My name is Emily Montfort. When I was young, I thought my last name sounded quite exotic and that my ancestors were probably castle dwellers of noble descent. I was very creative in building my own mythology.
Nowadays I don't have the time or inclination for fantasies. I'm a pragmatic thirty-four year old living in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada's capital city.
I'm an only child. My mother developed Alzheimer's disease about three years before her death, and I became her caregiver. For those who've never witnessed the disease's ravaging effects on the mind and then, gradually, the body, I can only envy you and say that I truly hope you don't have to undergo this tragedy with someone you love. By the time my mother died, she'd gone from the slightly mischievous, quick-witted woman I'd known all my life to someone I didn't even recognize.
My mother was predeceased by my father so when she died, I inherited their small antique shop.
I live in an apartment above the shop. I have only to descend and mount the stairs―day and evening―to get to and leave work.
It's very convenient, if a bit circumscribing.
My parents were never major players in the competitive Ottawa antique business, but they were well-known for their contributions to the community. In addition to purchasing antiques, they bought beds, mattresses, couches, dishes, and other serviceable items they would donate to local homeless shelters and charities. Whenever there was news of a family displaced by a fire, I remember my mom being on the phone to the Salvation Army asking how she could help. So I was not surprised that my mother's funeral―and my father's before her―was so well-attended. Mom, no doubt, would have taken it in stride, but would have been secretly pleased at the turnout.
I remember one day at the beginning of her illness, I'd been reading to her until she fell asleep. I'd placed the book on my lap and was staring off into space, feeling particularly miserable, when suddenly I realized she was awake and watching me with her beautiful cornflower blue eyes. It was one of her rare moments of lucidity.
‘Please don't be so sad, Em. I know what's happening to me, and I'm grieving inside, and part of me is mad as hell and saying this can't be happening. But it's going to be harder for you than me, Em. And I want you to know something. And I'll say it now before I forget. I'm an ordinary person who's lived an ordinary life. I've known sorrows and I've known happiness, and I did the best I could with what I was given. I loved your father even though I could have cheerfully strangled him at times for his obstinacy. And I love you with all my heart and I'm so proud of you.
“Listen to me,” she laughed, “your father would say I'm waxing philosophical again. Such a die-hard stoic he was.” Her eyes misted with the memory of him.
“This isn't coming out the way I wanted it to, it's so difficult for me to concentrate any more, but while I still have a few thoughts to cobble together, I just want to tell you that it's okay to grieve for me after my death. But for my sake and yours, promise me you'll move on with your life.”
Mom gradually lost even the power of speech as the disease advanced. This would be the last time she spoke coherently to me.
When I was a teenager I used to love the weekend junkets I made with my parents in search of antiques. My parents had a standing wish list from their steady customers of items to look for on these trips. Sometimes we'd free-style in the small towns and countryside outside Ottawa. On these occasions we'd pack a picnic lunch and take in both advertised and unadvertised yard sales, checking for smaller items: primarily brass belt buckles, coins, and pocket watches. Occasionally we'd come across a real treasure such as an antique washstand barely recognizable beneath its layers of paint or a solid brass spittoon.
Of course my parents relied extensively on auctions and estate sales to replenish their stock. I was allowed to attend these events from a very early age with the understanding that I wouldn't try to bid on anything. For the most part, these gatherings in the countryside had a convivial and informal atmosphere that did not prevail at the stricter and more expensive auctions conducted in Ottawa where it was a given that items would fetch higher prices.
My father had grown up in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and had come to the nation's capital to study engineering at Carleton University. My mother, on the other hand, hailed from a small town in the Ottawa Valley. While my father had a dry―some would say non-existent―sense of humour, my mother loved to laugh and play jokes on people. How the two of them ever got together I'm not really sure, although I know they adored each other. My dad died of a heart attack shortly after their fortieth anniversary. Mom outlived him by almost a decade.
Dad was always looking for highway signs during these trips and cursing because there were so few of them. My mother would laugh at him and say, “We're out in the country now, dear, and the people who live here know there are only limited ways to get from one place to another. They obviously don't need signs to tell them that.”
It's been almost three months since my mother died, and the stock in the store is getting low so I've decided to embark on my first solo trip to make the circuit of yard sales, auctions, and estate sales. I know these journeys will never be quite the same without both of my parents: already I miss Mom's incessant chatter. But it's a beautiful early spring day, and I'm taking the back roads and am proud of myself that I recognize so many of the landmarks.
I drive past small churches with handwritten signs advertising their next services; local Masonic and legion halls with their announcements of bingo and upcoming fish fries; and the returning Canada geese walking in the spring run-off in fields by the roadside. These are my mom's people who populate this countryside: the ones who always infuriated her with their small- and capital-C conservatism, but whom she steadfastly supported because of their hard work and fierce loyalty to family and friends.
My first stop is at Dorothy Miller's house. She's a long-time family friend who's been selling antiques to us since I was a small child. Dorothy sent me a sympathy card after my mom's death, apologizing for not attending the funeral and explaining that she doesn't drive any more because of her rheumatoid arthritis.
I travel up the long gravel driveway that leads to her house, and Dorothy is at the door to greet me before I'm even out of the car. I haven't seen her for several years and so, as she opens the sagging wooden screen door to hug me, it's a shock to see how much she's aged. Her fingers are swollen and gnarled on the wooden cane supporting her, and she walks with a swaying limp.
She tells me again how sorry she is not to have been at my mother's funeral and how fond she was of both my parents. I have to keep reminding myself even now that no one person has a monopoly on grief: each of the people who came to the funeral home or to the store in the months after my mother's death had his or her own story to share―as Dorothy does―of how they would miss her, how she had touched their lives.
By tacit consent, Dorothy and I do not discuss how my mother died. It's as if Alzheimer's disease is the new cancer for many of the elderly, and they superstitiously refuse to talk about it as if they can somehow avoid bringing this misfortune upon themselves.
When we're seated on the shabby couch in the living room, Dorothy offers me lemonade. I start to refuse because I hate to see her struggling with her limited mobility, but then I realize she's probably been preparing all morning for my visit and will be deeply disappointed if I decline the refreshments. As a compromise I suggest that we move to the kitchen table to be more comfortable, and then I'm able to help her serve the lemonade and the batch of chocolate chip cookies she's baked herself.
“So, Emmie” (she is one of the few people who calls me this), "I phoned you last week because I've finally decided to get rid of John's box camera collection and that magic lantern and slides your parents always admired.”
She makes it sound as if they're just taking up too much space, but I know that she would only part with her husband's collection because she needs the money. I expect the small pension cheques she receives barely cover her lights and heat.
We move once again into the living room where she has the box cameras―one hundred or so―proudly displayed on shelves on an end wall. For a moment I feel such an overwhelming sadness and anger at her poverty that I clench my fists and I don't trust myself to speak. Thankfully, Dorothy has not noticed. She wouldn't want me to feel sorry for her.
“My husband brought some of these back from Europe after the war. He was in Normandy, but I think I've probably told you that before. Anyway, the magic lantern and slides were a childhood gift from his parents.” She points to the early projector that is massive, but intricate in its design, almost a work of art.
I'm not an expert in box cameras, but I know that some of these models are fairly common while others are more valuable. In the end, I overpay Dorothy for the lot. I think she knows that I've done this, but doesn't say anything because she assumes that I'm struggling with the business since my mother's death and doesn't want to hurt my feelings. Instead, she quietly adds a metal bed warming pan, a lovely crumb duster tray set, and some old ice tongs to the box, as well as giving me a huge plastic freezer bag with the rest of the cookies.
It's been a complicated dance between the two of us as it often is in the countryside where poverty and dignity collide, but we get through it okay, and I hug her good-bye and promise to visit again soon.
As I'm driving away, I realize that it's almost noon, and I'm starving in spite of the cookies. I remember there's a restaurant nearby in a lovely old converted stone house. It's pricey, I know, but I'm assuming the lunch menu is more reasonable.