My father's sister Rose still remembers the first time she ate pork.
"I thought God was going to strike me dead," she laughs, as she watches me shift myself around on the couch across from her. "That was almost a hundred years ago."
The room goes silent. She looks down at her hands, splays her fingers as much as she is able, then shakes her head at them. When she looks up at me again, I see the look of disbelief in her face. It's a look I've seen too many times in the last few years.
"Almost a hundred years ago," she says again, this time in a whisper. We both know she's not exaggerating. At the age of one hundred and four, she is the longest-living of her parents' children, though she was not their firstborn. That distinction belonged to her brother Julius, who was born in the Russia of Czar Nicolas II. He died of scarlet fever in Toronto, after returning home from Chicago, where he'd gone to study the violin. He was twenty-four. My aunt says he died of love sickness.
"He loved music too much," she says. "He never took care of himself."
There's a picture of Julius on her night table. He's seated, though you can't see the chair; you can just see his thighs. He looks very formal; he's dressed in a three-piece suit and he's holding his violin upright, with the chin rest planted firmly on his left thigh. His left hand sits below the pegbox while, in his right hand, he holds the bow at an angle.
The photo stands in a plastic frame that must have been white when it was new, but it's had a yellow tint to it for as long as I can remember. The glazing isn't glass; it's acrylic. It's a bit cloudy and has scratches that must have come from it being stored for a long period after his death, probably underneath something heavy. The scratches make Julius's suit look striped.
Inside her night table, my aunt keeps the clippings of the newspaper reports of her brother's death. I know this not because she showed them to me, but because I found them one day long ago, when I was rifling through the drawers in her bedroom. Boredom and fear had led me there. When I was six years old, I stayed with my aunt and uncle while my mother was in the hospital. I'd never been away from home overnight and the strangeness of it sent me on a quest for the familiar. I didn't find it in the bedroom first, though. Instead, I found it in their hall closet when I reached into my uncle's coat pocket and fished out a fresh piece of Juicy Fruit gum. Emboldened by that discovery, I stalked each room for similar bounty and that was how I came upon the yellowed newspaper clippings. My father's family was well-known in the small northern Ontario town where they grew up, so it doesn't surprise me now that the newspapers had covered my uncle's death. I didn't think much about it that night in the apartment, though, except that I found the yellowing of the paper strange. I don't think I would remember those clippings at all if it hadn't been for the one from a newspaper called The Porcupine Quill. My six-year-old brain was tickled by that name, just as it had been when I found out that the town my father and his siblings had grown up in was called South Porcupine.
My paternal grandparents settled there in the very early part of the twentieth century, after my grandfather and his brother deserted the Czar's army. I considered that tidbit of my family history to be exotic when I first heard it, but as I grew older and met more people who were the children of children of immigrants, I realized that all of us were, in some way, exotic-outsiders-at least to those who belonged to Canada's dominant culture.
"Look at us!" my friend Nancy called out during our wintertime excursion to Toronto's Nathan Phillips Square. A small group of friends from our tenth-grade home room had stopped for a hot chocolate break between rounds of skating at the City Hall rink, when Nancy decided to celebrate Canada's muliticulturalism. With her forefinger, Nancy pointed to each one of us, categorizing us according to our backgrounds: "Look at us!" she said a second time, with an undeniable sense of wonder and pride. "We've got an Italian, a Jamaican, a Ghanaian, a Jew, and a normal person!" Then, with her thumb, she pointed to herself-the normal person-oblivious to the deeper meaning of her gesture and of the words she'd just uttered.
"I should have gone with him," my aunt says every time the topic of Julius comes up. "He would still be alive today, if only I'd gone with him."
Family legend has it that she had planned to join Julius in Chicago. She'd intended to study nursing there, since there was little opportunity for Jewish girls to do so in Ontario. After her brother died, though, their mother refused to let her leave.
"What a piece of luck for patients everywhere," Aunt Rose's daughter Janice jokes whenever my aunt bemoans her aborted nursing career. Janice needn't say more. Our family knows that my aunt has a lot of good qualities, but empathy is not her strong suit. Neither is it Janice's, but today I am feeling both empathetic and sympathetic toward her. Her arrival later this afternoon will change everything for my aunt and her caregiver Corazón, and for Janice, though she and I are the only ones who know that right now.
"Time to go to washroom, Rose," Corazón calls from the kitchen. Corazón has a voice that makes her sound cheerful, even when she's not. My aunt looks at me and shakes her head.
"Old age is hell," she declares.
"And not for sissies," I reply in my best Bette Davis voice. "I'll still be here when you get back."
Corazón dries her hands on her apron, then takes it off and throws it on the back of a dining room chair. She wheels my aunt into the bathroom, and I take a seat on a chair facing the window and look out at the empty balcony.
When my uncle was alive, this balcony was filled with plants, as was this whole apartment. My uncle had been raised on a farm in Saskatchewan, but when he brought his green thumb to Ontario, their neighbours were perplexed. They laughed at him for growing tomatoes on a Toronto balcony, for weaving the vines along the brickwork and letting other plants cascade over the railing. Now, of course, balcony gardening is not only commonplace but highly encouraged, and people grow vegetables, herbs, and flowers with abandon on Toronto balconies and terraces. But in my uncle's time, doing so was considered exotic, in the literal sense: outside the norm and very much the work of outsiders.
The sound of rushing water from Corazón flushing the toilet and opening and closing the bathroom faucet breaks the silence in the living room and my thoughts turn toward her. For the last five years, she has lived in this apartment with my aunt. She has her own bedroom and bathroom and takes one day off every weekend. Her husband remains in the Philippines, while her teenage son and daughter live elsewhere in Toronto, on their own.
"Everybody sacrifice," she says bluntly, but with a smile. Always with a smile. And I say, "Yes, I understand," though I know from experience that her children's children will be less inclined to make such sacrifices.
The first time I met Corazón, I had no idea who she was. She opened the door to my aunt's apartment and, without speaking a word, ushered me inside. After she'd taken my coat and sat me down at the dining room table, she offered me tea and pastries, so I thought she was one of my aunt's former students, perhaps an alumna of the "Hostess" course at Rose's baking school. Five decades ago, the "piece of luck for patients everywhere" that my cousin jokes about turned out to be a lucky break for the culinary world, when my aunt decided to use her considerable skills to open and run the first baking school in Toronto. Before that, she and my uncle had owned a bun factory in Vancouver. That factory is now the site of a Joy Wash laundromat, a photo of which Rose keeps on her refrigerator door.
A few minutes after I'd accepted Corazón's invitation to tea, my aunt had wheeled herself into the living room.
"I'm teaching Corazón how to bake," she announced triumphantly, "so she'll have her own business when I'm gone."
That was eight years ago.
Corazón's business cards arrived last week. She seems excited about the prospect of running her own company and working at something a little less physically and emotionally strenuous. When I arrived this afternoon, she handed me a few cards to distribute among my friends, and I took them gladly.
"I know how to make people happy," she said. "I know how to take care of them."
"Yes, I know you do," were the only words I could summon, and I hope she knew they were heartfelt.
Corazón and my aunt are still in the bathroom when I hear a key turn in the front door. My cousin Janice stands for a moment in the doorway, then closes the door behind her. She puts her purse on the hall table, beside the display of my aunt's five published cookbooks, and hangs up her coat in the closet.
"Where is she?" she asks.
"In the bathroom."
"How long have you been here?"
"About an hour, maybe longer," I say. "Long enough to hear about the pork
My cousin rolls her eyes. "I'm sorry-"
"No. I didn't mean it like that. I love that story. She didn't get a chance to finish it, yet. I love the way it ends."
"We all know how it ends," Janice says.
For a few minutes, there is silence between us.
"Am I doing the right thing?"
"Yes," I say. "And no."
"I'm trying to do my best," she says, biting her lip slightly, trying not to allow her frustration to show. "We just can't do this anymore. Corazón needs her life back. And I'm going to go broke."
I tell her that I understand, but all I know is that there is no good answer.
She sighs. "We've all stayed too long at the fair."
Corazón opens the bathroom door and wheels my aunt out backwards, then turns the chair around to face us.
Before we resume the conversation, my aunt looks me straight in the face and says that she expects Corazón to get a lot of orders by the end of the year. The business will grow from there, she tells me. I nod my head and think the words that go unsaid: And life will go on.
Aunt Rose gestures to me to come closer to her, and when I do, she whispers. "I'm glad you could make it today. You never know about tomorrow."
I smile at her, and I feel that it's that kind of knowing, sad, ironic smile that is the only smile you can muster at a time like this. No, we don't know about tomorrow, but right now, I feel the weight of knowledge bearing down on me, because she doesn't even know about today. Today, I've come not just to visit but to help them with the transition. Today, I've come to distract my aunt, to make her feel comfortable while we arrange her transportation to a nursing home, where she likely won't survive another year. Today, she will discover that this plan has been in the works for six months and that she will be the last to find out. But now, in this moment, she wants only to resume our conversation.
"Now, where were we?" she asks, beckoning me to ask about the pork, and I do so happily.
"How did it taste that first time? The pork?"
Aunt Rose takes in a deep breath and then exhales.
"Sublime," she says, and she closes her eyes. "Sublime."