creative writing, personal essays

Diptych 1: Iconoclasts

Thirteen inches of agony, drops of blood painstakingly painted on side wound, wrists and ankles. I couldn’t keep that gory cross—my exact words to Rachelle, who laughed—but also couldn’t recall seeing a religious item donated to the local thrift shop. My mother reminded me it was blessed. Still, I wrapped grandma’s crucifix in tissue paper and placed it in the garbage bin behind my apartment. A few years earlier I’d discovered everything in my grandmother’s home labelled with an inch of stretchy white tape on the back or underside; our names spelled out in her shaky, squarish script. Judy, Brian, Nicole, Kevin, Ryan. The dried edelweiss pressed between two panes of glass, framed. The Black Forest chalet cuckoo clock without a bird—the tiny man and woman emerged from twin arches with the weather; hanging below the round clock face, a woman on a swing. Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, whose presence I resented even when my grandmother lived on Princess Avenue. His posh, ruffly get up, arrogant stare, as though he’d challenge my brother to a duel after dinner. Why was he watching over rummy, I wanted to know, when he wasn’t a distant cousin from the old country as I’d thought? Those tall frosted glasses in the cupboard above the sink that looked and felt like they’d been treated with a layer of fine tinted sand. I imagined my grandfather, who died the year before I was born, sipping the same fizzy OJ-ginger ale mix on ice Grandma made for me—the tall turquoise tumbler, perhaps, his favourite. The afternoon she died I was in bed with a fever. My mind thick with sleep, I dreamed technicolour blue-green film: Anna as a young woman, thirty at most. A wide meadow. Her Austria, I thought. Dark pin curl waves and a pretty handmade dress. Singing, of course—in Bukovina, she told me, she was known for her voice. Her final wish: to be buried in a wedding dress. As I leaned over the casket—that ivory crepe number for the woman, 94, reuniting with her Peter after 27 years—I swear I saw it. More than the hint of a smile. The pewter girl was the size of a parent’s palm. She knelt in profile, facing left; eyes closed, fingers interlaced. Behind her an etched cross, lines suggesting woodgrain. For years she hung from a nail on my pale yellow wall. Above my door frame hung a brass crucifix. During Easter season palm leaves lined the length of my dresser where I stored folded undershirts, socks, panties, tops, sweaters, shorts, pants, pajamas and a few secrets. Birthday money hid inside a ceramic girl in yellow dress with green polka dots and matching bonnet—a gift, painted by my cousin, Delaine. I liked the pewter praying girl more; her hair was tidy, tied with a bow. She said yes to her parents and never teased her brother, content in her goodness. I asked my mom if she was really me. “No,” she said, “but you’re the girl I’m stitching.” Two versions of me emerged from my mother’s embroidery hoops. First, me with a long brown braid and a dress made of green and orange thread, sitting on a cushion, mending. Then me in a blue nightgown, kneeling beside my bed. Before she tucked me in at night my mom always knelt beside me. We prayed for everyone we knew, living and dead: God bless Mommy and Daddy and Kevin and me, Grandma and Grandpa L, Grandma and Grandpa O, all my aunts and uncles and cousins and everyone, amen. I knew I wasn’t really good. My heart didn’t open when I sat still or prayed; it only seemed to when I was noisy, singing loud—the air left my lungs and the Holy Spirit blazed in. Fluttery, a frenetic dove. Sometimes I felt something else—an inner quietude, when we sang Christmas carols. Or those rare times my grandma and uncle sang Edelweiss in German, harmonizing. Being good took so much effort; always felt like an act. One night I asked my dad to braid my hair like the embroidered praying girl, to see if she was really me. Later, my own hair loose, I snipped the thread holding her plait. Combed my fingernails through, messing it all up. She looked more like me then. That’s the kind of thing I’d do.

 

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