Deborah Ellis

Deborah Ellis
Coming to Thunder Bay

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Generosity, a story.

by Joan M. Baril
Ethel Kowalchuk holds both her son’s hands in hers. The loudspeaker announces the first call for Air Canada, flight 405 to Toronto. “All passengers should now board at Gate Two.”
            “Don’t cry, Ma,” Ken says. “I’ll be back at Christmas.” He bends and kisses her on the cheek. “When you have time, send me some of those sesame cookies, okay?” His beautiful smile, high beam and happy, always twists her heart.
            Rudy Kowalchuk, in plaid shirt and work boots, shakes his son’s hand and then envelopes him in a giant hug pounding him on the back. “Stay warm,” he says. “Take care. God bless you. Be careful with your money. Study hard. Your mom and I are proud of you.” 
            Ethel takes her husband’s arm as they watch their only child disappear through the departure doors. One day he’ll come back as a lawyer, she thinks. It seems impossible but then, as her parents often said, in Canada everything is possible.
            In the truck, she mentally goes over all the items she packed into Ken’s suitcase. “I wonder if he has enough warm socks,” she says to her husband. “I hear the winters are damp in Toronto.”
            “Don’t worry about it. You can send him some.” Rudy guns the Dodge Ram along the Expressway passing the turn-off into Westfort and home. “I have to pick up a few things at Canada Tire,” he says. Ethel knows her husband can’t go home just yet. The sight of Ken’s room, the printer, the books, the over-sized speakers, the Lakehead University diploma on the wall, the hockey trophies and the fishing stuff in the garage will be too much for him. Poor old husband, she thinks. He’ll probably cry, and he won’t like that. She’ll cry too of course, but that’s different.
            In Canada Tire, she spots the very thing at once and on sale too! Nipigon nylons, the best wool socks made. She puts two pair in her cart. Her eye is drawn to a display of small flat boxes each holding an array of tiny screwdrivers. By some miracle, a Canadian Tire salesperson is at hand.
            “What are these for?” she asks.
            “Small machines, like sewing machines or computers. Very handy.”
            Yes! Ken has a new laptop. She’ll slip these into the box with the socks. And over there, a display of toothpaste at a good price. He has a new tube with him but how long will that last? Better send two. Now to find some plastic containers for the cookies.

Three months before graduation from Osgood Law School, Ken phones. He’s snagged a great articling placement with a prestigious Toronto firm. Ethel tries to sound happy for him even though her voice falters. Then he says, “I met a girl, Ma. Her name is Spicer Bonnycastle. I know you’ll love her. She’s in my law class and she’ll be articling with me at the same firm.”
            “What the hell name is Spicer for a girl,” Rudy says at supper. “Sounds like a grocery store.”
            “Yes, but maybe it was the Toronto fashion at one time. You never know.” Ethel is thinking of many things at once, a possible wedding and then grandchildren but also she is considering what to get for Spicer to put into the latest box. Perhaps some lipstick from Shoppers or would fancy knit gloves be better? She saw some on sale at Wal-Mart when she dropped in to pick up the peppermints Ken liked.
            At Christmas, Spicer and Ken arrive with strange presents: a salad spinner, a set of champagne glasses and something called a mandoline to slice tomatoes. Spicer, thin and tall with glossy black hair to her shoulders, has a short-stepping snappy walk. She wears her heels in the house. Ethel can barely see the outline of a breast under her silk shirt. Spicer eats hardly anything, smilingly turning down Ethel’s pickles, her perogies and Rudy’s homemade moose sausage. She picks at her potato salad and has an apple for desert. She and Ken generally don’t show up for supper and Ethel knows from certain overheard remarks that the young couple go to the gluten-free restaurant on Cumberland Street.
            In bed, Rudy says, “How the hell can she bear a child with hips like a snake. Her behind would fit into a tea cup.”
            “Two teacups,” says Ethel.
            “Now your behind,” he says, giving it a little slap. “Now that’s a behind.”
            Ethel laughs, wiggles against him. “Sh, sh,” she says. Such a small house with Spicer next door in the spare room and Ken on the couch in the front room. “We have to be quiet,” she says.
            “Sure thing,” says Rudy.
For Spicer and Ken, the expected sequence. First, graduation, then the call to the bar, followed by a fancy wedding in Rosedale, a two-million-dollar high-rise Toronto condo and a Porsche in the garage below. A hefty line of credit at the bank. Ken sticks to real estate and makes money in a hot market. Spicer specializes in criminal law and, besides making money, garners a bit of fame. After one high-profile trial, the Toronto Sun pictures her in black gown, tabs, and four inch heels with the caption, The Hottest Hot Shot in Law.
But no children, Ethel thinks, as she packs the box she sends every three months. Luckily, she cannot see Spicer pick it up in the condo mailroom a few days later, nor hear her daughter-in-law’s deep sigh nor see the angry woman slam the package on the kitchen counter.
“Another goddamn box of junk,” Spicer yells at Ken. “Every three months. Every three goddamn months. You have to phone her, Ken. Tell her to get a life. Stop sending us this crap.”
“I like the cookies,” Ken says, trying for a light tone. He takes out the Henkel scissors and slices open the heavy layer of mailing tape. He smiles at Spicer who does not respond.
“I don’t want to look at the stuff,” says Spicer, fiddling with the stainless steel espresso machine. “Remember those wooly gloves, every finger a different colour. What was that? And the wedding present. A table painted with flowers and hearts.”
“Ukrainian design,” Ken says trying another useless smile. He lifts the lid off the shoebox and sees the familiar plastic tub of cookies. Mmm. His favourite. “Sesame! Hot damn!”
But Spicer is not finished. “I told her our décor was minimalist. I said, very clearly, ‘our colours are black and white.’ How do you put a blue painted table with goddamn hearts on it into a minimalist décor?”
“I don’t think Ma understands the concept of minimalist,” Ken says.
“No kidding.” Spicer reaches into the shoebox, grabs a couple of objects and tosses them into the air. Two packages of toothpaste hit the floor. “A book about the fucking Sleeping Giant.” She flings it against the wall. “A deck of cards.” The little box hits the side of the fridge. “A his-and-hers razor set. Jesus. Ear muffs. Who the hell wears ear muffs?” She pitches each item hard against the cupboards on the far side of the room.
“How does she cram so much junk into one shoebox? Does she think we’re poor and might run out of toothpaste? We must have forty tubes in the cupboard in the den. And what’s this?” Spicer pulls out a small envelope and opens it. “A recipe. She sent me a recipe. I can’t believe it. Borsch. Fucking borsch. Does your mother think I actually cook?” She balls the recipe up and lobs it into the sink where it lands in a dish full of water. “Phone her, for God’s sake. Either you do it or I will.” She stalks out of the room toward the den, carrying the espresso.
Ken reaches across and retrieves the recipe, spreading it out on the counter. The blue ink runs off the paper and he brushes the drops into the sink. The top of the page is dry and readable but the rest is water sodden. He reads. Dear Spicer, This is my mother’s borscht recipe that she brought from the Ukraine. Maybe you would like to try it. Love Ethel.
Ken puts the soggy paper in the trash and takes out a cloth to wipe the blue stains from the stainless steel counter. He remembers his grandmother well. The old lady spoke a mangled English but he had no trouble understanding her. He sees her in her back yard putting ripe tomatoes in a basket and then holding out the biggest to him, a child, who had to use two hands to take it. He remembers her red bobble hat, easily visible from the ice as he skated by. She came to every one of his hockey games. Every one.
Ken stands very still watching a blue water drop slide down the side of the stainless steel sink, head slowly to the drain and disappear.

After Ethel gets the call about the divorce, she can hardly bear to tell Rudy at supper.
“So what are you crying about?” her husband says.
“The church does not approve of divorce.”
            “Who the hell cares?” says Rudy. “No more hot stuff the lawyer. Did you really think Miss Minimalist would ever give you grandchildren?  Pfff,” he says helping himself to more potato pancakes.

The next summer, Ken has four weeks’ vacation and plans to drive up to Thunder Bay. “And I have a surprise for you,” he says on the phone.
            The surprise is Marcie O’Hare. “She’s from Newfoundland,” Ken says when he introduces her as she steps out of the Toyota Rav. “She’s a nurse, head of the children’s ward.” Ethel can barely keep the pleased look off her face. Marcie is plump, with short blond hair and bright blue eyes. She wears tight capris that cling to her heavy thighs. She lifts a suitcase out of the trunk as if it were made of cobwebs.
“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Kowalchuk,” she says, shaking Ethel’s hand. It was then Ethel notices the wedding ring beside the engagement ring.
            “That’s the other part of the surprise,” Ken says quickly. “We, uh, we married a month ago. Just a small ceremony with friends. Justice of the Peace.” He’s talking fast, getting it all out at once. He knows his parents will be upset at not being included. And the non-church wedding would be doubly upsetting, especially for his mom. “But, you see,” he stammers, “we were living together anyway so we thought it was the right time.” 
            Living together? Ethel opens her mouth but stops. Marcie has turned sideways to hand the suitcase to Rudy and what’s that? A baby bump? Such a big girl, on the plump side, not easy to tell. Another quick peek and she’s still unsure. “Come on inside,” she says. “Supper’s on the stove. I’ve got borsch. Holuptsi and perogies. Cake and cookies for dessert.”
            “Isn’t that grand now,” says Marcie following her mother-in-law into the kitchen. “I was hoping for cookies. If it’s not too much bother, Mrs. Kowalchuk, could you find a bit of time to show me how to make those wonderful cookies you send to Ken. They’re the best ever.”
            “Call me Ma,” says Ethel.

Many years later, seven-year-old Owen is walking home from school when he spies the box on the ledge beside the front door. A Gramma box! It’s the right size and all covered with clear tape as usual. He hasn’t seen one for so long, months and months. He snatches it up and runs back half a block where his twelve-year-old sister is walking with her friends.
            “Kayla. Kayla,” he screams, leaping up and down. “Look what came! A Gramma box! A Gramma box!” He capers about, waving the box in the air with both hands.
            Kayla grabs hold of him. “Stop it,” she says. She kneels down on the slushy sidewalk and puts her arms tight around him. She takes the box from his hands. “Stop it, Owen. Stop it. It can’t be a Gramma box. Don’t your remember? Gramma died just after Christmas. Dad and Mom went to the funeral and left us with Auntie Rea. Remember? And we’re all going up to Thunder Bay at Easter to clean out the house and help Grampy move into this special home because now, he’s all alone.”
            Owen stares at the box, confused. He feels dizzy like when he fell off the swing and hit his head. Like when he climbed on the garage and couldn’t get back down. But maybe an angel… He stops the thought, hangs his head. He wipes the snot from his nose with his mitt. He takes a big sniffle. He will not, will not, cry.
            Kayla studies the box. No return address. Under the black lettering and the heavy criss-cross of tape, she makes out the shape of an envelope. She takes Owen by the hand and leads him to the house. They put the box in the middle of the kitchen table just as if it were a real Gramma box. When her parents come home, they’ll open it all together after dinner as usual. Maybe there’ll be cookies. Then she shakes her head to clear it. No more cookies. Never any more cookies.
            I can’t believe it,” her mother says to her dad at dinner. “All our married life we’ve had these wonderful, crazy, surprise boxes. Every three months. The kids grew up on them. And now out of the blue…” She stops. Sighs.
Owen stares at the box as he eats his ice cream dessert. At last his mom stands and reaches in the drawer for the Henkel scissors. But she only cuts down to the envelope under the tape.
            Dear Ken and Marcie, Owen and Kayla. I am slowly cleaning out the house and so I found a few things that Ma put away for her next grandmother box and I thought I would send them on. I am feeling pretty good in spite of everything. Love to all. Take care. See you all at Easter, Grampy.
            Kayla watches as Mom lifts the lid and brings out the first item and holds it up. A box of toothpaste. Kayla joins the collective groan. Then they all laugh. There’s always toothpaste. The mood lightens. To Kayla it feels like old times. Next come two small teddy bears. Mom hands one to Owen and one to her. Kayla frowns. She’s too old for stuffed toys. But, on the other hand, it’s so cute. She tucks it into the pocket of her hoodie. A whistle on a lanyard. Owen holds up his hand and Mom passes it over. A pair of pantyhose for Mom follows. Then horrible pink socks for her. They’ll go into the Diabetes Clothes Line bag where many of Gramma’s gifts end up. A set of razors for Dad, is followed by a bar of soap, and a bottle of perfume wrapped in a tea towel with a picture of the Sleeping Giant on it. A wooden box containing a Ukrainian Easter egg wrapped in straw causes Mom to give a little cry in pleasure. “Oh, how lovely,” she says carefully lifting it out so they all can see. Lastly, Mom brings out a little carved stand to hold the egg. The end. All in all, Kayla thinks, it’s been a pretty good Gramma box.
            At the bottom is a second envelope. “Your name’s on it,” says Mom, handing it over. Inside Kayla finds a piece of paper. “A recipe,” she says in surprise. She reads. Dear Kayla, This is the old Ukrainian recipe for sesame cookies. They are easy to make. I hope you will try. Love Gramma.
“Oh boy,” cries Kayla, delighted.
The late winter dark invades the kitchen. Ken stands to switch on the overhead light. He turns and looks at his family. Hyper Owen, working on the new whistle. He’ll have to take it off him in a minute. Kayla, that solemn worrier, is reading out loud the ingredient list on her recipe. His wife, larger than ever, is cleaning up the table, directing the children, and getting out more ice cream. Add in himself, a little out of shape from too much sitting and not enough gym.
Noise, chatter, clutter, the usual. So why is he suddenly so happy? Gratitude perhaps. A feeling of good luck? It’s as if they’re all caught in a vortex spinning together. He cannot say why.
Generosity was published in the last issue of The New Orphic Review, Noww Magazine and elsewhere.


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