. This is where we used to sit in a giant circle with the family and catch up. This is where she used to put chocolate bunnies filled with marshmallow on the table for the kids. This is where she made her sugar cream, baked her cookies, and did her work for the Alzheimer’s Society.

As you may know, Zsolt and I are growing in optimism that we’ll soon move out of my parents house. And as you know, we upped and left our previous place (and previous furniture – except the mattress, which was impossible to offload) back in England. So the collection of free and gently used furniture is a very welcome thing.

But it’s a little strange to have this nest of Lulu’s old stuff, waiting to be turned into ‘our stuff’ as we move into a new home. It’s strange because I look at the sofa that was hers, and I can remember sitting on it when we visited, and it’s been in her home for so long . . . and it makes me wonder, “Is Lulu in this sofa? Is this sofa part of her?”

Same goes for the kitchen table where we’d eat the take-away St Hubert chicken and gravy – a Forget Family Favourite. Or the dishes on which she’d serve meals back when she was better, less worried, and still cooking for guests.

So we have a household worth of furniture, and her apartment is now essentially bare. Empty. Sold.

“Is she in that apartment? Is she in the bits and pieces we take away?”

Where is she now?

Well I’m not qualified to answer that last question. But as for the others, I reckon she’s not in that empty apartment, and she’s not in the cushions of her old sofa. Mostly, I figure, she’s right deep in our memories and our hearts – the good and the bad, the woman as a whole. She’s in the memories. And as for her soul? Well, Lulu believed in heaven, so that’s where she’s bound to have gone.

Looking at the empty rooms, the bare floors, the naked shelves . . . I can feel that she’s not here anymore. Lulu is somewhere else. We get to keep her memory in the knickknacks and the photos . . . but she is not here anymore. She’s moved on.

And so shall we.

It couldn’t be easy on my mother and her sisters to pack away their mother’s life. But maybe they’ve come to the same conclusion, that Lulu’s life does not rest in her things. The objects and furniture are memories, good emotions, happy moments . . . but they are not her.

It’s not easy to say goodbye to a person you loved. But once you realize they’ve already left, I suppose it becomes just that little bit easier. (I’m not saying it’s entirely easy, and I’m not saying I don’t miss her . . . but she’s not in that apartment, I know it for sure. So I have to imagine she’s somewhere else far better, with my grandfather and her siblings. And they’re having a laugh with those angle wings on and acting some ridiculous pantomime like back in the old days. Why not? Anything is possible.)


P.S. Today (Monday) Zsolt and I are steam-cleaning Lulu’s old furniture. It’s been a while since they’ve been cleaned, plus she used to smoke. So we’re out here in the backyard with this foaming, splashy, steamy machine trying to fix things up real nice. Her furniture is becoming our furniture, and so it takes on another life.

P.P.S. That’s a photograph of Lulu (Lucienne) and Benoit. Aren’t they a handsome couple?

The crunch of an apple

This week took me back into the Tremblant hills, and frankly my mind is still there despite having returned to Ottawa. In Tremblant the leaves have fallen, leaving the forest a mixture of bare grey and coniferous green. And up one particular dirt road, along which you’ll find slews of frozen water (where Zsolt and I threw rocks to break the ice), past the scattered houses with lights on in the windows, up , up, and up to the top of a forest-covered hill – that’s where my grandmother is staying. It is my aunt’s log cabin in the woods. Smoke pours from the chimney, fire crawls in the hearth and conversations are whispered. This week Zsolt and I kept them company. Together we waited. And we are still waiting, even now as I type this in my parent’s kitchen in Ottawa, now away from the chalet.

My grandmother, Lulu, is ninety two years old, and for all the wonderful things she is, has been, may become – right now she is dying. And that is hard for everyone. Hard to even write about.

But it’s wrapped up in my mind, so what choice do I have? This week I don’t want to blog about cancer or homecoming or Canada or my husband. I’d rather write about Lucienne, or Lulu, as I call her.

The other day I walked into my grandmother’s bedroom and sat down opposite her. She said her ‘Bonjour’ and so did I before flipping open my laptop and beginning to work while she stared across the room. And then I pulled out an apple that was in my pocket (no bananas), polished it off, and took a bite.

Lulu smiled.

I offered her a slice, since suddenly she was watching me, but Lulu declined.

“I can’t eat it.” Her teeth are no good for chewing hard fruit.

“Do you mind if I eat it?”

“No, no.”

And so for a while it was all: type, type, type (I was working on a project for my parents. This week they are hosting this large workshop and I was sussing out some inspirational ideas to write on cards.) and chew, chomp, crunch.

Crunch, crunch, crunch. Apple juice running down my hand, being wiped on my pyjamas, spraying into the room with every juicy bite. Crunch, crunch, crunch.

And she turned to me – which she doesn’t do too often anymore, and she smiled.

“I like that. I like to hear you eat it.”

“Does it feel almost like you’re eating it?”

“Yes. I like the smell. I like the sound.”

And she laid back smiling as I continued to eat that red McIntosh. Eyes closed. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Sour sweet juice.

What she thought about with those eyes shut, I have no idea. My French is not fantastic, and her English isn’t incredible (but it is good). We normally manage fairly well, though lately she’s having trouble so I avoid in-depth questions like, “What is it you’re imagining right now?” or “What is it you remember when I eat this apple?”

But whatever it was, it made her smile. And maybe in that moment, maybe it took her somewhere other than the bedroom in my aunt’s Tremblant chalet. Somewhere she felt more herself. Maybe –and this is me being sentimental – maybe it took her back in time, to when she and Benoit would sit on the veranda of their Montreal home after the girls had been put to bed. And they’d lean back on their lawn chairs, side by side, and laugh as the apple juice dripped down their fingers. Crunch, crunch, crunch.

That’s what I’d like to imagine.

Sometimes we feel so helpless seeing other people suffer. And as things progress, that helplessness builds for everyone. It’s a familiar picture. Last year I was on the other side, the one in bed and beneath the blankets, and even now I need to say: ‘Catherine, you are not sick. This is not you. You are fine and done with that garbage. Done, done, done.’

But nevertheless, whatever side – there is a helplessness. And so I’m thankful for the small moments. The smell of an apple, the gift of a memory, the comfort of company.

If I could do nothing else, as least I could help her smile; it’s one of the most lovely things in the world – and hopefully, for at least that moment, she felt lovely within herself.

And that is all I have to say about that.