Just a Story
Like most of my stories, this was written for a meeting of the Uxbridge Writers' Circle. The words I had to use are shown in italics.
Eager to please my mother by doing some volunteer work, I’d put up my hand to register in a friendly visiting program.
My mother approved of my decision, and was familiar with the exclusive, private nursing home my school had made arrangements with. She said I would meet some interesting people with fascinating tales to tell.
The first disappointment was that I was assigned to one woman. I’d hoped to meet several. But the idea was for a relationship to develop, which the social worker at the home explained would be mutually beneficial. My job was to listen, but also to read to the woman and do small tasks—like getting a card for her from the gift shop.
The second disappointment was that the woman looked much older than any of my grandparents. I wondered if her brain was still functioning since it appeared her body had curled up and ceased to move.
Wrapped in a shawl, she gazed out of the window. She didn’t turn her head to look at me, but continued her stare into nothingness. Since she didn’t acknowledge me and didn’t move, it occurred to me she might have died, and I was too late.
But she blinked.
I wasn’t sure what to do, but I’m not one to give up easily. I decided to read her a story and pulled out my laptop.
The story was one I’d written for a school assignment. It was useful to read it out loud, and I told her all this. I suppose I was blabbering from a need to fill the void of silence and stillness.
I glanced up from my laptop and, in that instant, she looked majestic. She’d straightened her back and neck, and peered down her nose at her gnarled hands clasped on her lap. This signaled to me she was listening. Heartened, I kept reading.
At the end of the story, I looked up. Her eyes, partly covered by folds of eyelid skin, were a piercing grey, and focused on me.
“Have you turned that in?” she asked with unexpected forcefulness.
“Don’t. It needs work.”
I asked how I should improve it.
The suggestions and feedback she gave me were brilliant. I thanked her, and she asked what my full name was. She knew me only as Liz, although I knew her as Margaret Halstead-Sander. When I answered ‘Elizabeth Horland’, she gasped. It was if her grey eyes turned to ice at the same time as her wrinkled cheeks flushed. I’d not seen anyone seethe with so much anger. How could my name cause her to be so terribly agitated? She told me to get out.
I didn’t put up a fight.
As soon as I had the opportunity, I searched on-line for all I could find out about her family. Old Canadian money from industry and land ownership back five generations. Margaret was known for her philanthropy but also for her business acumen and had been awarded the Order of Canada.
None of this shocked me. What I really needed to find out was why my name had incited such a vitriolic reaction. My family lived in a prestigious, respectable part of Toronto. My father owned several distribution businesses, and my mother was a leading psychiatrist.
Rather than ask my mother, I started a deep dig on-line.
There wasn’t anything extraordinary until my Great Grandfather Woodrow Horland’s name appeared. A couple of ancient newspaper articles popped up, and then I knew. Great Grandfather was known as ‘Moonshine Horland’. One article, written in 1924, reported his arrest in Toronto and mentioned his whisky, called Woodrow Moonshine. But I couldn’t find out if he spent time in jail. So, I asked my mother.
“You mean you didn’t know about your Great Grandad’s whisky?” My mother stood with her hands on her hips and laughed.
“It’s not funny. He broke the law.”
“But you haven’t. And neither have I, nor your father, nor your grandparents—as far as I know, that is.” She laughed again. My mother found most things amusing. That must be how she maintained her sanity as a psychiatrist.
She didn’t know if he spent time in jail–I’d have to ask my father.
“Oh, Mom, what am I going to do?” I stamped my foot like a sullen five-year-old.
“Oh, take her a present and tell her you promise never to make or sell moonshine, and ask if she would like to hear your amended story—based on her suggestions.”
“She really, really hates our family.”
“That’s just silly.”
I hadn’t planned on following my mother’s advice. I’d made up my mind to give an excuse and bale out of the friendly visiting program. But then I saw a beautiful Easter lily and bought it.
Lily in hand, I stood on the threshold of Margaret’s large room.
“Don’t just stand there,” Margaret said. “Come in.”
“I thought you might like this lily. And my mother said I should tell you I promise never to make or sell moonshine.”
Margaret coughed into one of her curled-up hands. I took a step backwards, but she beckoned me to come in and sit down. I handed her the glass of water that was on the table. The coughing fit ended, but tears streamed down her cheeks. I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
“That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard in a long time. My father was an adamant prohibitionist. He despised your great grandfather, Woodrow. He accused him of causing all sorts of human tragedy. But the past is history, and I was an old fool to cast blame on you. How about your story? Did you make any changes?”
“I’ve amended it. I’ll read it to you.”
“I’d like that.” She pulled her shawl around her and closed her eyes.
Vicky Earle copyright 2022
Update on 5th book in Meg Sheppard Mystery Series: some of you have been asking! I'm still writing the first draft, but I'm making (slow) progress: 157 pages!