Grandpa Island died on a day called Ash Wednesday, which is the name in the Bible for February 17th. This isn’t significant; mom said that grandpa hadn’t been to church since he was a young man. I just like the sound of Ash Wednesday.
Grandpa Island was living with one of his daughters (not my mom) when he died. He didn’t die in his bed, which wouldn’t have been such a bad way to find him, and he didn’t die in a hospital or a nursing home, where the shock might’ve been diffused over a phone call. He died while he was “puttering,” which, as I understand it, means doing nothing of any real importance except to the putterer themselves.
On the Wednesday on which he died, my grandfather was on his hands and knees in the garden underneath my aunt’s cherry tree. It was a proper cherry tree, not like the pink-and-white imports that studded every other lawn in Oak Bay. It produced big glossy cherries that the raccoons and ravens squabbled over, and which fell and rotted in the garden, staining the soil red.
When my grandfather didn't come upstairs for dinner, my aunt went looking for him. She didn’t find him straightaway. She saw one cherry-stained slipper first, and then the thin, brown foot falling out of it. My aunt said it looked like he’d been tipped onto his side by a pair of giant hands. The hands had pushed my grandfather gently over, his head cushioned in the earth, his palms and knees caked in mud. And then the hands had left him there for his daughter to find.
“What was he doing out there?” My mom wondered this aloud over one of my aunt’s big, hand-thrown coffee mugs. We’d gotten off the plane from Toronto four hours ago, me, mom, and Jamie. It was another hour-and-a-half bus ride to my aunt’s house from the Victoria airport. I got the window seat on both trips, and my brother got his own seat across the aisle. Jamie was “at that age” where he didn’t like me or mom or even dad, but mom said we would be best friends again one day. While I waited for that day to come, Jamie did mysterious fifteen-year old things alone in his room, or, like on the bus, just alone.
My aunt laughed over her tea. It was an in-between sound, mirth and sorrow mixing. She told us what my grandfather had been doing in the garden, and my mom started in-between laughing too. On that Wednesday underneath the cherry tree, Grandpa Island had been burying all of his cigarette butts. Judging by the number of butts she dug up over the next three days, my aunt guessed that it was a ritual he’d been indulging for years.
“I had no idea!” my aunt brayed. She was really laughing now, fat tears rolling down her red-veined cheeks. My mom was laughing too, but her forehead was wrinkled like she had a sliver. “I wonder how long,” my aunt said once she'd caught her breath. “I wonder if mom knew.”
“Mom wouldn’t have said anything." My mom smiled into her tea. “She would’ve gone on like nothing was the matter and then left a dug-up butt on the breakfast table or something.”
My aunt gave a horsy laugh again and my mother began to cry, and I decided that I would go and look for Jamie, whether he wanted to be found or not.
I checked the spare bedroom first, my favourite room. Two of the four walls were swamped by floor-length windows that looked onto my aunt’s Amazonian garden. I could see the cherry tree from the north window. I closed the door. Jamie was not in the living room with the big bay window or in the dining room with the old church-wood table. I finally found him when I stood on tiptoe to look out of the dining room door. He was sitting on a bench in front of the bay window with his knees pulled up to his chest. I couldn’t tell if he was crying or just sitting like that. Sometimes Jamie just sat places and “brooded." Something told me this wasn’t one of those times.
I eased away from the door and walked back through the living room, into the hall down which female voices floated, and out into the front yard.
A white cat lounged on one of the two adjacent benches that framed the entryway. It lifted its head at the creak of the door. “Sorry, Cotton." The cat huffed and rolled onto its other side. In the springtime, like now, my aunt’s garden breathed and buzzed and whirred with life, red and green and violently pink. How could anyone die in this place?
I walked out onto the green-furred cobbles. My aunt had a man with a high-powered hose who came once a year to strip the moss off of the stones. Right now, they were at their greenest. To my right was the gate that me and mom and Jamie had walked through two hours ago. To my left was the rest of my aunt’s garden. The cherry tree was hidden from view, tucked out of sight behind the corner of the big-windowed bedroom.
I trained my eyes on my dingy sneakers and began to walk. Stone, then wood, then lawn, then gravel. When I saw the gravel, I knew that I was beneath the cherry tree and made doubly sure not to look up until I came nearly toe-to-toe with the back gate. It was rotting off its hinges. Grandpa walked through this gate three days ago.
The gravel path curled around the back of my grandparents' house. It stopped at a set of stairs leading up to the laundry room door off the kitchen, and again at a second set of stairs that led to the basement further along. I stopped at the first set, hearing my mother’s voice drifting through the kitchen window.
“It’s not like I was expecting an inheritance. You’d think he’d have something, though— all those years of thrifting our clothes and skimping on groceries. If he’d had any money, it would’ve gone to you, anyways.”
“Well, that’s just not true, is it?”
“You were his favourite.”
“Pah!” My aunt made a scornful sound. “If I was his favourite, then the only thing that made me his favourite was the fact that I didn’t go and get myself knocked up fresh out of high school. Er, wait— had you even graduated yet?” Silence, then, “I’ll take that as a no. Dad was just worried. You were the baby! He wanted us to go to university and get good jobs and then have our families. And look what he got! One daughter who skipped straight to the family bit, and one who skipped the family bit altogether!”
My aunt’s laughter was lifted out of earshot on a salt-scented breeze. I’d heard my mom talk about her dad in similar ways before. Disappointed was a word that came up a lot.
The basement door opened when I tried it. It was a small, heavy door set low into the concrete foundation of the house. I smelled the air that came out, but it didn’t smell like I remembered Grandpa Island smelling.
The room looked as my grandfather had probably left it. Bed unmade, books stacked on every flat surface, gaudy portrait of a cat hanging over the dresser. The air felt thick and smelled of mildew, as air does in empty rooms near the sea. I opened the curtains of the bedside window. A shaft of sunlight showed me the body-shaped indent in the mattress where my grandfather had awoken three days ago. I lowered my own body into it.
The sheets were cold and felt wet. My bed back in Toronto always felt dry, even on wet days. The cold didn't burrow into your bones like it did here. I rolled onto my back and stared at the ceiling. The stucco was stained yellow in blooming patches. Not from my grandfather’s smoking; he would’ve been more subtle than that. The stains had probably been left by someone long-dead.
I turned onto my side and tried to think thoughts that my grandfather might’ve thought when he laid there. My eyes wandered over the walls as I thought, and they came to rest on a prominent shadow in the brickwork, down low near the floor. There wasn’t enough space between the bed and the wall to climb down, so I dangled over the edge of the bed and reached until I felt something not-brick between my fingers. When I brought the something into the light, I saw that it was a small, wine-colored notebook.
The book was dusty, but not as dusty as most of the surfaces in my grandfather's room. In a dustless, thumb-shaped spot on the cover, I laid my thumb, and flipped it open. My grandmother’s name was there on the first page in shivery cursive: Catherine. I touched the faded ink with a fingertip. The next pages read Marceline (my aunt), Jamie (my brother), Alphonso (dead cat), and there was my name! Each page, a new name— some I knew and some I didn’t. I kept flipping until I came to the last entry, dated March of that year. I brought the page to my nose, to smell the fresh, dark ink. Alison. My mom.
Jesus christ in heaven I hope nobody ever finds this thing. An old man with a diary. HA!
Alison & the boys coming to visit in April. I’ll see if their mama’ll let em come fishing with me. I always loved fishing with my daddy. Don't know if they'll give a license to an old fart like me. Imagine needing a license to catch your own breakfast!!!
I been thinking about death. Maybe something bout the snow melting. I have regrets & they’re no good to have when you're as old as I am. Mostly bout things with Alison. Does she know I love her? I do & I love her boys. I don’t even mind their daddy so much now he’s grown. Catherine was always at me bout being too stubborn & I see it now. YOU WIN BABY!!
One thing I know for certain: we raised a damn fine mother. Those boys don't know how lucky they are. If I can be happy about anything I done, it's that. But I'd go back & be a better daddy if I could - spend more on the girls, shout less, hug more. I don't think I got too many of these island winters left in me, so I want to do something I should've done 16 years ago & give Ali her college money. Better late than never, huh Cath? I thought she didn't have a brain in her head, getting pregnant while Marcy won a full ride. But I shouldnt've cut her off - Lord knows a young family could've used the money. I know it won't make up for it, but maybe it can help put the boys thru college. Mostly I just want her & Marcy to have better memories of me when I'm gone. Is it too late in the game to hope for that kind of forgiveness, Cath?
In case you forget— LOOK BEHIND ALPHONSO
I closed my grandfather’s journal. Alphonso had died two years ago. I'd helped scatter his ashes in the rose garden at the park. Look behind Alphonso. I pocketed the journal and walked over to the dresser, where a likeness of the feline hung. All my love, Catherine, the inscription on the painting read. I lifted Alphonso's gilt frame off the wall and heard something thunk around inside. The back of the painting was stapled over with kraft paper; I tore back just enough to slip my fingers through and fish out what was hidden inside. Written on the envelope's aged face: Alison & Boys. Underneath that: Love Daddy/Gramps. Underneath that: Sorry.
I leaned Alphonso against the dresser and took the diary out of my pocket. I flipped to the page titled Alison, holding it open against the envelope. I would make sure that it was the first thing my mom saw: her name, written in her father's shaking, loving hand.
About the Creator
🇨🇦 Canadian Storyteller
♾️ Metis Nation
🎓 UVic Alumni 2020
Writing published by Kingston Writers Press, Young Poets of Canada, Morning Rain Publishing, & the BC Metis Federation to teach Michif in Canadian schools.
✨YA Magical Realism✨