An excerpt from

Flowers in the Snow

Gloria stood by her kitchen window and waited for the kettle to boil. It was only five thirty, but she was afraid to go back to sleep. She’d had that terrible nightmare again.
 

It was still dark outside and would be for a few more hours. It had been a cold night, too. It was only the beginning of November, but already northern Muskoka was settling into winter; a time for hibernation, a time for deep and silent contemplation.


It was such a stark contrast to the hot, humid summers when her grandchildren would come with their children and fill her days with their laughter and, on more than a few occasions after their father had left, their tears. But if her long life had taught her anything, Gloria knew to enjoy each season as it came.


Over the years she had learned to adapt to when life was stripped down to the bare essentials of doing only what was really necessary and, if it had to be done outside, getting it done as quickly as possible. Once she had gotten used to all of that, she often had time on her hands.


Before, after her only son had gone off to boarding school and it was just her and Harry, she spent her free time painting for hours on end without any interruption. Then, when the need to interact with the outside world intruded, all she had to do was to put on her snow shoes, her warmest coat, hat and gloves, and take a brisk walk through the brilliant, white, emptiness of the world. She loved walking among the leafless trees leaving nothing but the tracks of her snowshoes along the trails where wolves had followed the spoor of rummaging deer.

Even as she aged, Gloria still found her walks invigorating and they allowed her to spend some time alone with the memories of her late husband. They had both loved the silence of those days but since her son Jake had died, Gloria had found that silence had become accusatory.

She shivered again and walked over to the thermostat. Her grandson had set it to an energy saving mode. It was lower overnight and would warm up again at seven. Johnnie had shown her how to alter the settings, but she could never remember. Instead, she just cranked up the dial.

Beneath the floor boards, the furnace rumbled back to life. It banged and clanged a few times, and then settled into a muffled roar. Soon currents of warmer air were gusting up through the vents and quickly made her kitchen cozy again. Johnnie had upgraded the insulation in the walls a few years back and the windows were triple glazed. They did keep the cold draughts out but this morning, they just made her reflection seem vague and unsure. She looked like a ghost trapped between worlds.

She walked over and turned off the lights and slowly felt her way back to the window. Outside, the sickle moon was waning but in the low light that remained, the snowscape seemed a blueish white, thick and lush, and undisturbed except where it had been cleared. The veranda had been shoveled but every morning it was coated with a new dusting of snow, mostly blown in from the lake. So was the walk to the dock where everything had been stored away in the boathouse, or under strongly bound tarps. It had to be kept clear too or, over the winter, the accumulating weight would do damage. It was heavy and constant work, but the man who ploughed the road did it for a small addition to his fees.

In the open spaces, the snow lay where it had fallen. Contoured by the winds, it gently rose and fell all the way down to the frozen shore were shards of thin, brittle ice had been driven to the shore to shrivel and die. Further out, the surface of the lake was solid ice under a thick blanket of soft, settled snow that lay undisturbed, except for the prints of her snowshoes. Almost every day since the lake had frozen over, she walked out to the spot where Jake’s body had been found. She couldn’t help herself; it was something she just had to do.

In her dream, he rose from the depths like he had changed his mind. He came all the way to the surface, but he could never break through. Then, on realizing he was trapped, he would look up at her and make sounds she couldn’t hear. Frantically, she scratched at the ice but she could never break through to him in time.

She shivered again and pulled her robe tighter. She wished it was later so that she could wake Mary and have some company, but it was far too early. Besides, she needed to be in the right frame of mind to handle her daughter-in-law and all of her emotional rollercoasting.

Regardless of that, Gloria was happy that she had agreed to stay with her after Jake died. It had been an adjustment at first, but Gloria had offered and Mary had been more than happy to accept.

Poor Mary, the last weekend of the summer had been so hard on her. When the truth about her old infidelity surfaced, all of her years playing the victim had been exposed as the fraud Gloria always knew they were. That wasn’t what Gloria had wanted. When she had arranged for Jake to visit, one last time, all she had hoped for was that he might find closure with the family he had been estranged from for years. She had also hoped that Mary could finally come to terms with all that had really happened.

Since her marriage had dissolved, Mary had become lost in the veils of her own deceits and the worst part was she demanded that her children take her side without question. It was very wrong of her and yet it was understandable: she had to appease her guilt. But all of that began to dissipate the night she sat and talked with the dying Jake. Gloria was happy about that part; happy that Mary and her son had been able to make their peace right before the end. For Mary it was a fragile peace, but at least it was something.

She held up well when the police arrived and answered all the questions they had to ask. Why had Jake gone out in the canoe alone? Had Gloria and Mary tried to do enough to dissuade him? Was Jake dealing with any undue stress or other issues? Despite her grief, Gloria had also remained firm through it all and shielded Mary as much as she could. “She is in shock,” she had explained to the police. “We both are. Please respect that.” They did, especially after Gloria used some old family connections to those in higher places.

The investigation into Jake’s death was quickly concluded and returned an official verdict of ‘misadventure.’ After that, all that remained was to carry out Jake’s final instructions. He had asked to be cremated and have his ashes thrown to the wind from the same cliff the children had spent so many summer afternoons jumping from. He had not specified who should do it and after his children talked about it, C.C. stepped forward with all of her steely determination and demanded she be allowed to take part. Johnnie also insisted, so Buddy was happy to step back. She remained in the cottage with Mary and Gloria, offering tea and commiserations while her husband, Norm, kept the kids occupied. Their children, Dwayne and Brad, were too young and were kept in the dark, while Johnnie’s kids, Joey and Susie, were old enough to know to stay at the edge of everything.

Johnnie’s wife, Carol, managed the kitchen and all the arrangements that had been overlooked, but she was distant, or reticent. Gloria had wanted to talk with her about that but right after C.C. and Johnnie returned, everyone seemed to be in such a hurry to get back to the city. They said it was because the school year had just begun and the children needed to get back into their routine, but Gloria knew it was far more than that.

Surprisingly, Mary had little to say about everyone leaving. Surprising, and not so surprising, to Gloria. Mary had fallen from her pedestal and would need time and space to find her composure, and a new role in her family’s life.

The kettle began to whistle and Gloria made her way towards the stove and turned on the hood light. She made her favorite tea and sat by her large, polished table and prepared for another day.

The tea brought her some comfort. Almost enough to dispel the lingering horror of her dream, but there was still her guilt and remorse. She should not have accepted Jake’s decision so easily. She had tried to talk him out of it. They had talked for hours on the phone, from when he was first diagnosed through to when he decided to forego any more treatment. His reasoning was solid and she could not find a compelling argument against it. But she should have. She should have fought for the life she had given him. Maybe if she had been able to find the right words, he might have reconsidered. Who knows? He could have prolonged the battle. He could have lived for a few more years. But he was in constant pain. And he looked like a man who was dying.

As a younger man, Jake had always been so conscious of his appearance. He was not the type who could tolerate being seen as a sick, withering man. They had talked about that and he had told her that he had not wanted his children to remember him like that. At least Gloria had been able to talk him past that. At least there was that.

She sipped from her tea cup and tried to dwell on that little piece of solace, but Jake’s face rose from the depths inside of her, pleading with his mother to do for him what he could not do for himself. She had not done what a mother should have done and there was nobody left that she could talk with about that. And certainly not Mary, she had more than enough on her plate.

“Have you been up long?” Mary asked as she came into the kitchen, turning on all of the lights as she passed. She didn’t wait for an answer and turned the kettle back on before walking towards the window. She looked out towards the lake, but quickly turned away. She looked around the room like she was searching for things to rearrange and on finding none, settled on Gloria. “You should not be getting up so early. At your age, you should be getting more rest. What am I to tell the kids if you let yourself get run down? They will get after me, you know. They will say that I should have taken better care of you.”

Without waiting for Gloria to respond, Mary checked the thermostat. “It was a very cold night, are you sure you are warm enough? I could get you a blanket.” And before Gloria said anything, Mary walked over and touched the back of her hand. “You must be cold. You really should not be sitting down here when you could have stayed in your nice, warm bed. You could have called out to me and I would have brought your tea up to you. I am quite able, you know.”

Gloria shook her head and said nothing. Mornings with Mary were often a little hectic. In the first few days after Jake died, she had gone into a shell and wandered around like a ghost. Gloria had let her be for a while. She knew that Mary needed time to grieve, for herself and for her long dormant love for a man who was now dead.

In time, Mary began to recover her composure and her resolve. From now on, she had explained in a long, heartfelt outpouring of everything Jake’s passing had stirred up, she would begin every day full of vigor and resolve. She would honor what they had once been by no longer allowing herself to be what she had become. And where she had long been a whiner and a complainer, she was now determined to become a cheerful bringer of comfort, every single moment of the day.

Some days, she almost managed. Other days, not so much. On the bad days something would trip her up and she would indulge in a little pity party until Gloria coaxed her out of it, reminding her daughter-in-law of all the progress she had made.

She had come a long way. Since the day Johnnie and C.C. had spread Jake’s ashes, she had not once spoken badly about him. Instead, she had become the villain in her own life and when her efforts to change wore thin, she would berate herself mercilessly until Gloria intervened and redirected her. It was easy. Mary was at her happiest when she was busy and cleaned the cottage almost every single day, vacuuming and dusting, fluffing pillows and rearranging bric-a-brac. She even climbed up on a chair to clean the inside of the windows every few days.

 

At first, Gloria found it a little annoying, but she understood. Mary had to make her amends. To help her in that, Gloria made a point of leaving her teacup in the living room, or she would leave her reading glasses upstairs for Mary to fetch, and she even stopped doing the laundry and ironing.

Sometimes, Gloria felt a little guilty about that—and a little put out. Ironing had always been one of those activities that was very soothing in its monotony. And it reaffirmed her independence. She could still look after herself, even at her age. She relinquished all of that, she reminded herself, because Mary needed activity, and distraction.

Besides, it was doing Mary the world of good. She lost almost fifteen pounds and had not sniffed and flicked her head in weeks. She was the healthiest and happiest she had been in years. Except for one thing; she was avoiding her children and they seemed to be avoiding her.

“Are you ready for breakfast?” Mary asked after she had taken just a few sips from her tea. “I could make us both some nice scrambled eggs?”

Gloria was not one for eating much before noon, but she nodded and smiled. “That would be lovely, especially with some toast and the new jam.” They had made a new batch together and while it wasn’t as good as the jams Gloria made on her own, she knew Mary was proud of it.

“Yes, that would be perfect. One egg, or two?”

“Just one, thank you.”

“One? That is hardly enough.”

Gloria might have asked why Mary had even offered her the choice, but decided to let it go. “Very well. Two, please, but it can wait until you have finished your tea.”

“Not at all,” Mary replied like the idea was heretical. She rose with energy and purpose and was soon the center of a whirl of activity, talking constantly and never waiting for Gloria to respond. It didn’t matter, Gloria had other things on her mind.

*

In the kitchen of a beautifully restored house in one of the recently gentrified neighborhoods of Toronto, Johnnie had made his first pot of coffee. He would drink a couple of cups before he brought one up to Carol. Then he would wake Joey and Susie.

He didn’t need to be up so early; it was habit. Work always slowed down at this time of the year. No one wanted renovations going on over Christmas and the few jobs that remained were almost finished. He had the plumber scheduled for the kitchen remodel in Cabbagetown, the electrician just needed some light fixtures for the store in Summerhill, and the painters were ready to start on Mount Pleasant. He would drop by each one, but he would do it later in the morning. Beyond that, his day was clear.

Normally at this time of the year, he would take a few days off and head up to Gloria’s. He could always find something to do around the old, rambling cottage, but this year was different. His mother was there and, after talking with Carol, he had decided that Mary was probably best left alone for a while yet—to try to regain her composure, if nothing else.

Johnnie had a few misgivings about that but since his father’s death, he had gone into a bit of a funk and was beginning to rethink his whole relationship with his family. He used to take pride in that he had always been the reliable one—the one who could always deal with what the rest of them could not. It was the role that he had been forced to assume when he was a child and his father had left. But when his father came back and asked Johnnie to help him kill himself . . .

Jake had tried to make it sound like it was no different than putting down an old dog that was suffering, but Johnnie couldn’t. Nor could he forget the look of disappointment on his father’s face.

When he talked with Carol about it, she had done what she had always done before. She heard him out and then tried to help him past it. She had reassured him that he had done the right thing and in a clumsy effort to lift his mood, she had reminded him that he hadn’t even been able to do that when their old Lab was at its end; that she was the one who had to take him to the vet. She wasn’t belittling him or what he was going through; she was just making her point.

He had tried to laugh at that, but he couldn’t. Deep down, he was too damned angry. He was angry at his father for asking him to do that, he was angry at his mother for all the years she forced him to fill in for his father, and he was angry at his sisters.

“It might be better for all concerned if you stayed out of their lives for a while,” Carol had suggested when he told her about those feelings. “I think they all need to come to terms with everything that has happened, and they might be better off doing it on their own.”

She was right. Buddy, and C.C., had always been more than happy to drag him into every little drama they found themselves in. And she was right when she suggested that he might also be angry with himself for always enabling them, but he just couldn’t help himself. They were family, after all.

He drained his cup and rose to refill it when he heard Carol moving around upstairs. Today was the day she was making their pitch on the old cinema project. The whole thing was to be restored to its nineteen-thirties’ grandeur. It was the type of project that Johnnie had always dreamed of working on.

He had just poured a second cup and left it on the counter when his phone vibrated. He picked it up and smiled as he read the text. Thanks for last night, Bro. It was just what I needed. XOXOXO.

“From one of your girlfriends?” Carol asked as she came in and headed straight for the coffee.

Johnnie was caught out for a moment, but answered quickly: “What can I say? I am a walking babe-magnet.”

He gave her his best wry smile, but avoided looking into her eyes. “Are Joey and Susie not down, yet?”

“Do you see them?” Carol joked, and struggled to control her face as she watched him stuff his phone into his pocket.

“Okay, then. I’ll just go up and wake them,” Johnnie muttered as he hurried past her.

After he had woken the kids, and poured more coffee into a travel mug, he grabbed his keys and his phone. “Have a great day,” he offered with his best boyish smile and kissed her on the cheek. “And get us that damn cinema job.”

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